The Joy of ‘House of Cards’ is in Its Psychological Torture
House of Cards season two has been dumped onto the giddy netflix-subscribing public, and it seems to be living up to its promise. Just like season one, this story arc involves Frank Underwood pulling the invisible strings on a wide range of unsuspecting pawns. I won’t reveal too many season two spoilers (full disclosure, I haven’t watched the whole season yet), but there may be general nods to plot points that will make those who haven’t watched a bit panicky.
Watching Frank exert his control over any room he walks into is a really fun experience. It’s a guilty pleasure, certainly, after all, Frank is a really, really, bad guy. Yet, we cheer him on just the same. Why?
One attempt to explain the show’s popularity is that accusation that it is “power porn” (used both derisively and lovingly). This theory states that we find the idea of being able to manipulate people like Frank does is kind of a turn on. That’s probably accurate, but it’s not the only reason to watch. There is also this: The show is a masterclass on psychological torture. And that is an absolute thrill, for reason’s only my therapist could guess at.
What’s interesting about Frank Underwood’s brand of Machiavellian manipulation isn’t that he can get people to unwittingly do things contrary to self-interest, but in how he goes about it. It wouldn’t be enough for Frank to use a fellow politician for his own gain, he has to do so by finding that person’s one weakness and using it to destroy him or her. There is a kind of cruelty to this method that is worse than simply selfishness. In the first scene of season one, Frank strangles an injured dog to death. He says it was to put it out of its misery. You could argue he’s been doing the same to the people in his life ever since.
Peter Russo, the well-meaning, but flawed politician from season one wasn’t just destroyed by Frank, he was destroyed in such a heartbreaking way. As a recovering alcoholic, Russo had sought to become a better father to his kids and a better politician to his constituents. Frank managed to ruin both of those goals, killing Russo in the process. What’s interesting isn’t just the “WTF”-inducing murder, but that in a way, Frank had killed the best parts of Russo before he ever got into that car. On some level, we can all understand why someone would murder someone for personal gain – it happens all the time – but what is harder to take is how Frank did it. Poor Russo.
Watching Frank operate in his clinical way activates the pleasure centers of our brains because it’s the most overt form of what all television hopes to do: give us a window into another person’s psychology. We may not know what it’s like to become Vice President of the United States, but we know what it’s like to want something desperately, yet never get it because of our own limitations. We are all Peter Russo. The power of Frank is that if we saw him walk into a room we would be terrified. It’s the same reason we make sure to lock our door after watching a horror movie. This could happen to me.
Season two appears to be following a similar path. This time, it’s congresswoman Jackie Sharp that is caught in Frank’s web. I have yet to see the conclusion, but at the risk of looking foolish, I’m going to predict that things will not end up well for Sharp. In the meantime, we get scene after scene where Frank gets Sharp to do things that destroy her or compromise her integrity. She does them anyway, because just like Russo’s addiction, she can’t stop herself. Frank knows what she wants and he knows what she would sacrifice to get it. Let the button pushing begin.
After watching an episode (or two) of House of Cards, I always find myself wondering what Frank would make of me. What would he do to manipulate me? Would I catch on to Frank’s ploy or would I, like the characters in the show, fall for it again and again? It’s likely that he could find ways to hurt me that I didn’t even know existed. The terror of Frank is not that he ruins people’s lives, it’s that he let’s you ruin your own. As we keep watching, we learn more and more about the people caught in Frank’s spell. By exposing their weakness, Frank reveals the truth of who they are. Like everyone else, I’m entranced. I hit “play the next episode” button. But not before locking the doors.