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Binging on House of Cards makes us all Frank Underwoods
Spoilers for season two of House of Cards follow, but I think it's OK for things to be spoiled though.
We’re House of Cards fans at my house. And we were getting ready to finish our binge on the latest season of the bleak Netflix series and our Apple TV (which streams our Netflix service) was stalling. It was frustrating to not get something that was advertised as instant instantly. I suppose we couldn’t wait to watch a show that desperately needs a protagonist, that is filled with probably-too-close-to-reality Washington corruption, and that almost certainly would have us empathizing for its anti-hero in his war with an American energy man, China, and a well-meaning President. It’s amazing what the media can spoon feed us and what we’ll consume. This overtly dark nature House of Cards and its glorified story of Frank Underwood in his relentless pursuit of power (his only motivation, seemingly) is complimented in some sense by the Netflix users’ desire to control when, where, and how frequently we indulge in the content. Apparently two percent of Netflix users finished the 14-episode season in just a week. This all reminds me of when Jesus says: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” He could have been talking about the Underwoods or Netflix users! Netflix might give us everything, but is our sacrifice for endless power (like Underwood) and entertainment worth the cost of our souls? It used to be, and still is in some cases, that content wasn’t streamed, but one had to wade through commercials and a specific timeslot to watch a show. I mean, that’s how we all (painfully) watched Lost. I remember a room being filled with my friends as we watched the characters meander their way through an island that the writers seemed to randomly develop as we viewed it. On one hand, that common experience is fun. But on the other hand, being a slave to advertisers and time schedules
is a problem too. But is the problem solved with instant access? I’m not sure it’s solved any more than an all-you-can-eat-buffet in every class in a high school, solves the problem of waiting for your lunch period. I suppose there is nothing wrong with watching TV, but being a slave—whether it’s to a timeslot or the consumption of an entire TV program—damages our soul. There are costs to not waiting, yes. There are costs to moving from the House Whip to President “without a single vote being cast in [your] name.” The civil and social religion of the United States puts us in the position to be dissatisfied, stressed out, addicted consumers. We must consume what the machine produces, but we must also complain about how it is less-than-satisfactory. The solution? More shows, more access, more entertainment. The media machine created our addiction and now is solving the anxiety that comes from withdrawal by giving us “power” over it. It feels like a cigarette, smoking one eases your anxiety that comes from your addiction, it might even curb your appetite, but your heart still palpitates and your eye still twitches. Meanwhile, our endless pursuit of satisfaction will stop for no one—our train doesn’t stop, even it means burying our dear friend who runs a successful barbeque joint despite the systemic racism that surrounds him for our selfish pursuit of power(poor Freddy), or whether we lie about an abortion, because telling the truth would seem to do anything but set us free (meanwhile, every ethical thing Claire did in this season gets undone for the sake of his husband’s idolatry). Frank Underwood’s endless pursuit of power, as we’ll find in season three of the show, might be ultimately dissatisfying as he sits in the highest office in the land. Margaret Lyons of Vulture (NY Mag’s entertainment blog) put it best:
Is it going to be interesting to watch Frank be president? I'm not sure. Part of Frank's MO is that he's the also-ran, the guy who got passed over and passed over; it's what the first season hinged on, his own ideas about himself clashing with other people's perceptions of him. So now that he's getting what he says he wants, there can't really be that scrappiness to the story. Frank wanted power and recognition. He's the damn president now. How much more power and recognition could there possibly be?
When you have everything, what will happen to the meaning of your life? When you are endlessly full of entertainment, with your boredom unquenched, what else will you consume? Sure, we still have True Detective and now season two of The Americans to watch, but what happens when we forget to fill the void in our life with meaning because we’ve filled it with stuff that just doesn’t do the job? Pornography doesn’t replace sex and sex doesn’t replace love. Sometimes our negative feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and purposelessness are so strong, we’ll end up doing anything to fill them. We’ll have a threesome with a Secret Service agent. We’ll be Rachel Posner and kill one man because we can’t deal with the pain of colluding to kill another. We might be Zoe Barnes, selling our soul to a man who seems to incarnate evil only to be tossed in front of a subway train and splattered all over. House of Cards, with its romanticization of the evil self-interest of American politics and capitalism, has failed to deliver and showcase (aside of Claire crying on a staircase) the emotional and soul-sucking consequences of its characters endless chase for prestige. My fear is that there might be a disguised soul-sucking consequence to its viewers’ endless chase for pleasure.