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Kevin Spacey is out on 'House of Cards' — what does that mean to us?

If, as reportedly is its intent, Netflix finds a way to expunge Kevin Spacey and his character of Frank Underwood from the final season of "House of Cards," how will that make America feel?

That's a question worth unpacking.

New allegations continue to be made against Spacey. On Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that Spacey is being cut from director Ridley Scott's finished film "All the Money in the World" and replaced by Christopher Plummer, with his scenes reshot.

Given the quality of the writing staff on "House of Cards" (a group that includes Laura Eason of the Lookingglass Theatre), and the readiness of Robin Wright, who plays Claire Underwood, to step into the spotlight after years in Spacey's (and Frank's) shadow, this would seem to be a logical solution to protect the integrity of the show. It even has a certain poetry, given that the Underwood character dies in the book that inspired the series. Netflix must be well aware that the airing of such an episode, a public repudiation of a man and his allegedly abhorrent behavior, has the potential to be a profit-boosting, must-see event, more akin to the final episode in the more usual circumstances that surround hit TV dramas.

You could argue it has a fiduciary duty to promote that. This all might turn out to be a kind of national Spacey-Weinstein catharsis, a definitive national coda to this agonizing sequence of revelations concerning abusive powerful men in the entertainment industry, both straight and gay. Given the widely recognized similarities between the "House of Cards" character and the allegations against the actor who assumed his persona, the show’s final season has the potential to be — symbolically, anyway — a defining comeuppance, a period placed on the end of an era of powerful men behaving badly with impunity and a vista of their widespread imminent replacement by empowered women. A lot of commentators — and the world now has a lot of commentators — will be looking to make that very connection.

But cooler heads at Netflix also will see the dangers, even beyond the obvious legalities: for starters, the charge that they are profiting from the pain of abused young people. Even if they feel no residual loyalty to, or compassion for, Spacey, one of the first big movie stars to embrace streaming TV and a man who made Netflix a fortune, there is something unseemly about linking the conflagration of a fictional character with an actor's self-forged professional destruction.

Especially since Underwood and Spacey would appear to have so much in common.

Here is where the question gets even messier and the circle of responsibility gets larger. "House of Cards" was a hit largely because of Underwood's behavior, just as "Mad Men" attracted viewers by re-creating a period when men could behave badly. Those shows might be the poster children for such Machiavellian machismo, a quality their producers have promoted with relish, but seduction scenes in dramatic scripts that at least border on harassment or even abuse are far more widespread.

Some of this is a consequence of scripted drama's need for conflict and to do things fast. You can find any number of scenes wherein a woman initially says no, only to rapidly cave, often with demonstrable initial reluctance, under intense male pressure, both verbal and physical. There's even one in "Newsies," which you'd think is about as benign a script as possibly could exist. The acceptable dramatic mode of seduction — as mostly written by men — would not pass muster now in real life. This has actually been getting worse on TV as the number of scripts has proliferated in a streaming world, and the difficulty of standing out from the rest only has increased. Boundary pushing is the usual way.

No network or writer can legislate what people want to watch, and it’s absurd to argue that the millenia-old tradition of rouges, bounders and devils in drama be somehow expunged. Debates have raged for years over whether or not nasty fictional characters teach us how to behave in real life or whether, more persuasively, they actually are a vital safety valve for a society where we all treat each other with respect. They will rage on. And it's similarly idiotic to conflate a writer's (or actor's) own persona or values with those of the nasty characters with whom they are most obviously associated. (Not that some commentators don't try.)

You cannot expose antisocial behavior without manifesting it in some fictional form. Yet on the other hand, scripted entertainments have no obligation to toe a moral party line; that way lies totalitarianism and is disaster for any artist who relies on free expression, as all worth their salt do.

Still. The "House of Cards" situation is pause for thought about what we — and our young — are given to watch. Whatever solution is found in the writers' rooms, which must right now be filled with angst and fast decision-making, nothing here is any cause for celebration. When big stars go down, like Spacey, they take the jobs of other creative professionals with them. With every abandoned project, and there are many, artists lose work.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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