Competence porn, character expectations, and the Houses of Cards

Spoilers for the first season of House of Cards in UK and US versions. I don’t know how to do a cut-tag on my wordpress journal if in fact such a thing is possible. So seriously. Spoilers. If you care, back away from the post.

Francis Urquhart and Frank Underwood have some key things in common, due to the one series being based on the other. The main thing is that they are both consummate backroom politicians–wheeler-dealers, hip-deep in machinations, people who use the secrets and foibles and relationships of others to achieve their own ends. This is sometimes horrible and generally fun to watch, in no small part because they are so good at it. It’s a form of competence porn: it’s very satisfying to watch people do difficult things they’re good at.

And then. And then partway through each version’s first season, the main character FU kills someone who is being inconvenient.

And gets away with it.

When I was talking about this with Timprov, the metaphor he came up with was that it was as though you had set up Sherlock Holmes and suddenly had him torture a confession out of a suspect. It’s not what makes Sherlock Holmes interesting–in fact, it’s the opposite of it. In some fundamental sense it’s not what Sherlock Holmes is for. It’s a crude solution from someone whose entire point is subtlety, and as such it’s terribly unsatisfying. If you want me to watch someone kill people, and wince and marvel, give me Omar, give me Brother Mouzone, but do not give me Sherlock Holmes with a baseball bat, and do not give me Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood. The early episodes of each show us that FU is someone who exploits other people’s weaknesses, and the victims in question each have plenty of weaknesses. So having FU just decide to kill them is an annoying waste of the character’s skills, which are what I like to watch in the first place, in favor of a skillset neither FU has ever demonstrated in the first place.

I’ve started watching the second series (what we would call the second season) of the British version, and it has some lovely moments, but generally the killing thing is totally unsatisfactory to me, and the handling of it has not improved. Timprov pointed out that the show may not have been made as competence porn at all, it may have been made mostly as a poke at the Tories, and I can see that–it’s visible from space–but it’s a great deal less interesting to me, and I think would be even if it was poking at politicians in my own country and my own timeline. Schemers are fascinating. Unsubtle digs and implausible deaths less so.

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