In Praise of Frank Underwood
By Michael Nye
Last weekend, the third season of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards was released. The show, a re-imagining of the British show of the same name from the 1980s, follows South Carolina Congressman Francis J. Underwood and his wife Claire on their vindictive climb to the top of U.S. politics. Filled with drama (or melodrama) straight from Shakespeare, the Underwoods use and abuse, seduce and betray, charm and belittle, just about everyone (including each other) all the way to the Oval Office, which is where season three picks up.
There is, of course, a very good chance you already know this. Starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, as well as a slew of talented actresses and actors and filmmakers, House of Cards has not just been praised for the show itself, but also for what it means as a distribution model for Hollywood, a subject for someone far more knowledgeable about technology and distribution than me.
One of my favorite essays on the craft of writing is Susan Neville’s “Where’s Iago?” I first read this essay in the collection Bringing the Devil to His Knees, and I’ve returned to this essay, both as a writer and as a teacher, ever since. I can’t truly do justice to this essay with a simple summary, but what Neville explores is the idea of a Iago character in all fiction: the one who is the catalyst for events, an exploration of evil, the fall from innocence, all of which is wrapped up in some sort of seductive delivery. Neville writes that Iago is “as much a victim, often, of his own evil as anyone.”
This all sounds like … well, Frank Underwood.
One of the reasons I love Frank Underwood is because he’s played by Kevin Spacey. No matter how good an actor is, viewers are always aware they are watching a television show or a movie or even a play. Part of the pleasure of watching anything Kevin Spacey is in is that you are always watching Kevin Spacey. There are certain actors and actresses that, no matter what, no matter how good you might objectively (try) to be, you know you just can’t be swept up by the performance because you just don’t like the performer. It’s nearly impossible to watch House of Cards and not think “Man, Kevin Spacey is having so much fun with this.” He is, and always will be, an entertainer; his performance as Bobby Darin in “Beyond the Sea” is, in part, a testimonial to the joy in being an entertainer.
Another reason I enjoy Underwood as a character is his boyish qualities that are often exhibited in the show. Early in season one, Underwood is shown in his basement, decompressing by … playing video games. He has a fondness for first person shoot ’em ups, and wears headphones so as not to disturb Claire. Later in season one, when he drops in on Congressman Peter Russo to tell him that twelve thousand jobs are being lost in Russo’s district, Underwood is momentarily distracted by a PSP belonging to Russo’s son. Underwood seems genuinely intrigued by it (“I oughta get one for the car”) before laying the boom down on Russo.
Another huge reason I’m hooked on President Underwood is his love of Claire. On a recent Decode DC podcast, House of Cards staff writer Bill Kennedy discussed whether or not he and the others believed that Frank Underwood was a sociopath. He said, no; he and the other writers pointed to Frank’s love and devotion to Claire as the key reason they don’t consider him a sociopath Now, to be fair, I believe this is a gross simplification of what “sociopath” actually means, and is counterbalanced by some pretty damning words and actions by Frank. Nonetheless, they are the writers, the actual creators of Francis J. Underwood, and I do find that Frank is humanized and complicated by his devotion to Claire … especially given how often he betrays her.
There are other reasons to get a kick out of Frank—the way he devours a rack of ribs, speaking directly to the viewer by breaking the fourth wall (which, I’d argue, implicitly makes us his accomplice), his complex sexuality, his snark and his wit—none of which takes away from this simple fact: Frank Underwood is a villain. What in large part makes him so seductive and intriguing (to me, at least) is his complexity.
Even Darth Vader was a dad, you know?
In the last twenty years, Hollywood has churned out several charming villains: Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, and Frank Underwood, just to name a few. One of the benefits of these serial shows is that there is time to show all the complexity of these characters (ex: Tony Soprano and the ducks in his swimming pool) in a way that a film, in roughly two hours, often struggles to do. Great film villains (Hans Gruber, Nurse Ratched, Hannibal Lecter) do tend to be, well, a bit one-sided.
Frank Underwood has more sides than a dodecahedron.
Above all, what I love about Frank Underwood is that I know he’s evil and even though I’m not rooting for him … I’m sorta rooting for him. He’s an indefensible person, but an indispensable character. And that’s what we want in a narrative. Without Frank, there’s no show, and I want to see how deep and dark and awful this spiral can become. Which is what great characters do: take us to a place that is unknown and truthful. In some ways, House of Cards is more a horror show than a political show, a visual pageturner that we cannot look away from.
Welcome back, Frank. I wish I could say more about season three … but I couldn’t possibly comment.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye