“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
– Samuel Johnson, Writer
One of the most appalling and entrancing fictional characters in recent years is the ruthless, calculating political figure Frank Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards. Played with remarkable believability by Kevin Spacey, Underwood almost puts the likes of Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) to shame, albeit in the context of Washington’s convoluted political system. From his rationalizations for murder to the shameless manipulations of everyone and everything close to him, Frank Underwood is the perfect example of a quest for power gone epically wrong. But then, aren’t they all?
It’s easy to look at the Frank Underwoods of the world and find their fiction somewhat rapturous; there is something indulgent about momentarily living through a fake character that serves as spot-on metaphor. In the annals of horrifying characters, even with every step a Frank Underwood makes that is further removed from what we think of as ‘human’, there’s a certain related glamour, as there is for rose-coloured depression or melancholy rainy afternoons.
Power has its own deceitful glow. Even as we reject its corrupt manifestations – whether they exist in a political figure, a pop star or a business owner – there is something enticing in it that we cannot rationally resist. While it often comes alongside money, it is also removed from it. As Underwood states of another character in one episode:
“Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power, in this town a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years, power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who does not see the difference.”
What Underwood says is perceptive because power is an entirely different beast. Money often comes along with the power, whether it’s a new title, a promotion or an opportunity. However, it’s a double-sided coin, and while money enables one to consume, power forces one to be consumed. It’s the price paid for the money made, and it’s how Underwood and the likes of him – real or not – come to be. It’s here, in this willingness to be subsumed, that the line between man and monster becomes less visible. Instead, there are rationalizations to be found, ever-shifting lines that remove one further from humanity, and oftentimes, what it means to be accountable.
The philosopher Albert Camus said that, “Power is not something that you hold, it’s something that holds you.” It’s easy to see this exhibited everywhere. In the maniacal ranting of Kanye West and the somehow-sanctioned lunacy of Donald Trump, we listen, entranced by the power – however empty – because the madness is there, gathering reaction. As Donald Trump’s presidential bid continues to unfurl, he still stands at the podium and we still have to listen, see his name in print, because it’s power he seeks after all. Unfortunately, our value system shifts alongside this attention, revealing the hollowness of those it leaves it fingerprints on.
It’s much too easy to laugh at the insatiable desire for validation required by the Wests and the Trumps, but still they remain, spooling out words in the bright lights as if they haven’t lost all relation to what it means to exist outside of it. Like The Emperor’s New Clothes, it is the inability or unwillingness to tell the truth that emboldens the persistence of the lie. Once the camera’s turned off, fictional Frank Underwood ceases to exist, but what of those who have been consumed – by corporate life, a political system or fame?
Once the light dims, one must fall back into the shadows of what they’ve chosen to become – a price that’s long been paid.