On Sunday, May 20, I watched the entirety of the first six episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards in a single sitting; over six hours of doing nothing but watching Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood manipulate and destroy the lives of many people in his quest for power in Washington. By the end of those six hours, despite the show’s undeniable quality and ability to hook you into its plot and characters, I wished I hadn’t. This isn’t to say that I did not enjoy watching the show. Frank is truly an incredibly charismatic character, and there were times where I was undoubtably rooting for him and even admiring his ability to play the people around him like perfectly-tuned fiddles.
As Casey McCormick makes clear in her essay, there are certain elements of House of Cards that are developed with a binge-watching audience in mind. One of these elements is that the show “changes the stakes of narrative engagement by reframing the temporality of viewing experiences to optimize emotional intensity and story immersion.” What this means is that the show allows its emotional narrative to compound over time; it gains momentum continuously as the season develops rather than confining its arcs within episodes. In other words, the viewer is drawn into an emotional mindset that sticks with them for the entirety of the viewing experience. This makes sense, as the audience is allowed to experience a narrative arc that matches better with the way they are watching the show. A more traditional model of television storytelling would not be quite as satisfying to binge-watching viewers. I believe that the show refers to its episodes as ‘chapters’ to encourage the idea that it can be enjoyed at the viewer’s leisure rather than forcing a schedule onto them.
Unfortunately, there are side effects to this style of watching that affected me over the course of my binge-watching. House of Cards is not what one would call an incredibly positive show. The themes explored within its plot are as dark and mean-spirited as its characters, who constantly attempt to destroy each other in order to gain more power. While I am no stranger to shows with dark themes and unhappy or unfair endings, the fact that I was binge-watching this show meant that I was forced to stew in this mindset of amorality and manipulation, where human lives are treated as nothing more than pieces on a chess board, for a long time. As I finished episode after episode I felt my mood sink, and by the end of the six hours I was exhausted emotionally and mentally.
I think that there are several other reasons I found my House of Cards experience to be negative as well. McCormick mentions in her essay that audiences find surrogates that they can relate to and project themselves on to. She specifically points to Peter Russo as the House of Cards character that most people would use as this surrogate. I found that to be true for myself as well, mostly because Russo was pretty much the only main character in the show to display empathy and a desire not to hurt innocent people around him in his dealings with Washington. Unfortunately, as Zachary Snider illustrates in his essay, I soon found myself a victim of an increasing empathy that was developing for Russo. As he suffered, so did I. And boy does Russo suffer under Frank’s diabolical machinations. Seeing the only character I could truly connect with slowly fall apart and wither away not only made me feel sad for his character, but also angry at most of the other ones. By the end of my viewing experience I truly loathed Frank Underwood, his wife, and all of their associates. The scene where Claire, Frank’s wife, visits a dying bodyguard of theirs in a hospital only to debase and humilate him for daring to misunderstand her relationship with Frank made me physically ill, and it was at that point that I decided that I did not want to continue watching the show. Perhaps if I had experienced the show in smaller doses instead of taking in all of its negativity at once I would have enjoyed it more, despite the fact that it truly seems to be written with binge-viewers in mind.