Let's be frank about House of Cards: As much as it's about Frank, it's really not about Frank

Vishnupriya Bhandaram and Karan Pradhan

Mar 20, 2016 09:36:16 IST

It’s been a week since the fourth season of House of Cards hit the small-screen, so there will be spoilers.

Consider yourself amply warned.

Expectations ahead of the fourth season were tempered, especially considering the appeal of the three preceding seasons lay in how Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) would lie, cheat, steal and murder his way to the top office in the land. But once he became president, well, there wasn’t much left to achieve apart from trying to hold on to the White House.

Watching him rise through the ranks — from party whip to vice-president and finally president — was and would be far more exciting, right? Not quite.

But before we get further in, it’s worth re-examining the trope of the President of the United States on television. In the early 21st Century and in a post-9/11 world, we were exposed to 24’s President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) — sure, he had his flaws, but here was a president whose primary interest was in the national interest. In fact, he did such a good job on-screen that it is believed he paved the way for Barack Obama’s real-life election as president. How? By making the US comfortable with the idea of a black president.

Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) of The West Wing and Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) from Commander in Chief were similar wholesome US presidents — flawed, but with the good of the nation at heart.

Midway through the 2000s, the 9/11 Commission reports were released.

And shortly after, the scheming president trope came bubbling back to the surface, marked most notably by President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) of 24. The scenario had evolved from one where the enemy was on the outside to one where the enemy was within and using external elements to further his own presidency.

Lets be frank about House of Cards: As much as its about Frank, its really not about Frank

In House of Cards, the real protagonist is the human thirst for power.

This is the fundamental problem with the fourth season of House of Cards where the partly shocking, partly déjà vu-inducing final few seconds almost throws the uniqueness of the series out of the window. The theme of letting acts of terror be conducted — and more importantly, be viewed by the public at large — to create fear in order to distract from shady underhanded dealings in other aspects of policy, is old. In fact, this was foreshadowed by a plotline wherein Underwood seeks to infringe on the privacy of citizens by roping in an internet trafficking firm at first, and then seeking to have access to people’s phone calls. 

Patriot Act, anyone?

After a rollercoaster ride spanning 52 episodes — where the limits of credibility were constantly pushed, but we stuck around because they were being pushed in a new direction — we’re back to a post-9/11 scenario. And so, we’re waiting to see what ground will be retread in the fifth season. Will it be a scenario where war, repackaged as the #GlobalWarOnTerrorV2 is forced on Americans, and citizens of the world?

A lot depends on what’s actually happening in the world at that point: If the Islamic State is still a powerful force, if Donald Trump becomes president, and so on.

Despite the staleness of the final plot-twist — which retrospectively coloured a lot of the other plot devices unfavourably — in the fourth season, it’s still a must-watch and House of Cards remains one of the best television shows today. And the biggest reason for that is the constant process of character development that has given life, blood, muscle and sinew to two particular characters — none of which, shockingly, are Frank.

As the primary protagonist/antagonist of the show, you would expect Frank’s character to be well fleshed-out, so we won’t even get into Spacey’s character. Sure, there were two-dimensional cardboard cutout characters like New York Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson) and Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks).

But it was arguably the growth of Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) and Douglas Stamper (Michael Kelly) that kept us hooked through inane conversations, bizarre coma-induced hallucinations and peculiar plotlines.

Television’s Lady Macbeth

After the powerful finale to the third season, where Claire pulls a ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ stunt on Frank, a prevalent expectation was that the fourth season would take off on a completely crazy (and obviously fantastic) tangent. But Beau Willimon and company still seem to be rooted in some sort of reality, albeit twisted, where Frank is the President of the United States (POTUS) and can’t really have anything to do with a situation where his wife has left him.

Throughout the series, Claire has been unapologetic about her ambition and ruthlessness. In the first season, when Frank’s intentions are made clear, it becomes obvious that Claire considers herself an equal — it is often unclear if Frank considers her his equal. She makes it clear to Frank time and again that it’s always them, together and that they should work to help each other achieve those goals — neither is inferior. He is proud of her and they have an enviable relationship — they can both bounce ideas off of one another, without regret, without shame.

Claire Underwood is unapologetic about wanting an equal share in the prize.

Claire Underwood is unapologetic about wanting an equal share in the prize.

The series also has been building up Claire’s dissatisfaction at being the second-in-command. You can see that she wants to be in control even in the little things, such as, asking Frank to exercise, controlling his nicotine intake, firing her trusted employee, railroading a future partner of her organisation. She also wants to control the narrative of the sexual violence she endured.

The fourth season was largely about Claire Underwood — the chapters separated the Underwood couple, tackled their pursuit of power as individuals. They both seek the thrill of the game, they both want power, absolute power, they both will do whatever it takes to get what they want. They separate and they unite, because they realise that they are nothing without the other, and if together can propel each other to great heights of success and achieve the highest echelon of power. This has truly been shown when Claire breaks the fourth wall — she finally gets the chance to make the viewer take stock of that fact that she is truly equal — in cruelty and her thirst for power.

Sympathetic yet reprehensible

What do you get if you mix two parts Patrick Bateman, a pinch of John Coffey, a generous splash of Rahul Mehra, a slice of Samwise Gamgee and a sprinkling of Walter White? Apart from a dish at which even Hannibal Lecter would turn up his nose, you’d get Doug Stamper.

Scheming, vicious, uncompromising, paranoid, loyal to a fault and in possession of a penchant for ‘damaged goods’, Doug is one of the major reasons Frank is still in the White House. As the president’s chief of staff, his ability to push the right buttons coupled with his nous for man-management are the par for the course.

But it’s the extra stuff he brings to the table that defines Doug Stamper.

Douglas Stamper, the show's broken moral compass.

Douglas Stamper, the show's broken moral compass.

From disposing of evidence (and people) to convincing (whether through his skills of persuasion or when required, threat) people to do things and digging up information, dirt or even people (when he’s not busy burying them), it is by now more than clear that Doug will do anything in his power to keep Frank in the White House… and perhaps more crucially, himself by Frank’s side.

It hasn’t, it must be pointed out, been an entirely smooth journey for Doug who began the television show’s first season as Frank’s go-to guy — trusty and reliable. When required, he donned the hats of a mediator, a negotiator, an enforcer, an assassin and a confidante.

Taking care of Peter Russo? Check

Taking care of Peter Russo? Check

Rehabilitating Rachel Posner? Check

Subsequently making her go away for good? Check

Investigating shady deals between business tycoon Raymond Tusk and Xander Feng? Check

Sabotaging Heather Dunbar’s efforts to lay hands on a crucial piece of leverage? Check

The list is almost endless.

For a character to truly be interesting, he/she must suffer some setbacks. And boy, has Doug suffered those.

Addiction, obsession, physical injury, fits of paranoia and other self-destructive behaviour have shaped rather than hampered his development as one of the most relatable characters on the show, despite at times, being the most reprehensible one. And then there’s his inexplicable attraction to and obsession with women who have clearly undergone a lot themselves. But with Rachel Posner and Lauren Moretti (the widow), there was a sense of repentance and wanting to take responsibility for situations into which he had thrust them.

So whether gazing at them creepily (in CCTV footage or photographs) online or his awkward personal exchanges with them — a case in point here is the fourth season scene when he fidgets with the phone debating in his mind whether or not to call Lauren — these ‘relationships’ shape him into the damaged character he in fact is.

In summation, he kills. He schemes. But he also feels guilty — he is the broken, semi-functional moral compass of the show.

This is not about Frank at all: 

So. Now that you know it's not all about Frank, go and watch the show. And if you have, a second viewing is called for.


Updated Date: May 26, 2016 13:55:00 IST