Guest post by J. Hamlet
Discretion is the better part of valor, or however it is that people choose to paraphrase Shakespeare. I've never quite believed that entirely. I've always preferred the British SAS motto: “Who Dares Wins.” In the realm of fiction and entertainment, nothing proves that more superbly than the most recent season of Netflix's House of Cards. Spoilers ahead.
Like so many people, I engaged in a binge-watch marathon when the episodes dropped over Valentine's Day weekend. Luckily, I had a significant other who was on board with that plan. She even suggested it. I was immediately taken in by how different the second season of the show felt. Part of that was natural as Frank Underwood, a man who would be the villain if this story was told from any other perspective, goes further into darkness.
Season 1 featured Frank running amok in the playground of Congress. With his elevation to the Vice Presidency, Season 2 offers Frank much more opportunity for carnage. The tempo of careers and lives trashed only increases, a frenzy of ruin. It's a lot of fun in a very sick way. As I watched the season unfold with scandal after scandal and lurid betrayals flowing like wine, I thought that it reminded me of another DC and politics-centric show that's a favorite of mine: Scandal. In a sense, the quasi-grounded arc that House of Cards had started with changed to a more deep and extreme narrative. In Frank's quest to become the top dog, the only man the President trusts, he confronts and alienates powerful donors and even starts a trade war with China. And that's just for starters.
The show also broadens its themes and introduces whole new sides of its characters. In one obvious way, it shows us sides of the marriage of the Underwoods we never saw before. At each other's throats through much of the first season in a war with plenty of collateral damage, Season 2 shows them united. As Claire and Frank find harmony, it allows them to turn their powers and ambition outward to even more devastating effect.
The show even allows for a sizable subplot that highlights the feminism of Claire Underwood in a way ignored in the first season where Claire combines lies and the truth to her advantage and launch a new crusade that shapes a lot of her character arc. There's more than that, including Frank turning ever more characters to the dark side and bringing them into his orbit through a web of blackmail and temptation. It's tough to tell whether these new characters and “allies” will be betrayed by Frank or whether they'll do their own betraying of him in the future.
I've lived in DC for over ten years now. I've seen presidential administrations change over, control over Congress bounce between parties, and political appointees come and go. The fact is, the realm inside the beltway is never quite as exciting as fiction makes it out to be. To the millions who dwell in the DC area that aren't in politics, be they bureaucrats or contractors, it's a sea of paperwork and program management reviews. Political intrigues, plots, murders, and sex scandals couldn't be farther from it.
And yet, as far from reality as it is, I can't say no to the worlds of Scandal and the extreme turns of House of Cards' second season. The DC they create may not resemble the real one, but it's a hell of a lot more fun. There's a lot to be said for that. Any season of American Horror Story has the same, embracing the extreme and melodrama to tell stories most TV shows wouldn't dare. Sure, they miss plenty, but they can also hit targets most other shows don't dare.
J. Hamlet: Everyone needs a hobby. I chose writing. Not one of the easier ones. I chose it at the tender age of 14, churning out terrible science fiction novels that heaped on the cliches and barely hidden tropes of all space operas. Thankfully, those creations reside in the prison of an old Commodore 64 hard drive and several 3.5" disks (kids, ask your parents) in a landfill somewhere. And, let me be clear, the world is better for it. Along the way, I kept writing. Through college. Through grad school. Through the beginning of my career, such as it is. I like to believe I picked up skills. I write genre novels that have characters brimming with personal problems, professional problems, and sexuality. Sure, novels that do this exist. I'm not trying to say they don't, I just think too few of them are out there and I intend to do my personal best to increase their numbers.