House of Cards and Game of Thrones: TV for an age of villainous heroes

Our leaders are venal, manipulative, incestuous and murderous. And we can’t get enough. The two biggest TV events of the year – the premiere of the second series of House of Cards, in February, and the finale of the fourth series of Game of Thrones this week – have appealed to our unquenchable and contemporary thirst to see those in power slime around.

But why do we like them so much? It doesn’t seem to be a simply reflective appeal –the world is full of selfish and powerful people and it is not a new or interesting insight for a person or TV show to have. Instead, in a bewildering and new age, these programmes demonstrate important contemporary paradoxes. We like our heroes villainous; we want behind the scenes manipulation to take centre stage. It’s more honest, and more attractive: in TV, as in life, it’s the slimy people that make things happen.

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TV is the perfect medium for telling those people’s stories – in its lengthy scale and close-up view, it is able to delve into the long-form machinations of those in power. Fans’ favourite characters in both are unfortunate boys done good, and that is how they have managed to find their way into audiences’ hearts, despite their apparent evil. In House of Cards, Frank Underwood is the middle class southern boy that gets “one heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name,” as he tells the audience, speaking directly to camera, at his inauguration. In Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister is the put-upon dwarf that rises to be Hand of the King. Each becomes a part of the flesh of power and the body politic, but like a virus, they are able to rot and pull it apart from the inside.

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The now archetypal manipulator Frank is joined again in this series of House of Cards by a growing cast of schemers. Those include fixer Remy Danton; nefarious businessman Raymond Tusk, who in this series has been joined by a new bunch of muculent tycoons; Frank’s wife Claire who as freshly installed Second Lady fulfills all of the wily potential she demonstrated in the first series.

Their sordidness is equaled only by their equivalents in Game of Thrones. There are the glitzy, starring snakes, like Tyrion Lannister, the downtrodden dwarf who is shrewd and astute as Frank. Game of Thrones also features a number of more insidious characters pulling strings in the background. Petyr Baelish, the brothel-owning council to the king, and Varys, the eunuch spymaster, have learnt to be quietly, secretly powerful.

Early reviews raged at the happy horribleness of Game of Thrones’ characters. Neil Genzlinger, writing in the New York Times, said early on that the programme was “vileness for voyeurism’s sake.” Fondness for Joffrey Baratheon, he claimed, was pathological. “If you find yourself looking forward to Joffrey’s scenes, there’s something wrong with you.” Genzlinger was probably right – but both Game of Thrones and House of Cards are TV for people who are bored of pretending to be healthy, and that our political institutions are the same.

In real life, the crafty amoralists are winning. The 2000s might be thought of as the era of spin, but as the 2010s loomed into view it climbed out of the shadows. Over recent years, PR and lobbying have moved from being the secret force driving politics to being politics. While both House of Cards and Game of Thrones are made by American stations, it’s in the UK that move has happened most neatly. Tony Blair may have brought the spin doctors into Downing Street, but it was in 2010 that the UK decided to cut out the middle man and vote David Cameron, a PR man, into office.

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There are nice, non-cynical people in each programme but they have little success, and they’re often boring. The fate of Ned Stark sets the tone for the fortunes of well-intentioned characters right from the start of Game of Thrones. He was a too-honourable leader, constantly berating himself for one long-passed transgression. In choosing to publically oppose the legitimacy of Joffrey, and losing his head for it, he may have acted well but he also acted stupidly. Sean Bean may have been exciting as the remarkably similar Boromir in Lord of the rings, but we’re now bored of brave but blockheaded heroes. Ned Stark leaves a family father-less and a rebellion leader-less, all for the sake of appearing to be a good man.

House of Cards has a similarly dim view of the showily good. Compare the West Wing’s Jed Bartlet – who ruled his fictional USA over seven seasons, from 1999 to 2006 – with House of Cards’ Garrett Walker, elected in 2013. Both are clean cut, well-spoken, wholesome family men with good intentions. But House of Cards knows that good intentions all too often lead to people being self-satisfied while doing wrong, or not doing much at all. Throughout the programme, Walker is apparently incapable of making a decision; his worst is the one that he made on his own, before the season even started, to pass up Frank Underwood for secretary of state. See also the ill fortunes of The Newsroom, the 2012 series for which Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing, transferred the model of troubled but honourable man from the White House to a TV station. What looked like sheen in the former now looks naff. Audiences know that these characters wouldn’t have got where they did by quick wits and inspirational speeches alone, and it’s patronising to be asked to pretend that they have.

In Obama, we have had the president that the West Wing promised. (If real presidents lag one behind their fictional counterparts, we’re certainly in for an exciting ride with the next, House of Cards-inspired, presidency.) As Harold Evans wrote in the Telegraph, American politics could do with a real Frank. Where Obama has failed it has been for being too un-Frank: failing to manage legislators and presiding over the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff, for example. He islikely to be remembered for his Frank-like policies – drones, sly but sometimes unsuccessful scheming in foreign affairs.

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Both House of Cards and Game of Thrones, like their characters, aren’t especially nice. Both have opted to kill off characters with little explanation or expectation – as in the bloody shock of the Red Wedding, or the swift dispatch that closes the first episode of the new season of House of Cards. Epic TV shows have raised us to expect payoffs: long arcs lasting 13 episodes or more might be hard work, they say, but just you wait and see where this is going. Both Game of Thrones and House of Cards have taught us that long plots can just as easily go nowhere – audiences watched Robb Stark’s men beat down the country just to see them slaughtered in seconds. It’s a devastating and dangerous blow – handled wrongly, it could have destroyed the programme – but it’s exactly the kind of meaningless ill-fortune that likely made Frank Underwood, Tyrion Lannister and their ilk the way they are. It was, in part, the self-righteousness of the parvenue that led Walder Frey to perpetrate the Red Wedding, and many of both programmes’ most manipulative and attractive characters are upstarts. Knowing that they came from nothing, it seems, they’re also aware of how easily they could go back to it.

But that can also give those upstarts a kind of sentimental nihilism. Frank Underwood might be willing to throw anyone under a bus (or train) if needs be, but, in series two, he also unnecessarily takes troubled rib-griller Freddy under his wing, much to Underwood’s detriment. He saves Edward Meechum, the bodyguard that was nearly sacked for firing a gun in the street, and his recovering alcoholic chief of staff is given a second and third chance despite threatening to pull apart all of Underwood’s grand plan. In Game of Thrones, Tyrion takes a prostitute as his mistress, and it seems to be the same kind of nihilistic cheek that compels him at times to cruelty that allows him to show such kindness.

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There are, in both programmes, brief glimpses of how to survive with morals and power intact. They can be seen in Daenerys Targaryen or Arya Stark in Game of Thrones. Or, in House of Cards, in Frank’s successor as majority whip Jacqueline Sharp and secretary of state Catherine Durant. All are women, outside of the game but expert at it, which is perhaps what helps them to avoid the unnecessary and often lethal sparring of the men that surround them. Maybe because of that, all of them hover potently at the edges of the plot, with the potential to explode the dangerous and often deadly world of each series from the outside. Cynical but not nihilistic, pragmatic but not poisonous, they offer an alternative to the shows’ intoxicating, stultifying worlds. But, with such stunning iniquity on show, there’s more than enough reason not to want to leave them.

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2 thoughts on “House of Cards and Game of Thrones: TV for an age of villainous heroes

  1. Jackie Sharp is your example of morality? The woman who sold out her lifelong friend who fathered a girl with cerebral palsy with a mistress to the press to further her own interests? Sure, the guy had it coming, but she knew the press would go after the innocent disabled girl and her caretaker too. Don’t kid yourself, Jackie Sharp is out for Jackie Sharp and would choose self-preservation over morality in a heartbeat if given the choice.

    • Yeah, don’t get me wrong, almost all the people I list in that last paragraph are at the very best /relatively/ good, in a world where it doesn’t take much to qualify for that description. But, I don’t know, Sharp (and some of the others) seem at least to have begun as decent people, turned evil by necessity rather than wanting to be that way. Whereas, say, Frank relishes it. And for other people it’s not even that, it’s just how they naturally are.

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