House of Cards Delivers a Powerful Lesson

The day has finally arrived. Netflix has unleashed the third season of its insanely popular TV series “House of Cards”. I’ve been waiting for its arrival with bated breath since the announcement of its release some weeks ago. 

Not wanting to welcome its arrival unprepared, I’ve been skimming through the past two seasons, (re)watching the most critical episodes to ensure my memory of the crescendo is crisp—to be certain I won’t miss a single reference to past events. For additional context, I’ve even drunk every word of Michael Dobbs’ book upon which the series is based. One could say I’m more than prepared for the new twists and turns awaiting the Underwoods.

Why is this series so….powerful?

Because It’s Fascinating.

Setting aside the fact that I’m quite a fan of Kevin Spacey’s work, there are other reasons for this series’ success. 

No doubt, some of it has to do with how it’s been produced. The writers and producers have effectively rendered the audience complicit in every decision. How could we not be, given we appear to be Frank Underwood’s confidant—one could even say protégé.

The above notwithstanding, the reason we’re drawn in is because the underlying plot revolves around power. Its main characters are dripping with it, along with a good side of influence—and the much-needed lack of scruples that necessarily follows when power is extorted as opposed to earned.

Power fascinates us because it’s:

  1. Intoxicating
  2. A limited resource
  3. Fleeting
  4. Used for good or evil
  5. A burden

1. Intoxicating

Westminster is a dark and sometimes dirty corner where men trade their principles for a few years in power.
— p. 384, House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

We’re fascinated by the lengths at which Frank and Claire will go to get what they want, from mere lies and posturing, to sleeping with the enemy, to cold-blooded murder—all for the sole purpose of claiming the Oval Office and its associated privileges. The Underwoods pursue their goals with dogged determination, letting no one, not even each other, get in their way. Their drive to win is so strong it sends the needle of their moral compass into a spin from which it can’t possibly recover. Power is their drug of choice.

2. A limited resource

The nature of ambition is that it requires casualties.
— p. 303, House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

The series’ position on power is that it’s a limited resource. In order to increase your own position, power must be cajoled, taken, strong-armed, stolen, persuaded or ripped from others. Rarely is it convenient to earn it legitimately. Who has the time or the inclination for that?

There are choices we have to make in life...desperately difficult choices, ones we may hate ourselves for but which become inevitable.
— p. 387, House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

But, like crabs in a bucket, the less refined of its seekers attempt to walk over others in plain sight, only to be buried by the next in line.

3. Fleeting

The time for change is when it can no longer be resisted.
— p. 209, House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

The tides of power ebb and flow with predictable regularity. As is the case with any great fortune, its stability is made all the more precarious when power has been ill-obtained. Lies built upon lies; deceit upon deceit. And the greater the level of power and influence sought, the more likely it is to be short lived.

4. Used for good or evil

There is no form of wickedness in which a politician can’t indulge and a journalist won’t inflate.
— p. 245, House of Cards by Michael Dobbs
Truth lies in the hands of its editor.
— p. 251, House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

There is no doubt that power attracts all types of people. Those who pursue it with great appetite are more likely to have ulterior motives and those upon whom it's bestowed are either puppets or reluctant recipients who feel bound by duty. Either way, the recipient is expected to wield it for the greater good, but willful blindness can become too convenient a state for those who can direct others at arms length. Power can bring out the worst in us, even if some manage to convince themselves otherwise.

Distrust is a matter of mind, not fact.
— p. 189, House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

5. A [crushing] burden

As the saying goes, careful what you wish for. With great power comes great responsibility, both to use it wisely, and to not make the inevitable loss of it too damaging to one’s self and to others. Anyone with a good amount of power and/or influence seeks to leave their mark, a legacy of sorts. Without it, there’s no lasting proof that the sacrifices needed to obtain it, and wield it, were worth it. The torment brought about by that reality could easily crush any capable soul’s spirit, especially knowing that the fall is not an "if" but a "when".

What can we learn from House of Cards?

The higher up the tree a cat climbs, the farther it will fall. It’s the same for politicians, except politicians don’t bounce.
— p. 273, House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

There is such a thing as too much power. Too much of anything can weigh on us. It can suffocate us, nauseate us. We can grow weary of it. It eventually becomes an obligation, as much as anything else we consider an obligation: debt, work, family responsibilities, etc.

Yet we’re drawn to it. Maybe it’s morbid curiosity. Maybe it’s a drive to build something bigger and better than ourselves. Maybe it’s that elusive pursuit of this thing we call "status". Whatever the pull, it seems to lie deeper than our consciousness allows us to delve. It’s a drive that runs deeper than most of us want to admit. 

We need to keep ourselves in check for our own sake. Ego can be dangerous. It can cause us to chase the wrong prey. By the time we realize we don’t care for what we’ve managed to subdue, it’s too late. 

I, for one, have been burned pursuing things I thought I wanted. Have you?

Enough introspection for now. I’m ready for Season 3. Bring on the next 13 chapters! Who knows, maybe it’ll bring the house down.