First, a spoiler alert. If you're into the Netflix political drama House of Cards and haven't reached episode six of season two yet, read no further.
I got an email the other day from a friend, a savvy politico, who complained that the show had become unrealistic because there was no way real-life congressional Democrats would ever go for the latest plot development: an increase in the retirement age to stave off a government shutdown.
I pointed out that there might be other plot twists that were even less plausible. For example, the fact that main character Frank Underwood, who had been House Majority Whip and was now Vice President of the United States, had killed two people. True, one of the characters he knocked off was a politician while the other was a reporter, but they were still human beings with families who must have cared about them despite their unfortunate career choices.
I love House of Cards, but for different reasons than when I started out loving it after season one was released about a year ago. For most of the first season, it seemed like a show that was determined to show politics as it really was, not as we hope it might be. Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, was the ultimate Machiavellian, a skilled and bloodless operative who knew how to make Washington, D.C. work.
Then, late in the season, the show took a turn. Frank killed Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Peter Russo in a parking ramp. I screamed at my iPad. I thought the writers had completely screwed up the show, making it just another version of CSI.
But the House of Cards is so well-written and intriguing that I stayed with it, no longer seeing it as a docudrama, but now as something of a modern Shakespearean tragedy. Okay, well that's going a little too far. It's not that good. But while it's not realistic that the vice president would push a reporter in front of a Metro train, the show has the courage to make the main characters not only less than perfect, but pretty much evil.
Most television programs are just tired morality plays. The good guys might make mistakes, but they are redeemed in the end. The killer always gets caught and pays the price. But in House of Cards, it's starting to look more and more like Frank is going to get away with murder. Twice. (If you've watched the rest of the season and know better, I don't want to know!)
But here's something you might find surprising. Aside from the killings, the thing I find most unrealistic about the show is the lack of any sense of altruism on the part of the main characters. I've been around politics for over thirty years, and though I've encountered a few people who were skilled at manipulation and talented at political maneuvering, none of them actually killed anybody. However, I never came across anyone who didn't do what they did with a higher purpose in mind.
Even Chuck Chvala, the former Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader who got caught playing the game a little too hard and too cleverly, did what he did in an effort to help the poor, teachers and the environment. Did the end justify the means? I don't know, but I know that those who naively say that it never does don't understand much about life, much less politics.
And in the end that's what I really love about House of Cards. It acknowledges the messiness of things. Not only does it refuse to give us clear morality lessons, but it portrays a world of politics that is even less scrupulous than the real one. In an unexpected way, watching the show actually makes me feel better about the real world of politics. After all, at least nobody gets killed.