Power and Powerlessness in House of Cards

Overthinking It, um, overthinks again!

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by John Perich

Netflix’s House of Cards boasts an extensive cast, but it follows the rise and fall of two men in particular: Francis Underwood and Peter Russo. Underwood is the majority whip of the House of Representatives; Russo, a representative from Pennsylvania. Russo seems fairly satisfied with the modest power he has: an attractive aide he can sleep with, the ability to do favors for his constituency, a big office. Underwood craves power at all times.

That in itself isn’t too noteworthy. What makes it interesting is how much of the show dwells not just on power but powerlessness.

When Russo is plucked from obscurity to spearhead an environmental bill, one of the conditions Underwood imposes is that Russo get clean. No more drugs, no more drinking. To keep Russo on the right path, he sends Russo to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with his enforcer Stamper. The congressman from Pennsylvania sits in a church basement every morning, drinking stale coffee and listening to other people’s stories.

20th century pop culture has given all of us, on the wagon or off, a passing familiarity with the twelve-step program that defines Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step, as originally authored in 1935: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. Is this something Russo does? Is this something anyone in House of Cards can do?

Say what?

Consider the first episode, where Underwood learns that he’s been passed over for Secretary of State, possibly the most important office in Washington outside of the Presidency. He spends the entire day in a despondent sulk, ignoring texts from his wife. When she asks him why he trusted Chief of Staff Linda Vazquez’s promises, he pouts, “I didn’t; I don’t; I don’t trust anybody.” He throws a temper tantrum, spends the whole night brooding, then comes up with a plan – a plan that will result in the sidelining of a senior member of Congress, the ouster of the Vice President, and one man’s death.

Is this a rational response to Underwood’s setback? Disappointment at a broken promise, anger at having one’s efforts go unrewarded: these are believable. But the steps Underwood takes not only put his entire career at risk – he stakes his own reputation on the education bill that he spends several weeks sabotaging – they put the relative strength of his party at risk as well. Think how it would look if Joe Biden resigned the office of the Vice President in 2010 to go campaigning for his old seat in Delaware.

Underwood considers these stakes acceptable for the game he’s playing. This, frankly, is not a man who can admit powerlessness.

Russo has a hard time admitting powerlessness as well. This stubbornness reflects in how little he participates in the AA meetings that Stamper drags him to. “He never shares anything,” Stamper says. While there’s no requirement that you share something at an AA meeting to earn your place, openness about your inability to deal with your addiction alone is an essential step.

But Russo doesn’t clean up because he wants to repair his life. He cleans up because he wants to earn Underwood’s trust and become governor of Pennsylvania. Getting sober is a means to an end. He’s using that motivation – the chance for political glory – as a lever to help him stay on the wagon. But when that carrot is taken away, in a deliberate ploy by Stamper and Underwood, he has nothing left to stay sober for.

Not exactly a power move.

To live and work in Washington means to seek after power or serve those who do. It’s a city that produces no exports but law, fulfills no need but legislation. You’re there because you want to sway human affairs. The thing I found hardest to believe about House of Cards is that the Washington it depicts has any AA chapters at all. Can you imagine a sitting member of Congress running the risk of being photographed outside a church basement? Can you imagine a member of the Ways and Means committee seeking to make amends to those he had harmed?

(In real life, there are doubtless actual support groups in DC that operate with healthy discretion. But this is the DC of House of Cards, where people are more rabid and cruel than in the world we recognize)

So Russo cannot own up to his powerlessness and, as such, his powerlessness overtakes him again. Underwood can’t admit to his powerlessness either, but he appears to end S1 on an upswing. His schemes have triumphed and he’s about to be selected to replace the resigning Vice President. But is he in control, or is he just bouncing between relapses?

Is there a moral ... something ... that should tell me what to do here?

Russo’s addiction is alcohol (or some blend of booze and cocaine). Underwood’s addiction, on the other hand, is obedience. He gets off on having people do what he wants. Sometimes this is a subtle high, as when he arranges circumstances such that he gets control of the President’s education bill. Other times it’s an uncut dose, as when he takes Zoe roughly in her tiny apartment. Either way, Underwood can’t stand when people don’t dance to his tune.

Put that way, it sounds petulant rather than noble, just as the boasts of a three-day drunk sound. And just like a career alcoholic, Underwood is heedless of the damage his addiction does to those around him. His need to whip Claire into line costs him the environmental bill that would have put Russo on the governor’s ballot. It also drives her into the arms of her old flame, sexy Manhattan photographer Adam Galloway. When she comes back, there’s no tearful reconciliation, no promise to change his ways – just back to business as usual. We might call Claire an enabler if she weren’t co-dependent on Underwood’s style.

S1 of House of Cards is the story of two addicts on alternate trajectories. Both have coping mechanisms that they’ve built up over years of practice. Both see those coping mechanisms fail, with damaging results. But Underwood lives in a city that caters to his addiction and punishes Russo’s. He has his network – Claire, Stamper, Congress, the Oval Office – to prop him up when he falls. Russo has nothing, and the few people he has, he drives away. The result for him is tragic. Will the result for Underwood, in later seasons, be the same?

(As a postscript, it’s ironic that this is one of the first TV series released in its entirety on its debut weekend. Seth Godin called this a mistake, but Kevin Spacey, at least, seemed to understand the reasoning behind it. “When I ask my friends what they did with their weekend, they say, ‘Oh, I stayed in and watched three seasons of Breaking Bad’ or it’s two seasons of Game of Thrones. For whatever reason, people are consuming large chunks of story – they’re getting really involved in big arcs.”

So, yes, it’s a show about addiction that’s catering to TV addicts.)