Netflix presents a cold Machiavellian drama showcasing the pursuit of power and the American dream in House of Cards. Kevin Spacey leads a stellar cast with his portrayal of Congressman Francis Underwood, an ambitious man willing to go far beyond the pale in order to reach his goals.
We begin following Underwood just as the party he represents takes office. A personal victory however doesn’t result and the sweet taste of milk and honey is soured as the president rescinds on a promise to make Francis, Secretary of State, should he win the election. It is decided that Frank's skills better serve the party by remaining in Congress where he yields much influence.
Frank's poker face doesn’t fail him and he accepts the decision publicly, yet vows to avenge the duplicity. He thus begins using his influence to set a series of events in motion that will serve his master plan of revenge.
Throughout House of Cards, it is clear that actual legislation and policy in and of itself matter little. They are simply the tokens of barter Francis and his peers play the game with, and this ultimately makes the show intriguing. If the focus was solely on passing bills and clerical duties, well, it would be as boring as… well... politics.
At the shows core is the conflict between old and new ideologies, as he watches the socio-political landscape change around him, Francis tells us that he has no interest in money and that so many of his peers have failed to recognise that power is the real prize on offer;
"Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn't see the difference."
Longevity and legacy are key, unlike the flimsy fashionable, fifteen minute fame that the new social circus presents. His words are echoed by Tom "Hammer" Hammerschmidt, as he refuses to budge from his position regarding the values upheld by the Washington Herald when he is being pressured to move to more liberal styles of social-media lead journalism,
"I'm not going to be distracted by what's fashionable."
He protests and ultimately is let go by his superiors, who see potential short term gain by following the winds of change. The edgier Gonzo talents of Zoe Barnes are acquired to give the paper a fresh, young face - a win for the new over the old, fame over talent. Even if the winner is but a pawn herself.
By the end of the first season, we see Francis confirm his boast that he is willing to go as far as necessary to get things done and realise his dream. Everything he does is intentional, constantly thinking through every scenario as he divides and conquers. Even his marriage seems nothing more than a means to an end, an arrangement with the pesky side-effect of love. The fact he and his wife have no children all but confirms that no nourishment comes from any of their actions. Nothing grows, nothing will be left behind. Francis’ legacy will remain carved in stone, like his name above the entry to a library named in his honour at his old university.
The wheeling and dealing serves nothing but the moment, the last play in a never ending game. In Washington, there is not time out, you can never rest easy, never put down your guard. We see this in the final moments of the first series as Francis has seemingly forgotten some minor piece and as the credits roll over the image of his phone ringing unheard, we are left with an ominous cliff-hanger.
House of Cards is a view from the top perspective of American society, from those who pass laws which impact the lives of millions. Their own concerns are grandiose; position, power, influence and wealth. When a short and sharp decision to close the dock leaving thousands of people to lose their jobs, it is mere strategic manoeuvring - a means to an end. The lives which are irrevocably damaged are but a nuisance and their desperate stories are as close as we get to seeing average human lives in the series. Despite this, those that contribute to the posturing which decided their fates are never faced with the fallout.
On a recent trip to the United States, I saw things from ground level and what I discovered was an eerie acceptance of the distribution of power and wealth. The general public don't seem to take issue with the relatively poor quality of life they've inherited, despite living in a rich first world country. The capitalist mentality is that which instils a hopeful sense of opportunity, but no entitlement. There is undoubtedly a strong belief that if you are good enough and work hard enough you can make something of yourself in order to become part of the higher social narrative. If not, however, working hard alone isn't enough to entitle you a piece of the pie. You'll have to make do grasping for that out of reach American Dream.
My observation is that "entitlement" is word reserved for American social commentators when labelling people as apathetic or lazy - slackers who seek a hand out. This is the sort of rhetoric spread by the upper classes to keep the general populace shamed. Labels like “socialism” are spouted in the sort of tone synonymous with communism and fascism. You can imagine a middle-aged, country club, old money, oil tycoon, Republican giving a speech in which he says something along the lines of, "Handouts didn't make us the greatest country on Earth!" Only to be greeted by cheers of a crowd which laps up the shallow ball game anthem style inspiration.
The genius behind these types of mottoes is that they are inclusive. The patriotic American ethos declares equality and freedom of opportunity and proven with example rags to riches success stories. Those stories which start with cliché introductions such as "so and so was just an average small town boy..." In reality these magical and deliberately fairy tale styled stories are few and far between. However, from what I could gather, these simple sentiments seem to work for it was my experience that people in the United States are far from lazy and sure deserve more. As evidenced in this episode of the ABC's Foreign Correspondent, "Down In Jungle Land", we witness first hand accounts of people who are struggling to get by despite working two jobs - often in lower rung work, well below their educations and qualifications. Their third world wage is barely paying for the basic needs of living in a first world country.
Other positive traits I would use to describe Americans, from many different ethnic backgrounds, was that they are open and giving. It is here that I believe stems the unfortunate consequence of goodwill. The fundamental problem and foundation which closes the circle and prove that no good deed goes unpunished. That is, that the handout IS being given, by the people, to the people. The handout in question is what I believe sums up the failed system which allows a government like the one presented in House of Cards to exploit the people; Tipping.
Yes, tipping. It didn't take me long to get my head around the administrative aspects of leaving a tip. 10, 15 or 20 percent of the bill given separately to the people serving, or left in the tip jar, all depending on the what, where and how. Yet when I say to people "I don't get the tipping", I'm generally given a long winded explanation on the etiquette followed by the old adage, "when in Rome". However that isn't what I mean; I do get it. Rather, the issue I have, is that all this tipping etiquette and goodwill is masking a deep seeded problem and that is that employers are paying very little for hard working staff. These men and women generally don't know how much money they will be taking home at the end of their working week. Imagine having no guarantees about your income and are basically left at the mercy of chance, change that your place of work will be bustling and the clients will be feeling a bit generous.
So, my objections to tipping aren't due to thriftiness. I'll happily leave a tip for someone doing a good job or to round up and avoid carrying loose change around. What I just assume is that I'm leaving a little extra that they can pocket. However when you are greeted with a displeased face after declaring "keep the change" because it didn't amount to the correct percentage, well, I have an issue with that. Imagine, leaving extra money on top of the bill and you end up having an upset waitress lecturing you on how you haven't paid properly. Yes, this happened to me, and no, it's not the norm, but it is a clear example of the problem. The culture is set up in that the customer is essentially held accountable to pay the wage on behalf of the employer. In San Francisco where I stayed, you don't exactly enjoy the supposed lower prices which many expect as a result of the minimum wage structure.
Now, I'm no economist, nor am I politically savvy, but I know this, my extra couple of bucks cash in hand won't ever equate to a living wage, even for those that declare they can live well on tips (sadly better than some who have white collar careers for large corporations). When you examine the bigger picture in regard to the cost of living, how does one pay their way through life in 2013, with dollar bills. How do you organise a retirement fund, insurance, medical care, direct debit of utilities and credit cards without an actual tangible permanent salary. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to find out that rent is paid with physical cheques by many Americans.
None of this is to say I believe the American people are ignorant, naive or stupid, they are playing the hand they are dealt. If anything, that is admirable but just as House of Cards demonstrates the fragility and duplicity of those who play the game within the established political institution, so do the brave faces of average Americans betray their poor educations and disillusionment of the American Dream.
I guess I can be thankfully that I enjoy the life I lead here in Australia. To some extent, having worked crappy jobs to get by while I was young and studying in order to achieve something of a successful career, I can say I'm living some sort of dream myself. Not the traditional "Quarter Acre Block" dream, but something more akin to the hopes of my own generation. Never have I believed myself “entitled” to do so by default however. I work hard, pay my taxes and therefore I guess I at least expect that the government will put measures in place which enable me to cover the cost of living reasonably comfortably within the country that I work and pay taxes in order to live in.
So although the issues stated with regard to American society don’t affect me first hand, they shouldn't be ignored. Remember, it wasn't long ago when the Australian Liberal government introduced their Work Choices scheme which had the same stench of greed to it that emanates from the above examples. Thankfully, people saw through the ironic use of the word "choices" but that's a story for another day, instead I'll leave you with this:
A waiter looks at the man ordering a coffee with the same eyes as the beggar who greeting him on the way into the coffee shop. A man who wears a nice suit that he could barely afford but bought it in order to impress his peers (who notices each day that it's the same one he wore the day before and the day before). Now, as he gets his morning caffeine fix, he is guilt-tripped into leaving a tip even though it eats into his lunch money and despite the fact that the idea of coffee made from third world beans sickens him as much as the taste, which he covers up with much whipped cream.
This anecdote, though exaggerated and fabricated is the grand façade, the “House of Cards”, the distraction which keeps people so busy they forget their place as the people in "for the people, by the people". Let us not fall for the same media narration which brainwashes people with “abracadabra” feats of celebrity that lead us... not into temptation... but down the wider and safer road of acceptance.