Caught myself up on the first season of House of Cards this past weekend. I know, I know. But, better late than never, right? After all, isn’t that the advantage of on-demand viewing? Nowadays, a good series is always available to be discovered.
There are shows that I tune into and consciously try to like, and then there are those that win me over midway through their pilot episode without any premeditated cooperation on my part. House of Cards falls squarely in the latter category. It’s a classic Institutionalized story, which Blake Snyder defines as any tale about the “crazy” or self-destructive group dynamics of an institution—in this case, Congress. Washington is well-represented in political television drama at present, but I certainly haven’t seen a series in which power plays are an end unto themselves: The movers and shakers that populate House of Cards make no attempt to justify their self-serving agendas with hollow allegiances of fealty to the Republic. And protagonist Frank Underwood’s stylized, Shakespearean asides to camera—a tough trick to pull off (Kevin Spacey makes it look so natural, hence his consecutive Emmy nominations for the first two seasons)—lend an intimacy that endears the audience to a character with which we might not otherwise be predisposed to empathize. (He works for Congress, after all, and have you seen their approval numbers of late?) Like most serialized protagonists, Frank is comprised of five key traits; I’m eager to get on with the second season, so let’s take a quick look at them:
1. FRANK IS REFINED AND ARTICULATE
From his poise to his attire to the military precision with which he makes his bed, Frank projects an air of cultivation. And his captivating way with words is an extension of that; despite his Southern upbringing, he doesn’t speak in a folksy, down-home kind of way—for reasons we’ll get to—yet his enviable elocution never comes off as pretentious or elitist, either, thanks in part to his regional dialect.
And, to be sure, Frank’s refinement is more than just window dressing—it is one of his five governing traits. Consider how often he regards the actions and reactions of others as “classy” and “courteous”—or less than, when applicable; that’s the filter through which he measures behavior. Frank has worked hard to overcome his penniless upbringing in Gaffney, South Carolina—a land of “bibles, barbecues, and broken backs,” as he describes it—and he is a man who takes great pride in gentility and civility.
2. FRANK IS CHARISMATIC AND SUAVE
Most successful politicians are, but what I love about Frank is that it isn’t an act—he’s genuinely charming; that’s part of what makes him such a likeable protagonist. Frank is equally as charismatic in private and personal moments—at home with Claire; shooting the shit at Freddy’s BBQ; reminiscing with his college buddies at an alumni function—as he is in the public eye, which is how you know it isn’t a put-on. Refined/articulate and charismatic/suave are authentic traits that may often serve him well politically, but they are not artifices designed strictly to that end.
3. FRANK HARBORS A RUTHLESS AMBITION FOR POWER
“He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years; power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.”—Frank from “Chapter 2.”
This is the “fatal flaw.” I observed in my analysis of 24’s Jack Bauer that a character’s so-called fatal flaw is often kept hidden from view—Jack’s longing for his own death is effectively veiled by his self-sacrificing heroism—and Frank has two behavioral contrivances to that effect (which we’ll get to next). Yet, despite this, Frank’s ruthless ambition for power is plainly evident to even the most casual observers—chalk that up to his habit of breaking the fourth wall: The viewer is privy to far more direct evidence of this unflattering facet of his personality than the other characters. As for how he came to develop his lust for power, look no further than the aforementioned childhood in Gaffney:
“You know the difference between you and me, Marty? I’m a white-trash cracker from a white-trash town that no one would even bother to piss on. But, here’s the difference: I’ve made something of myself. I have the keys to the Capitol. People respect me. But, you? You’re still nothing. You’re just an uppity dago in an expensive suit turning tricks for the unions. Nobody respects the unions anymore, Marty—they’re dying. And no one respects you. The most you’ll ever make of yourself is blowing men like me—men with real power.”—Frank to union lobbyist Marty Spinella in “Chapter 6.”
One can only imagine just how suffocating growing up in Gaffney must’ve been to have inspired such a ruthless ambition for power. And that, in turn, gave rise to Frank’s remaining pair of traits:
4. FRANK IS A SHREWD MACHIAVELLIAN OPPORTUNIST
Well, yeah—that’s how he gets things done! He’s manipulative and conniving, and has a way of seeing the Big Picture and planning his chess moves well in advance accordingly. This trait—a conscious artifice, to be sure—is a direct extension of his ambition for power, but, like the fatal flaw, the audience is likely to be more aware of it at work than the characters with whom Frank interacts, because he projects an altogether different side of himself, less consciously calculated than this one, to serve—and disguise from view—his ruthless ambition:
5. FRANK IS LEVELHEADED/TAKE-CHARGE/PRAGMATIC
Problems arise; problems get solved. In any given crisis or setback, Frank projects assurance: He takes a measured approach to a problem and propounds a well-reasoned solution. And his equanimity is emotional as much as it is utilitarian: What better way, after all, to obscure a lust for power than to maintain a public front of grace under pressure?
When Frank does lose his cool or react emotionally, it’s usually either about or in front of Claire. In fact, he doesn’t even bother putting on this contrived façade in her presence because it is tacitly understood by both of them to be an affectation. Frank’s charisma is authentic; his equanimity is not.
All of Frank’s action and dialogue can be attributed to those five traits. In addition, series creator Beau Willimon has skillfully endowed Frank with a nice collection of idiosyncrasies that help round out his character:
- He’s got a weakness for soul food
- He plays video games in his basement to unwind
- He smokes cigarettes—but typically only at his designated windowsill
I haven’t read the original novels by Michael Dobbs nor seen the BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies, so I can’t speak to how much of Frank Underwood was mined from his British forerunner, Francis Urquhart, but Willimon has certainly given his protagonist a diverse grouping of characteristics that ought to suggest new permutations of political power jockeying for many seasons to come. Consider me charmed.