So you lied to his face?
No. I revised the parametres of my promise.
Which is lying.
Which is politics.
- Bob Birch and Frank Underwood
After spending three episodes lining everything up and getting all the plot points and characters to where they need to be, it looks like House of Cards is finally ready to kick into high gear. There’s still a sense that show isn’t as comfortable with its amoral and sociopathic lead character as it should be, but there’s finally a sense of what Frank Underwood is capable of. We’ve seen him topple the incoming Secretary of State using just a college article that the man didn’t write, but that sort of politicking should be second-nature to Underwood at this point. Here, Frank is a bit more ruthless, a bit less concerned about collateral damage.
That’s really the key here. House of Cards needs us to root for Frank despite his drive for power at all costs, without excusing it. It looks like we’re getting to where we need to be.
Most of Frank’s actions to this point have been possible to justify. After all, Frank worked hard to get Walker elected, and was promised Secretary of State. Okay, so maybe toppling Michael Kern, the candidate chosen in his place, and replacing him with a puppet might not have been the most mature way of dealing with the situation, but at least Frank’s line of fire was direct. Kern might not have been directly responsible for the betrayal of Frank, but the show portrayed him as genuinely unsympathetic and arrogant. Indeed, he even stole Frank’s platform of “trickle-down diplomacy.” It’s hard to get too shaken up by his bad fortune.
So the fourth episode does something new. It introduces two entirely innocent victims of Frank’s machinations, both of which wind up suffering by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are all those anonymous people working at a base that Frank has shut down in order to give him a bit of leverage in a political negotiation over his attempted coup. These are hard-working people who haven’t done anything wrong – they just happened to be between Frank and his goal, and his casual dismissal of their concerns in favour of his own bid for power is the first time that Frank seems completely and genuinely unsympathetic.
There’s also the way that Frank manages to scapegoat David, simply because David is loyal to party leadership. In fact, David is portrayed as genuinely sympathetic. When Frank first suggests a coup to remove Bob Birch, Frank is appalled. “You want to collude with the Republicans?” he asks. However, he doesn’t even set himself actively against Frank. He warns Frank never to even mention it again, before promising not to mention this conversation to Bob.
That actually makes David somewhat sympathetic. He seems like a decent guy who isn’t willing to throw Frank to the wolves based over one off-the-cuff conversation. Of course, this also provides Frank with enough rope to hang David, ensuring that – by the time David realises what is going on – it’s too late. David ends up conveniently scapegoated in Frank’s plan, despite being nothing by loyal to the party. As an added indignity, he is asked to fall on his own sword. “We’ll cleave you from the herd and watch you die in the wilderness,” Frank threatens the old man if he refuses to play ball.
This is great, because this it’s the point at which we really should start to hate Frank Underwood. What kind of man makes thousands of people unemployed because it’s convenient to a short-term gambit in a larger plan? Who could really exploit the decency of an elder statesman to get the old man torn from the pack? The strength of House of Cards isn’t the fact that we hate Frank. It’s the fact that we should hate Frank. It’s the idea that he can do unspeakable things, and still remain oddly alluring and almost seductive.
The American show seems to have a bit of difficulty with this side of Frank. It seems almost afraid to embrace the full-on sociopathic fascist philosophy of Francis Urquhart, as if worried that Kevin Spacey and the script can’t keep Underwood strangely appealing. Indeed, here we see Underwood offering all manner of justifications and rationalisations for his schemes and his plans – they’re provided with something approaching contempt and anger, it’s clear that he seems to genuinely hold to those points of view, believing that they vindicate his actions.
After blackmailing Pete Russo into betraying his electorate, Frank offers us some sense of moral justification for his exploitation of the young congressman. “Love of family. Most politicians are chained to that slogan, family values. But when you cosy up to hookers and I find out, I will make that hypocrisy hurt.” When he talks about David, he refers to “wolves” and “sheep.” It seems that House of Cards would want us to accept these justifications as Frank’s own moral philosophy, and Spacey delivers them as such – there’s a sense of contempt behind his crass manoeuvring and exploitation.
Of course, we’re not meant to buy it, but it also feels weird that Frank has to justify these actions to himself. He seems a little weaker than his British counterpart, less sure of himself. Urquhart was charming and debonair, but he never felt the need to offer too much justification beyond “this will get me what I want, and nobody will mind too much in the grand scheme of things…?” As a result, Underwood doesn’t feel quite as perverse and as strong as his British predecessor.
Indeed, consider the inevitable love scene between Frank and Zoe. And compare that scene to how gloriously awkward and perverse and uncomfortable the courtship between Francis and Mattie in the BBC version. It’s more conventional, and a lot less creepy. The show flirts with some of the cringe-inducing sexual subtext, with Frank asking about Zoe’s parents or her fixation with older men, but it stops short of going to anywhere that is truly disturbing.
It’s a valid approach to the show, but it does mean that our complicity in it all is somewhat mitigated. It’s easy to excuse a character when they offer a justification, no matter how flimsy. However, the true power of the British version of House of Cards is the way that we become complicit through Urquhart’s force of personality. He doesn’t even need to justify or excuse his actions, which is a lot more uncomfortable, a lot scarier. He doesn’t have to lie to us or to himself about what he is and what he wants, and we still feel strangely drawn to him. That’s really unnerving.
Frank Underwood, on the other hand, is an interesting character in his own right. Kevin Spacey is charming and wonderful, and gives a powerhouse central performance, but Underwood himself doesn’t feel as powerful as he should – he doesn’t feel as corrupt or as morally bankrupt or as creepily appealing as a lead character in this sort of show probably should. I hope that House of Cards will eventually grab that bull by the horns, but I think I’m learning to accept this version of the character for who he is.
To be fair, there are moments that hint at Frank’s underlying moral philosophy, his sense of selfishness and entitlement. After hearing a story from Freddie about a near-miss involving a fridge on a highway, Frank tells us, “See, Freddie believes that if a fridge falls off a minivan, you better serve out of the way. I believe it’s the fridge’s job to swerve out of mine.” We need more of that sort of philosophy from Frank, although it’s good that the show is embracing it.
House of Cards might not be where it needs to be yet, but it is getting there.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | bbc, Bob Birch, David, david fincher, Francis Urquhart, Frank, Frank Underwood, Freddie, House of Card, House of Cards, kevin spacey, netflix, Republican, republicans, Underwood, United States, Zoe