There are spoilers in this article. I cannot be held responsible if you continue reading without watching the first six episodes of season three.
On Friday, February 27th, Netflix released the third season of House of Cards. Later that day, Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was gunned down while walking in Moscow.
A prominent plot line of the new season of House of Cards focuses on the United States’ relationship with Russia, or more importantly, President Frank Underwood’s relationship with President Viktor Petrov. If you couldn’t tell from the name alone, Viktor Petrov is indisputably a fictional Vladimir Putin.
We cannot take even the most realistic of television shows as pure fact; they are no more than the result of the pressures of popular culture. Of course we would never assume that the crimes Frank Underwood committed to make it to the White House are factual retellings of past events. Underwood’s path to the White House was paved with dead bodies! We would be mortified if we were to find out that a president had ever broken the law, let alone killed people in cold blood. Standing in contrast to the suspension of disbelief required for the main plot, the Russia plot line is not so far-fetched. By including two band members of Pussy Riot, the infamous band jailed by Putin for two years, in one of the episodes, the creators of the show erased the line between fact and fiction. The entire Russia plot line is not only plausible, but verges on being unintentionally interpreted as factual.
So, what’s the problem with transposing fiction onto our idea of reality? Beside the caricaturish depiction of Petrov and the inaccurate choice of staging the military conflict in the Middle East—why not Ukraine?—I don’t see one in this instance. This isn’t neoconservative Cold War propaganda. I wouldn’t say that the show isn’t speaking to our national collective memory, but if nothing else, House of Cards will bring viewers’ attention to the nightmarish reality in Russia, where gay citizens are told to be silent and ashamed, and vocal opponents of Putin risk being thrown in jail—or worse.
The scariest part of the show is not the fictional murders committed by Frank Underwood and his yes-man, Doug Stamper, who is very much still alive, but the unsettling reality of the events in Russia. That is the part we should all be cringing at.
In the sixth episode of the season, Frank Underwood and Viktor Petrov discuss Petrov’s secret personal view on the anti-gay legislation. It is revealed that although Petrov is not a homophobe, the majority of Russian people are. “Religion, tradition for most of my people is in their bones,” he explains to Frank. “This law was passed for them.” We, as viewers, know not to take the words that come out of Petrov’s mouth as truth, yet I found this moment to be unsettlingly sincere. In most cases, as I have discussed, television seldom reflects the truths of reality. I highly doubt Vladimir Putin is anything less than a homophobe, but I have come to understand that a majority of Russians seem to be for exactly the reasons Petrov says.
On the other hand, the show does bring forth a few characters that represent the faction of real-life heroes currently standing up to Putin. Michael Corrigan, the imprisoned gay activist, is but one. He also makes reference to several jailed Russian activists. Even Claire Underwood speaks out amongst opposition from the two heads of state. In Moscow these past few days, thousands of people have flooded the streets in mourning of Nemtsov and in opposition to Putin.
What has happened to Boris Nemtsov is even worse than the worst crime committed by Petrov on House of Cards, regardless of whether Putin is behind the murder. The fact that the nearly despotic political situation in Russia is so stifling that a prominent leader has to be martyred in order to incite serious protest is alarming. Fortunately, speculation aside, we see that protest happening now.
We should all strive to have the courage to stand up to immorality at home and abroad like Michael Corrigan, Claire Underwood and Boris Nemtsov.