Lord Grantham, Pres. Underwood and pop culture empires

Why is Downton Abbey so warm and endearing, while House of Cards is so nauseating and unsettling?

House of Cards
The juxtaposition between the messages of both shows points to a constructive lesson in history, writes Dabashi [Daylife]

A peculiar aspect of watching popular television series these days is that you can binge and watch them back to back with such time-lapsed eagerness that before you know it, their characters and plots begin to morph and merge – so much so that suddenly Daenerys Targaryen of the Game of Thrones and her dragons may show up on the island of Lost chatting with Sayid Jarrah, Jack Shephard, and Kate Austen; plotting to fight with the “Others”.    

In this spirit, if you were to sit through successive series and episodes of two vastly popular television drama series Downton Abbey and House of Cards, you would notice an unmistakable contrast. While Downton Abbey is packed with nostalgic remembrances of an empire now long lost, House of Cards is replete with the nasty details of cold and cruel power politics from the heart of a fully dysfunctional empire.

You watch Downton Abbey wishing you could befriend all its delightful characters, beginning with the sweet and affable Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and his wife Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. You finish watching House of Cards sickened by the morbid realisation that the fictional characters of Frank and Claire Underwood are not too far from factual reality of life in the US capital.

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Nostalgia and realism 

You can manage even to forgive Lord Grantham for his momentary lapse of judgment when he entertained the idea of an affair with one of his maids, but you shiver with loathing every time Frank Underwood proverbially turns to the camera and addresses you as if you could possibly share his vicious and wanton cruelty and corruption. 

Downton Abbey is warm, endearing, humane, and honourable, and even when we are subject to the mundane follies of some of its characters – such as the habitual plotting of Thomas Barrow and Sarah O’Brien – we tend to understand and forgive them for their moral weaknesses.

On the other hand, House of Cards is nauseating, unsettling, and deeply troubling, even when we see an act of courage from any one of its characters, such as when Claire Underworld went against diplomatic protocols and publically denounced the Russian president for his homophobic politics. 

There is one particularly poignant contrast between the last episode of Downton Abbey and the first episode of the most recent season of House of Cards.

As Downton Abbey takes a nostalgic view back at the British Empire, House of Cards thrives on a narcissistic gazing at the cruelty and corruption of US political culture.


Soon after we watched the warm and cosy last Christmas special of Downton Abbey, when Mr. Bates makes a sudden appearance to surprise his sad wife, and they all forget their troubles and sing a Christmas carol; we cut to the first episode of House of Cards, where we see President Underwood taking his entire presidential entourage to a graveyard, where he approaches his father’s grave and urinates on it.

Central trope

No transition could be more startling and disconcerting, yet more representative of the two series when watched back to back. How is it that Downton Abbey is so wholesome and snugly, while House of Cards is so nasty and mean? 

The central trope of Downton Abbey is nostalgia, made in the 2010s about a time period early in the 20th century when the British empire was at one of its heights, and was about to yield to the rise of anticolonial movements throughout Asia and Africa – coincidentally where the Indian connection is very much limited to the colourful Rose’s father, Hugh MacClare (The Marquess of Flintshire, the Scottish nobleman nicknamed “Shrimpie”), who has gone bankrupt and moves to India as the Governor of Bombay.

No other reference is made to Shrimpie and what he is up to while in India. So the nasty side of British imperialism is very much glossed over, under the curtain of noble gentility of the Downton household. 

In contrast, House of Cards opens and closes in the throes of a corrupt and corrupting empire, with President Underwood and his wife Claire as the very picture of murderous cruelty, and deep-rooted corruption. 

As Downton Abbey takes a nostalgic view back at the British Empire, House of Cards thrives on a narcissistic gazing at the cruelty and corruption of US political culture.

Britain's Duchess of Cambridge chats to Downton cast members [AP]
Britain’s Duchess of Cambridge chats to Downton cast members [AP]

Empires past and present

The two series thus thrive on two opposing historic moments: When an empire stargazes at its past, while the other navel-gazes at its present. 

The contrast between the nostalgia for a fallen empire and the narcissisticly loathesome existing one points to a constructive lesson in history, for which a critical insight of Nietzsche immediately suggests itself: “When the historical sense reigns unchecked and drags with it all its consequences,” Nietzsche suggests in his magnificent short essay The Use and Abuse of History (1874), “it uproots the future, because it destroys illusions and takes from existing things the atmosphere in which they alone can live.” 

From this premiseNietzsche’s uncanny call for the rooted illusions of a living historyhe concludes: “If behind the historical drive no constructive urge is at work, if things are not destroyed and cleared away so that a future … builds its dwelling on the liberated ground, if justice alone rules, then the creative instinct is enfeebled and disheartened.” 

Today as we live in the nostalgic remembrance of the British Empire and the brutish realities of the American, the juxtaposition of the two moments reveals precisely what Nietzsche called the constructive urge for clearing the way for a much more liberating future.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.