Or, Beyond Mr. Bigglesworth
Disgression on ‘House of Cards’
This post contains mild, and largely irrelevant, spoilers.
Like many Americans, I have been watching the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’. When Netflix releases an original series, it makes an entire season available for instant streaming online, and, again, like many Americans, I binge-watch. Binge-watching television can certainly enhance the viewer’s experience; however, it is unforgiving to the shows themselves. Bad or repetitive writing, or over-reliance on certain plot devices, becomes apparent when you watch one episode right after another. Watching a lot of one show in a short amount of time helps the viewer identify patterns that they might otherwise have forgotten from one week to the next.
For example, ‘House of Cards’ really has it in for small animals. In the second season alone, Cashew the guinea pig has been tortured, and a small parrot deliberately crushed.
Now, two incidents does not, strictly speaking, make a pattern; however, the lamentable fates of these two animals is particularly striking because small animals rarely feature in prime time television (or the Netflix equivalent). Dogs are obviously cinematic darlings, and cats have their place in plot or character development: they can be relied on to knock things over, or signal that an unmarried woman is letting herself go. Even fish occasionally appear, to be swallowed or flushed, but outside of animated movies, other small pet animals are few and far between. Several minutes of hard thought have produced the names of only two movies in which small animals figure largely: ‘Babe’ and ‘Willard’.
So why do they keep showing up in ‘House of Cards’, and why do they keep having unfortunate ‘accidents’? Let’s first take the case of the unnamed and broken parrot. Having a character torture an animal is an easy way to show that he is really evil and deranged. Raymond Tusk, the man who kills his own parrot, seemed kindly at first; presumably, his avian-murderous streak is meant to show you, the viewer, how wrong you were. The fact that the killing is sudden and, apparently, out of character may be the point: however unlikely it is that a man who breeds parrots would become so enraged with one chirping that he would break its neck, as simple gestures go, it’s an efficient way to communicate brutality.
Cashew the guinea pig is harder to explain. Guinea pigs almost never feature in dramatic plots: they aren’t very active, and they seriously lack charisma. So, from the beginning, Cashew’s presence was puzzling. She was featured prominently in several scenes, and attention was drawn to her well in advance of her being squished.
In fact, that very attention should have made it clear that the future was dark for Cashew. Given how un-scintillating she was as a character (how unrecognizable, even – if one were not familiar with guinea pigs, one might be forgiven for wondering why Gavin Orsay kept clutching an enormous dust bunny), she was either a very strange character detail, or an intended victim. As it turns out, she was both. Orsay himself explains his ownership of Cashew as an existential reminder – she helps the hacker to remember that he might at any moment find himself behind bars. Why someone would want a pet who served as an aide-memoire of one’s own worst outcome is unexplained. However, Orsay clearly loves Cashew, which is why things will obviously not go well for her. He is an angry, anti-government vigilante; she is his weakness. Like clockwork, when a malevolent FBI agent arrives to strongarm good behavior from Orsay, he illustrates his metaphorical boot on the hacker’s neck by placing his literal boot on Cashew.
Still, the mean FBI agent might just as easily have leaned on a puppy – why a guinea pig? Jimmi Simpson, the actor who plays Orsay, has suggested that Cashew is a guinea pig to show how uncomfortable with human companionship his (Simpson’s) character is – basically, the only company he can tolerate is a furry chicken nugget. Perhaps that’s all there is: Cashew is there precisely because she is so un-dynamic. However, her oddness steals the show, and it may be that Cashew is the most sympathetic character in the entire second season of ‘House of Cards’.