There is a certain joy we, as viewers, get out of watching scary real life scenarios playing out on our laptop screens. We watch Narcos to marvel at the sheer power that Pablo Escobar wielded in Columbia. We eagerly wait for the next episode of Last Week Tonight, to see John Oliver make sense of and poke fun at politics. We devour House of Cards because it seems to resemble American politics to the point of being uncanny.
At such a time, comparisons between real-life US President Donald Trump and real-life US President Frank Underwood are inevitable. Both are disliked by a sizeable population of people, both are seen as threats to democracy because they hold absolute power, and both are in the public eye for crimes they have been accused of. While social media is filled with speculation about Trump’s impending impeachment, Frank Underwood’s America is witnessing the investigation of its President for crimes he committed as Vice President.
But one episode into Season 5, and you realize that Underwood is not like Trump. He is far worse — because he is better than Trump.
The difference between the real and reel Presidents is that the latter makes you feel afraid because of his mere presence. Many of Trump’s critics, too, fear him, but this is because of his policies, constant faux pas, and trenchant opinions. Underwood, on the other hand, is ruthlessly ambitious and not afraid of crushing anyone who comes in his way.
Underwood courts death with ease. If you thought that one of the very first scenes from the show, where he basically murders an injured dog to put it out of its misery, is the extent to his cold-blooded-ness, you need to watch the conversation he has with domestic terrorist Joshua Masterson, who took the Miller family hostage in Season 4. This scene is shot particularly well; the camera focuses on Spacey’s face as seen from inside Masterson’s cell. He tries to get into and manipulate Masterson’s mind, and the viewer watches this conversation play out as the glass separating them is splattered with the terrorist’s spit and blood.
There is also the stark contrast between their rhetoric. Trump exudes confidence, as is evident from the way he speaks about his businesses and the achievements of his government. Underwood’s speeches are not only filled with confidence, but they also make Democrats and supporters want to put faith into him. Sample the powerful scene when he walks into Congress unannounced and turns around the debate from centering on his crimes to garnering support for the declaration of war in America and abroad: The fire in his eyes is evident as he screams, “I will not cease,” and “I will not yield.”
One also cannot help but compare the Donald-Melania and Frank-Claire equations. Robin Wright as Claire is perfection; as if her poise is not admirable enough in itself, she is also very convincing as a scheming First Lady. Her ability to exploit people emotionally is evident in the scene where she convinces Masterson’s mother to tell her own son to turn himself in. Frank and Claire are back together as a team now, with more aligned political goals. Claire is a great partner for Frank, because she both complements Frank and is able to help him see the larger picture when he loses sight of it.
A large part of the media attention that Donald and Melania Trump have received of late is damaging, due to the body language Melania exhibits at international events when Donald tries to hold her hand. I just cannot get myself to believe that Melania could ever successfully convince an anxiety-stricken mother to go on camera and tell her terrorist son to surrender himself.