I have never watched House of Cards in earnest. My ex, however, did so obsessively—the extent of my viewership, therefore, entailed passively watching him watch it, like a teen girl observing her male counterpart playing video games. For hours he’d lie prostrate on the couch, shrouded in near-darkness, entranced by the saga unfolding before him. I did not understand his seemingly insatiable desire. “What don’t you like about it?” he asked. “Well,” I told him, “the main character speaks into camera.” Because Kevin Spacey, as President Frank Underwood, the protagonist of House of Cards, speaks into fucking camera. Sure, it’s a highly respected program that people have emphatically told me I simply must see, not unlike The Wire. But in The Wire, people don’t speak into fucking camera.
I was not looking forward to watching the entirety of the series’s third season—a harrowing 13 hours of programming—in one weekend. But watch I did, if only in an attempt to anthropologically understand the phenomenon that has so captured the public’s (and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’) rapt attention.
Diving in with limited knowledge, I found myself initially confused by what I was viewing. Piece by piece, I began to follow the story: Underwood’s the president, but he’s also running for president, while his opponents flog the corpse of his failed America Works program. Doug (Michael Kelly), his former right-hand man, got in some kind of accident and is now letting prostitutes inject bourbon into his mouth while he waits to be called back to the majors. Claire (Robin Wright), the first lady, is constantly being disrespected, objectified, and underestimated, yet somehow is also the strongest character on the program. Remy (Mahershala Ali), in spite of being the president’s chief of staff, gets pulled over for driving while black. (Okay, so I guess it isn’t science fiction.) Pussy Riot do not make good dinner guests.
It didn’t take long for me to become engaged. Around episode three or so, I delightedly watched the first lady mount and aggressively ride the president of the United States while he sobbed. Now that was in my wheelhouse. Something I’d allow. I kept watching. When I split a cigarette and talk over this whole Israel and Palestine fracas with a man, I want him to actually do something about it.
Around hour seven, I looked out my window—it was a sunny, the sky filled with big, beautiful cumulus clouds drifting across a sea of azure. Visibility was high, a rarity; the hikeable hills nearby beckoned. I wanted to leave my couch, to reenter the world, but felt as though I shouldn’t. After all, the outside would always be there, but with Netflix you never know. Sometimes it removes content from its roster. Nature can’t compete with the impermanence of streaming entertainment. All the while, my muscles atrophied beneath me.
“Love,” slurred President Underwood, staring at a life-size crucifix. “That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.” Then he spit in Christ’s face. As he wiped up his load, the crucifix fell and shattered on the ground. Picking up a broken ear, he addressed the camera. “Well,” he quipped, “I’ve got God’s ear now.” The scene was shticky and stupid. I nevertheless could not look away.
The House of Cards universe is neither kind nor pleasant. It is the antithesis of uplifting. The president puts the lives of his own people at risk by funneling funds away from FEMA immediately before a hurricane. He tells America it “deserves nothing.” He instructs Doug to kill a woman, for Christ’s sake. The only reprieve from all this bleakness and misanthropy came from the very device that made me reluctant to watch the show in the first place.
When Frank speaks into camera, he speaks solely to us, divulging information and insight no one in his universe, not even his wife, is privy to. This keeps us separate from the murky moral quagmire, but still in on it. It’s almost as if he is addressing God. Which makes us God. Which keeps us hooked. Who wouldn’t want to be God, at least for a weekend? Having initially found them so trite and unappealing, I soon found myself craving these private audiences. They are, after all, the only opportunity for levity or pathos in the whole deeply humorless, depressing show. The world I looked into was inexpressibly bleak, bleaker than my own. A place of ceaseless war and manipulation and indignation and self-serving hubris, it is dark, both literally and figuratively. No one is ever rewarded for doing the right thing because no one ever does the right thing. It’s a lot to digest. It’s a lot more to turn off.
Television, especially when consumed in mass quantities, is an escape. I’m not here to judge the escapist impulse—I share it. It’s why I am an alcoholic. But the 13 hours I spent escaping into House of Cards was overwhelming; watching it made me feel trapped, not free. It’s not a show one can watch passively, and I found myself imprisoned by its complexity. It felt like a second job, sifting through the minutiae of its miserable universe. Which made me wonder why so many people, after being beaten and broken and debased by life, would spend so much of their leisure time watching House of Cards.
The answer, of course, was in the question. So much goes on in a show like this, there may as well be nothing going on, which makes House of Cards the perfect vessel for Nexflix’s binge-watching ethos. So many plot points, characters, events, asides—it’s nearly impossible to keep it all straight. The complexity washes over you like a tide. Which I suppose is the goal of immersion. You can’t think about, you don’t have to live with, the intricacies of your own world when you’re so busy trying to wrangle the intricacies of another. Binge-watching takes us back to the fanatical-obsession phase of youth, providing something to be passionate about in bursts long enough to wipe out meaningful chunks of time—a weekend, for example—but not so long that we’re incapacitated before returning to the regularly scheduled programming that is our boring and tedious lives.
Having said all that, I hope Heather Dunbar doesn’t get the Democratic nomination. Fuck her.