Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho infamous by killing off the main character 30 minutes into the movie. Audiences were shocked — some even walked out of the theater. This had never been done before. Viewers had already invested 30 minutes into Janet Leigh. But her character’s death — as shocking as it was — created an essential space for Norman Bates to emerge and develop. The movie took a twist for the unexpected, and Norman Bates remains one of the most fundamental characters in the history of film.
It took me awhile to get into House of Cards. The series seems to pick up more steam the longer you watch. Kevin Spacey makes me uncomfortable (for good reason). I wasn’t hooked right away. Like Heisenberg in Breaking Bad, we are captivated by the villains — the evil doers. Frank and Claire Underwood are the political equivalent to Bonnie and Clyde. The audience is part of a first-person psychopathic journey through a politician’s road to world domination, and we’re frozen on the edge of our seats.
The turning point for many was the first episode of the second season, “Chapter 14.” Here we are, fully engaged with these characters, rooting for the journalists (I was rooting for the journalists) and waiting to see what amazing one-liners this series would come up with next. And then Zoe died. I had to re-watch the subway scene twice before I believed it was real. It was quick and dirty (just like Frank), an ingenious move on creator Beau Willimon’s part.
It’s the kind of moment where you think about criminal intent and defendants blaming their murders on “insanity.” Frank Underwood is an insane character with direct criminal intent. He didn’t get angry and frustrated and regret his decision. He saw an opportunity to get rid of a pesky journalist, so he took it. We all knew Frank was capable of stepping on anyone (Peter Russo) who was in his way. But this…this was different. This was a character that he had an established sexual and professional relationship with. And he killed her in two seconds. (It was so acrobatic and ninja-like.) That was the turning point for me, the point where I was hooked. Zoe’s death was a classic Hitchcockian move, only viewers had already invested an entire season into her.
The reason why Zoe’s death was so shocking to viewers is because we don’t believe our government officials to be capable of throwing journalists in front of trains when they are getting uncomfortably close to the truth. (9/11 truthers will disagree). In reality, dictatorships and corrupt regimes all over the world have the power to kill and do so regularly. Especially journalists. I find it so interesting that we are fascinated by a concept of unethical government and abuse of power when there is so much damn truth to it. We are romanticizing tyranny. We are making crooked governments into a drama series and it’s enticing and addicting because that’s not how we think we live. It’s dramatic to imagine Congress as a group of blood-thirsty criminals. Things like that “just don’t happen” in this country — so we make it into a TV show.