Home > Culture, Politics, Television > House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and the Cynicism of Power

House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and the Cynicism of Power

A defining feature of politics and public engagement in our contemporary age is a deeply cynical perspective as concerns the possibilities of accomplishing whichever goals are felt to be worth accomplishing. Regardless of one’s placement on the political spectrum, dissatisfaction with the state of politics, culture, and society predominates. Despite unprecedented wealth in Western democracies, millions (indeed, billions) of people are left behind around the globe and even within those nation-states that lead the world economy, while many millions who have not been so left behind feel like they have been, or that key features of their identity have been, at least.

Even incremental reforms seem just beyond our collective reach, and more drastic and meaningful change is predicated as unprofitable and, thus, impossible. The hegemonic influence of corporate capitalism takes much of the credit/blame for this state of stasis, with the small armies of lobbyists and mounds of campaign contributions standing between the masses and their representatives in government. This helpless inertia of thwarted social improvement sparks serious doubts about not merely the systems and institutions that we have built to govern ourselves, but about the basic decency and worthwhile character of human beings in the first place.

Such pervasive cynicism, bordering on self-involved nihilism at times, must necessarily penetrate our popular culture. In the American television prestige drama, a tone of cynicism as concerns the amassing and exercise of power has become recognized shorthand for integrity and seriousness. This has been the case for more than a decade, as HBO’s ascendance in the form has inspired offshoots and influenced followers well beyond the pay cable giant. So the serialized TV drama has been the domain of reluctant gangsters, emotionally stunted undertakers and detectives, privileged but self-loathing advertising geniuses, a morally compromised chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-lord, desperate zombie apocalypse survivors, even unrepentant criminal bikers. The term “anti-hero” is bandied about with regularity by cultural critics in reference to the lead figures in these narratives (as well as to describe contemporaneous cinematic protagonists), but the perspective that these anti-heroes embody is to heroism as antimatter is to matter: a black hole, swallowing everything, even (especially) light.

Consider House of Cards, the Emmy-winning political drama that was online streaming service Netflix’s breakthrough original series effort. Based on a BBC drama of the same name about the Machiavellian machinations House_of_Cards_main_charactersof a brilliant, unscrupulous political operator in the bowels of Westminster (itself based on a novel by Michael Dobbs), the American version casts the exquisitely, appealingly serpentine Kevin Spacey as Rep. Frank Underwood, a conniving Democratic House Majority Whip from South Carolina who is the man behind the curtain, every curtain, in the Washington, D.C. power structure. In partnership with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who runs a non-profit organization like a pitiless, well-oiled corporate machine, Underwood manipulates Capitol Hill staff, the House, the press (mostly Zoe Barnes, a cub reporter played by Kate Mara that he elevates to star status with well-timed leaks), even Governors and the President himself to his maximum advantage, leveraging power and influence at every turn and accruing ever more of each as he does so.

Although House of Cards humanizes Underwood at many points in its first season (whose conclusion is as far as I’ve proceeded in its world thus far) and shows him losing televised debates and key House votes in an embarrassing, humbling fashion, his trajectory through the channels of D.C. power bends more crookedly upwards as the concurrent graph line of the venal immorality of his acts rises alongside it. He uses everyone for his own devices, even his putative partner-in-crime Claire, his illicit lover and media mouthpiece Zoe, and Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), the Pennsylvania Congressman whom he blackmails into doing his dirty work, forces to sell out his constituents for a House power play, elevates to a run for the Governor’s office, and then brings crashing all the way down to prevent his scheming from being revealed. The cynical use of power for personal gain is the only path to success in American public affairs, House of Cards not so much suggests as advertises on a blinding neon billboard the size of the Lincoln Memorial.

Still, compared to HBO’s successful fantasy serial Game of Thrones, House of Cards can seem positively starry-eyed and cheery. The television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series concerning the dynastic intrigues and political double-crosses of the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos can make for grim viewing, for all of its involving detail, performances, and shocking plot twists. Whatever one might think about contemporary American power, there is no question that whatever oppressions and exploitations it carries out pale in comparison to the outright brutality and pitilessness of the powerful in the medieval context of Game of Thrones.

Frank Underwood may threaten an opponent’s political future or quietly engineer the death of a wavering subordinate, but at least he doesn’t murder half a wedding party like Walder Frey (David Bradley, sadly absent from the show since he perpetrated the Red Wedding a couple of years ago), shoot prostitutes full of crossbow bolts like Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), or flay old women alive like the tiresomely sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). And these individual acts of cruelty are mere pinpricks in the wide, dark sky of inhumanity that inhabits Martin’s world as imagined onscreen by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

Westeros, with its dangerous gulf of class inequality, inherent social instability, perpetual wars, and zombie-making White Walkers, is a meat grinder for the common people especially, but also for the nobility, whose privilege renders them no more immune to violence than their vassals and peasants. Essos is little better, with its roving Dothraki marauders, slave cities, Rome-like gladiatorial fights, and mysterious assassins’ orders. Asked to endure through the story despite the myriad cruel twists and unremitting horrors and suffering, the show’s most ardent fans may be reasonably thought to display the acute symptoms of a mass case of Stockholm Syndrome, rationalizing their weekly beatdowns by Benioff, Weiss, and Martin as worth bearing up against for the promise of a satisfying conclusion.

Those rare figures defined by honour and decency in the face of such violence and clandestine plotting invariably pay a harsh price for their principle on Game of Thrones (especially if they are surnamed Stark). Still, Martin has created these characters with some rudimentary moral compass, and the long arc of his convoluted epic tale may yet be intended to bend towards justice. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) was always possessed with bravery and a strong sense of duty as an illegitimate son of the Stark family, but he has come to develop a political savvy and larger vision for the world (although he experienced a quite considerable setback at the conclusion of the recently-completed fifth season because of his principled plans). Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) holds relatively progressive views concerning the emancipation of Essosi slaves , even if her methods of bringing about the revolutionary change she plans not only for Slavers’ Bay but eventually for Westeros as well (she vowed this season to break the wheel of noble house domination of Westeros’ population) are still unformed and green. Despite his indulgence of bacchanalian tastes and the betrayal of his (admittedly awful) family, even Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is willing to dedicate himself to the establishment of a better world.

Despite the depths of its dark hollows, then, Game of Thrones holds a greater potential for eventual progressive sociopolitical redemption in its sword-and-sorcery context than House of Cards does in its semi-realist modern setting. Westeros’ destructive aristocratic power struggles can only continue for so long, and not only because a long winter is coming with an indestructible army of snow wizards and risen dead alongside it. Might Martin’s saga (and Benioff’s and Weiss’s too, as it increasingly diverges from the literary source material that it has now caught up to and, along some threads, surpassed) reflect another, less brutal sector of civilized history, namely the slow process of stabilization and gradual damping down of quotidian violence and its consequences? Might Game of Thrones conclude with a Late Medieval tipping point towards the incremental improvement of quality of life that Europe began to see in the Early Modern period, with a concomittant Renaissance, Enlightenment, and general equalization of opportunity to follow?

It’s an intriguing possibility, and one that might serve to mitigate the grinding, repetitive drumbeat of cynicism about the uses of power on Game of Thrones. House of Cards, in which American liberalism is depicted as deeply compromised in its way as movement conservatism (though you wouldn’t know it from Season One, with its glaring dearth of Republican-leaning characters), offers less hope for an eventual rise from the cynical morass. It may seem laughable to imply that Game of Thrones‘ philosophy may be more optimistic than that of any other cultural text this side of a Tom Waits album, but given the foreseeable endgame of both Game of Thrones and House of Cards, the former clearly holds more potential for overcoming the crippling, nihilistic cynicism that characterizes contemporary attitudes towards power.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Television

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