Anarchist consciousness for the Golden Age of Television?

Since 1999 we have apparently been living through the “golden age of television” which, with the end of the first season of True Detective, is still very much occurring. By looking at the recent slew of “golden age” shows I noticed that while they aren’t overtly political (with the exception of The Newsroom) but do focus on a political element: power. Who has power, who is trying to get it etc. are questions that anarchists deal with and seek to abolish. This is not to say that the shows are promoting anarchism, but anarchists do focus on these issues and try to change society by analyzing them. Thus to explore issue of power-consciousness, I will look at five “golden age” shows and see how explicitly they tackle the issue of power.

As such they go through a spectrum pictured below:

Power Chart  copy

1. Mad Men (2007)

If there is any kind of power struggle happening in Mad Men, it is the social transformation of the 1960s. Featuring the ad man Don Draper and his attempts to get accounts for different companies the struggle is in the background: many traditional roles faced by women, children, students and minorities begins to be upended  as the series carries throughout the decade. There is also the occasional (somewhat) power struggle at work where Don feels threatened by people rising through the ranks (although never actually in a position to take his place). As such, this show is the most subtle when it comes to the issue of power, and despite the time period, not very anarchist-conscious.

2. True Detective (2014)

Taking place in some of the darkest areas of Louisiana, True Detective is a police procedural/character study revolving around two detectives trying to uncover a serial murder plot from 1995 to 2012 and how it effects their personal lives. While on the surface very little explicitly deals with power,  as they go through the investigation the detectives confront a government cover-up, an investigation trying to pin the blame on one of the detectives, organized religion and the disturbing rituals and coercion from the killers themselves. While the focus is on the detectives, especially Rust Cohle played by Matthew Mcconaughey, looking closer reveals vast hierarchies all trying to protect themselves. As such, it keeps a strong view of authority not far in the distance.

3. Breaking Bad (2008)

If there is one saying that applies to Breaking Bad, it is that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” By now the story of Walter White is almost universally known: starting off as a high school chemistry teacher he is diagnosed with cancer and begins cooking meth with his former student Jesse to pay for the treatment. However as the show unfolds we learn that the meth has very little to do with his treatment and much more with White’s drive to dominate his environment.  The more obstacles he is given, the more powerful White becomes until he is in control of a drug empire. As such, this is not just an examination of personal ambition but of (illicit) capitalism and the economic domination that many left-wing anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin criticized.

4. Game of Thrones (2011)

Based on the best-selling fantasy bookseries, Game of Thrones takes on the issue of state power directly. Taking place in the fictional continent of Westeros where the Seven Kingdoms make up what appears to be a kind of confederate monarchy where the heir apparent to the Iron Throne is killed, plunging the known world into a war to be in control (the author George R.R. Martin was inspired by the War of the Roses but apparently mixed up that this was a civil war between houses in one kingdom, not multiple kingdoms, but back to the show). Thus members of the different houses/kingdoms kill and manipulate each other (not to mention themselves internally) to rise to the top of kingdom or sometimes just to survive each others’ plans.  Thus it showcases the problems of institutions and competition which seems to only be used by people for their own ends.

5. House of Cards (2013)

There’s absolutely no doubt which show is the most explicit when it comes to state power; House of Cards hits the issue so hard on the nose it comes across as a reductio ad absurdum of Machiavellianism. Based on the original British series, it follows Francis Underwood who was cheated out of a cabinet position he was promised by a newly-elected Democratic president. Vowing to take revenge, Underwood and his wife Claire plot their way to the top of the US government. The show almost acts like its own anarchist critique: the Underwoods are cunning and psychopathic, taking any measures necessary, whether blackmail, manipulation or murder, to advance through state power. This is not very subtly either, Frank directly tells the audience what predicament he is in and what kind of measures he needs to take to get himself out of it. Thus it comes a long way from idealistic shows like The West Wing where statecraft was seen as benefiting a greater good but rather taking the anarchist position that governments are simply evil.