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house of cardsWe recently (finally) got around to watching Breaking Bad, a program that features one of the most fully-developed, envisioned and enacted tragic falls that we have yet to see in popular culture, as discussed in a previous post.

We are now in the process of watching the American edition of House of Cards, Season 2–no doubt along with a significant proportion of the rest of the netflix-subscribing population.

The two characters–and series–present a fascinating set of contrasts. Both works feature frequent nods to Macbeth. House of Cards even goes so far as to have these wonderful soliloquies and asides that at least for my part, I find as effective as Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences must have found the asides and soliloquies of Shakespeare and other contemporary works. There is something chilling, thrilling, disturbing and peculiarly disarming about being the confidant of the villain, party to those inner thoughts and observations to which no-one else has access. It draws us in, as we watch his intricate machinations with bated horror. There are other wonderful, resonant references as well, which I touched on in the post I wrote last year–the extinguishing of the candle, for instance, and Frank’s relationship with his wife.

Breaking Bad‘s allusions are more muted, but nonetheless detectable. One of the more elegant ones comes when Walter is holed up in his cabin and walks to the gate, then says “Tomorrow…”. All is lost at that stage, and Walter is weary. It is a powerful moment of temporary capitulation.

Macbeth is itself a play that has always fascinated me. For me, the crux of the work, and the crux of how an actor will play the Scottish anti-hero, derives from the question of whether the witches’ prophecy that he will be king, transforms him from being a genuinely honourable man and war hero into an amoral killer who is slowly eaten from the inside out by his ambition, or whether it simply gives him permission to do what he wanted to do all along, but which the bounds of propriety did not allow. As a student, reading the play in English class, I had believed the former–that Macbeth was once good, and turned bad. Now, as an adult, I’m leaning towards the other reading. He was that way all along, and just needed permission to cast aside his morality.

The same question could be applied to the two anti-heroes at hand.

The answer seems clear for Frank Underwood. He doesn’t need anyone’s permission, and one gets the feeling that he never has. By contrast, the question gets at a key aspect of how a viewer might relate to Walter White: was he a good man who was transformed by the need to provide for his family in the face of his own demise (with the cancer playing the role of the witches, in providing the catalyst), or was he an outwardly moral man with an inward capacity for monstrousness, such that the cancer simply gave him permission to act on it? I’m inclined to go with the first. Though I didn’t especially like him because even at the beginning of the series, he had a repressed anger about him that I found deeply unpleasant and offputting (and which started to make sense when we learned more of his history, much later), I think that despite the anger, he was actually a good man and that he embarked on the path he did with the genuine intention of doing the right thing, even if that meant doing wrong.

This is the true, and for me the intriguing, contrast between the characters: Frank is untouched by conscience. He is a psychopath whose actions are motivated by ambition, and he displays a willingness to do anything to obtain his desired outcome–so long as he can be buffered or dissociated from the negative repercussions of his acts. That prudent need to not get caught in the act is the only thing that stays his hand and reins in his ruthlessness. I suspect this is likely closer to the character of Gus Fring, in Breaking Bad. They are both cold, rarely drawn into emotion, and when they are, it is the emotion of anger at being thwarted or outmaneuvered–but even this rarely causes them to stray into carelessness.

breaking badWalter White, by contrast, actually has a conscience–which is something I found fascinating about his character. He feels genuinely bad about what he does to Jesse, and to others. He also truly cares about them, but his love is profoundly dysfunctional, because it always goes hand in hand with a deep belief that he is smarter than his loved ones and that he knows what’s best. As a result, we see him manipulating, saying what is necessary to get them to capitulate to whatever he wants–and lashing out or using force (though it is generally not physical force) to get his way when the manipulation and charm doesn’t work.

Similarly, Walter has a conscience, and that never changes. But he does monstrous things anyway, sometimes out of a deep, ruthless instinct for survival that trumps that conscience, and sometimes because his pride and his need to win overcomes his prudence and his decency.

Also in contrast to Fring and Underwood, Walter is often motivated by a seething, potent anger, and acts emotionally, rather than with cold calculation. He thinks best, and is at his most creative, when pushed to emotional extremes–fear and anger in particular seem to bring out his ability to innovate and scheme his way out of difficult situations.

Walter is perhaps more analogous to the newly introduced House of Cards character Jacqueline Sharp, who appears to have a conscience, but also has the capacity to act with “ruthless pragmatism” when called to do so. By E2 (which is where we left off last night), we have already seen what Sharp is capable of, and what that ruthless pragmatism can get her, so Frank may be advised to take a lesson from Gus Fring. Not that he will, of course.  

We have always had a fascination for the anti-hero. Macbeth has staying power for a reason. I also find it an intriguing mirror of our equivocal, morally-compromised times (Snowden: hero or villain? Obama: hero or villain? etc.) that we should have such a high number of popular culture works that feature anti-heroes, or protagonists who manage to just barely stay on the “hero” side of the fine line. They come in many guises, from Dexter to Luther (featuring the wonderfully disturbing Alice… ahem… Morgan). Even BBC’s Sherlock is a self-identified “sociopath” (though a friend who studied psychology in far more depth than I have has told me that “sociopath” is not the clinical term). Each of these figures has his or her quirks and distinctions. But Frank and Walter are the most realistic in their darknesses–they’re the two anti-heroes we’d stand the best chance of actually meeting on the street one day. And of course, most disturbing of all, unless we are especially unlucky and end up in the line of fire, we’d never even know it.

Ultimately, for me, Walter’s conscience makes him a more troubling character: at least we can tell ourselves Frank is missing something fundamental, and that is why he is the way he is. But Walter is, in many ways, like us, and so it raises the question of whether we would have the capacity to do the same–to ignore our conscience and engage in “ruthless pragmatism” if the need arose. It’s an unsettling thought.