House of Cards ~ Season 3 arrived on Netflix this past Friday, February 27. I, like millions of others, binged watched it. Not because I wanted to, but because I can't resist a good tragedy. In this era of huge CGI spectacles such as the Avengers and the forthcoming Batman Vs Superman flexing their franchise muscle in theaters, television and Netflix are reinventing the modern tragedy and delivering it straight to our homes. There is a divide between these mediums of fantasty, however. If the ratings are any indication, we love our TV dramas for the most confusing of reasons, as these series go against our human programming.
In our culture, the good guys always win. We need for our stories to end on a happy note. Despite this, many of us love House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad, because we don’t want these stories to end happily. We want them to end realistically, and in the real world, more often than not, the bad guys win handily.
One of the main reasons that we as people love the stories we do is because they speak to us on multiple levels. I’ve written in this column before how what exists at the center of being nerds is the personal attachment to stories, but I would like to extend that to society as a whole. Sometimes the stories we gravitate to speak to our personal ideals; other times, they speak to the realities of which we live. Take Breaking Bad for example. This brilliant story doesn’t work unless it taps into the reality of the shrinking middle class in America. Walter White is a good man, a good father, and a teacher who works a part time job to bring in extra money. That is life for millions of people. It’s not really the cancer that begins his transition into the supervillian-esque Heisenberg—it’s the realization that his family will be left destitute when he dies. It also taps into a very American and masculine intersection of leaving wealth to the next generation and being a provider.
There have been many Ned Starks throughout history. Walter White could be living across the street from you. The individual seeking your vote could be Frank Underwood made manifest.
Game of Thrones is a dark, twisted, fairy tale which is steeped in the actual history of monarchies. From the first episode, we know that there is a conspiracy going on regarding the king and that the most powerful families of Westeros are jockeying for positions to assume the Iron Throne. Into this fray enters Ned Stark, a man of honor and strength who wishes to serve the kingdom. We all know how this story should end: with justice. But it doesn’t...there is no justice in Westeros. In a fantasy world with dragons, this lack of lawfulness is the most realistic feature. Countless dynasties in human history have been founded and maintained by the most evil of men and women, and built on the corpses of the honorable who sought equality. Game of Thrones is a magnifying glass through which we see our own world.
House of Cards is such a phenomenon because it taps into our cynicism about American politics. Regardless if it is the national side show that has been the tension between the Obama administration and the Republican Party for the past seven years, or in the verifiable catastrophe of the Jindal Administration here in Louisiana, House of Cards speaks to our worst thoughts on politicians and our fear of government in general. What if so much of our lives is dependent on the personal foibles and ego trips of those in power, fighting over power? Frank Underwood could be many presidents, senators, or councilmen. It forces us to ask the question, “Does power corrupt, or does power attract the already corrupted? We love Frank Underwood because he is recognizable. He is the darker, more morally corrupted—and therefore, more American—embodiment of the old adage of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”
Of course, superhero movies will still attract billions in ticket sales at the box office, as well as millions of admirers. The Avengers are awesome. Batman is a perfect combination of brawn and brain. But superhero movies require you suspend disbelief to enjoy it. There have been many Ned Starks in human history. Walter White could be living across the street from you. The man or woman seeking your vote in the next election could be Frank Underwood made manifest. These stories don’t require you to suspend disbelief—only that you believe in the human condition and tragedy.