Doing anything that isn’t sleeping for 6 hours is tough. Watching Kevin Spacey systematically destroy other people’s lives for 6 hours is even tougher. Spacey’s Representative Francis Underwood fills the screen with a dark, menacing presence that always seems to be one step ahead of his opponents. From seducing Zoe Barnes with the promise of power to tricking Marty Spinella into punching him in order to break the teacher’s strike, Underwood’s calm, exacting mannerisms simultaneously draws the viewer in and repulses them in equal measure. Watching him perform for 6 episodes back-to-back is akin to riding a dizzying emotional rollercoaster. In his essay “Forward is the Battle Cry”, The Netflix Effect contributor Casey McCormick says that “binge-viewing changes the stakes of narrative engagement by reframing the temporality of viewing experiences to optimize emotional intensity and story immersion.” (McCormick)
The stakes are raised immensely when binge-watching; the viewer is completely invested in the story for far longer periods of time than when watching a network television show (or even a feature film) and so the emotions from the previous episode are carried forward into the subsequent ones. I found this to be painfully true while watching House of Cards. I watched the episodes with my roommate and the emotional toll on him was so great that he gave up halfway through episode 5 and went to go play video games. For him it was watching Peter Russo, Corey Stoll’s tortured Philadelphia congressman, wither and die under Underwood’s iron fist that became too much to bear. Despite the fact that Russo is a sleazy politician who engages in all manners of illegal vice, McCormick says Russo is presented as “a regular guy” (McCormick), a kind of everyman that viewers naturally sympathize with.
Russo acts as one of the more significant spectatorial “surrogates” throughout the show. McCormick says that Russo’s battle with addiction parrots the viewer’s desire to binge watch the show itself, a kind of meta-commentary on the addictiveness of the Netflix TV model. He says that Russo is one of many addict surrogate characters who “present a spectrum of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ addictive behaviors. This spectrum serves as a kind of instruction manual on how to be a good binge-viewer.” (McCormick) Russo lands on the ‘bad’ side of the binging spectrum. He allows his addiction to control him, taking from him his girlfriend, his chance to be governor, and at the end of the season, his life. It is truly heart wrenching to watch Russo desperately try to save his 12,000-man shipping yard only to realize that Underwood has far too much dirt on him to let that happen.
So what are we left with from this emotional turmoil brought on by binging? Zachary Snider (no relation to the beleaguered Hollywood director of near-identical name) says in his chapter, “The Cognitive Psychological Effects of Binge-Watching”, that binge-viewers “tend to react to the events in the narrative as if they were real, increasing the likelihood of an emotional response.” (Snider) In fact, the psychological effects on viewers can be so strong “by increasing their rate of empathy for shows’ characters, and [creating] confusion when viewers process these narratives too quickly, which ultimately hinders viewers’ real-world judgements and interpersonal relationships.” (Snider) Binge-viewing shows like House of Cards can be so damaging that viewers have a hard time adjusting their real life after binging. So perhaps at the end of the day, my roommate fell on the ‘good’ side of the spectrum of binge viewing, knowing when he had had enough. I fell on the bad side, ending alone in the dark, feeling depressed after all the ruthless actions I had seen Frank Underwood commit. Here’s hoping I don’t end up like Peter Russo.