Good and evil. These two words illustrates one of the most recurrent themes in writing and literature that gets people into saying, what describes the barriers between good and evil? This distinct question has continued to be profoundly embedded in the human individuality since the dawn of humankind. Countless and countless of narratives have been devoted into uncovering a well-defined explanation, an ultimate answer to the question. It has been one of the most conventional themes in our time that demonstrates a universal element of human nature. Since adolescent years, we are educated to think in a dualistic perspective, that is to create a somewhat black and white response to our complications. However, this may not be the case. David Fincher’s “House of Cards,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” explores this fundamental question, suggesting that the borderline between good and evil might be greyer than we ever imagined. These texts, ranging from a political thriller television series, a crime thriller film and an alternate history novel, explores morally ambiguous characters who challenges the binary notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ through their questionable actions, displaying that the cost of victory comes at the expense of what’s morally redeemable.
David Fincher’s “House of Cards” elicits a political narrative that establishes pragmatic beliefs and principles of the American legislative procedure through merciless ambition and the aspiration for power. In a society that flourishes on morality plays and good over-over-evil, the creators behind the show presents a sensational narrative that is voiced from the point of view of amorality. Kevin Spacey’s ‘Frank Underwood’ gives audiences a brilliant archetype of American power that underpins Frank’s strength of character to stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Frank Underwood’s sole objective arises from the desire to acquire power, climbing up the political ladder, one rung at a time, after being turned down the position of Secretary of State. “Hunt or be hunted.” Frank’s motto can be seen in practice in the opening scene of the first episode. The audience watches Frank strangling the injured dog with his bare hands, delivering his very first monologue, “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” Within the first four minutes of the show, the audience encounters both Frank Underwood’s viciousness nature and his stylistic ‘Shakespearean’ manner of breaking of the fourth wall. This scene effectively reveals Underwood’s ‘Machiavellian-like philosophy’ while also attempting to generate an interconnection with the audience. In addition, Underwood gives the audience more insightful understanding of his moral philosophy in the second episode. “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” From this scene, one can perceive the similarities between Frank Underwood and Machiavelli, as both observe the idiom that “the end justifies the means,” in that any practices can be used, even immoral ones to achieve a desired result. Although Frank Underwood’s means are seen as villainous, all of his actions are regarded as humanitarian and valid that gives a justification for Underwood’s behaviour. In other words, Underwood’s acts are done for the greater good, constructing him as an archetype of a morally ambiguous character. “I will win, and I will leave a legacy.” The anthesis of Underwood’s philosophy reveals the stepping-stone to his poetic dream, that is to leave a legacy. We can take a step further that Frank desires to be a memorial or a monument that lasts forever and remain in immortal dominance even after death. Therefore, “House of Cards” presents Frank Underwood who ideally fits the model of a morally flawed character that challenges audience the complicity nature of morality and power due to their interrelation between heroic and villainous features.
In Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” colours play a fundamental role in not only conveying the epic magnitude of the ‘War on Drugs,’ but also expressing the moral ambiguity inherent in the human experience. “Sicario” speaks the story of a group of federal agents who takes on questionable tactics to throw down a Mexican drug cartel. Roger Deakins’ cinematography in “Sicario” is flawless as he and his lighting team successfully create a “grungy yellow world,” extensively using the yellow-beige spectrum to invoke a neutral environment where moral stances are endlessly growing and changeable. From deserts to walls to hallways and to cars, the film is saturated in beige tones which adverts to the enigmatic complexion of right and wrong. One particular aspect that Villeneuve shines into making this film is creating a sense of unpredictability, transferring momentum into pivotal scenes where the characters’ motives are ambiguous. Johann Johannsson, the composer behind the film, frames a terrifying, perplexing musical score that shapes a sentimental construction of the film as well as accompanying the narrative with heightened complicity. Furthermore, Taylor Sheridan, the film’s screenwriter, excellently introduces different characters with different perspectives in a setting where there are no clear-cut good and bad guys. These different perspectives support “Sicario” as a morally ambiguous movie. As a matter of fact, morality can be seen as an entity with the colours it evokes. Villeneuve and Deakins appoints different colours to exemplify specific concepts revolved morality. We see most of the film through the eyes of Emily Blunt’s ‘Kate Macer,’ an idealistic FBI agent who wants to make a difference by playing by the ‘book.’ However, different point of views is introduced that challenges Kate’s ideals when she finds out what it really takes to make a true difference. Benicio del Toro’s ‘Alejandro’ and Josh Brolin’s ‘Matt Graver’ represents as cryptic characters, both clothed with once again yellow-beige colours. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end, you will understand.” Kate’s progressive degradation of her beliefs and her faithfulness in the social justice system can be visually seen through the desaturation of her blue shirt which changes to faded grey, showing Kate’s adjustments to her moral codes as she recognises the requirements needed in the end, just what Alejandro said. “Sicario” shows that the nature of good and evil loses semblance of meaning as power and morality cannot be obligated to the distinctions of black and white, but rather the colour of beige and grey. In the end, “Sicario” questions the audience to challenge our own code of ethics and moral values to conclusively decide what is right and wrong.
“Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.” Freedom is both a dream and a nightmare for the slaves in one plantation in Georgia. “The Underground Railroad,” written by Colson Whitehead, takes on both of the slave narratives of the 19th century as well as the neo-slave narratives of the 20th century. The novel imitates these genres and classes of ambivalence towards the primary American faith in the pursuance of happiness, particularly freedom. Meet Cora, the heroine that Whitehead establishes as the heart and soul of the story, who was deserted as an infant when her mother, Mabel, ran away in exchange for freedom. “The Underground Railroad” leads readers into a quest taken by a fugitive slave in pursuit of her freedom. Whitehead effectively portrays the horrifying spectrum of cruelty and struggle that described the foundation of slavery. Violence and brutality have become an accustomed segment in the world of the novel that Cora and the other characters are not stunned by even the most ruthless and distressing episodes. However, Whitehead also indicates that Cora and other black characters are not completely detached to the inhumanity around them, even if they are compelled to hold back their emotions. This wretched act can be seen here, “Cora covered her mouth to keep in her scream. She failed.” This quote effectually highlights the dehumanization of enslavement and through Cora, the readers are reminded of the inevitable necessity of ambition, of uprising and of freedom. The paramount prejudice and discrimination of slavery also ushers’ certain ‘good’ black characters to perform acts of atrocity which demonstrates the complexity of the boundaries of good and evil. In pursuit of her freedom, Cora kills a 12-year-old white boy while escaping from Ridgeway, the slave catcher. When contemplating whether her actions were right or wrong, this turn of events leads Cora to come to the conclusion that her actions were necessary in order to survive and escape. “Cora rarely thought of the boy she had killed. She did not need to defend her actions in the woods that night; no one had the right to call her to account.” This signifies Cora as a ‘grey’ character who commits questionable, however, justifiable acts where readers are able to sympathize with the protagonist as we see Cora who has endured so much heartlessness that the conception of carrying out violence seems reasonable. Hence, “The Underground Railroad” is a story that allows readers to witness a contrary narrative of slavery that is not frequently told where morally ambiguous characters are forced to make moral choices in a system where there are limitations that makes moral codes and longevity conflicting forces.
Should characters be described as good or evil? Moral or immoral? Morally ambiguous characters in “House of Cards,” “Sicario” and “The Underground Railroad” deepens our understanding of the ambiguity of evil as good and evil shouldn’t be limited to the distinctions of black and white, but instead be represented as shadows of grey.