In my country, Brazil, there is a popular expression: “a barking dog seldom bites.” It is usually used in reference to people that make promises but don’t fulfill them, such as… politicians! On that note, House of Cards is back with its fifth season, and once again we are privy to a lot of dogs barking. One such dog, Francis Joseph Underwood, barks the loudest, but (as the expression goes) he does not usually bite – instead, he is a master of misdirection.
Both Netflix and House of Cards, their flagship series, were initially viewed as high-cost risks, but both have gained a groundswell of critical and popular support. Indeed, it can be argued that both are among the most revolutionary names in 21st-Century streamed programming. The series is produced in part by David Fincher (who also directed the pilot), and it stars the incomparable Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.
Dark screen. Off-screen we hear the sound of SCREECHING TIRES followed by a CRASH and a MOAN FROM A DOG.
Night. Cut to a double door opening of a house in a fine D.C. neighborhood. A man wearing a gala shirt and suspenders comes out and looks in the direction of the noise. This man is Frank Underwood…
….He approaches the canine victim of a hit-and-run. The dog is still moaning…
HE IS NOT GOING TO SURVIVE.
…As soon as there are no eyes on him, he strangles the dog until it stops breathing.
Generally, the first appearance of a protagonist onscreen is supposed to convey why we should like them and be invested in their struggle. But when you see the main character killing a helpless dog, the message is driven home pretty clearly: this guy is a real SOB. While silencing the dog’s last bark, Frank opines about the futility of pain. Having heard him justify his coldly pragmatic demeanor, the casual viewer is left nodding, thinking “okay, he is a bastard (or something worse). But somehow, I think I like him.”
Breaking the fourth wall isn’t new – indeed, Netflix borrows this trope from the 1990 British House of Cards this series is a remake of – but it is used with calculated effectiveness here, bringing us deeper into Frank Underwood’s gilded world. This narrative device forges empathy with the viewer. The fact that the character is speaking directly to the viewer doesn’t mean that he knows you are really there; it is instead a dramatic technique that pulls us deeper into his thought process. It makes the character more transparent by revealing the thoughts behind his demonic behavior. Soon enough, having been taken into his confidence, you know what Frank wants to say with as little as a glance at the camera.
Throughout 52 episodes of serialized drama, we follow Claire and Frank Underwood, an indomitable couple whose only goal is power. At first, with clear ideals and ambitions, both characters seem bound together. Over time, however, you realize that small things separate them, and that their thirst for power is never satiated.
Everything for Frank and Claire is about power, and they remind us of this at every turn. Power is, after all, something that grants you a kind of immortality – your name becomes a symbol of your victories on earth. From a historical and/or philosophical point of view, this hunger for power is a timeless theme. It can be found in such ancient myths as the Epic of Gilgamesh, wherein the eponymous hero’s ultimate desire is immortality. One kind of immortality, the myth explains, is that achieved through your deeds. This is what drives Frank Underwood throughout the series, under-girding each episode’s scheming – he is attempting to build his legacy.
Frank Underwood is a vengeful person. He knows what he wants and he knows how to get to it. At the outset of the series, he is already an influential congressman, but he is cheated out of a promised position as the new President’s chief of staff in the pilot. He returns to the Capitol with a plan: he will create powerful alliances, manipulate the right people, and create public controversy, all so that he can claw his way to the top. By the end of the first season, Frank, who started the series as a congressman, is vice-president of the United States. With a silver tongue, he wins people over to his side of every argument – and when they are not willing to cooperate, he bulldozes through them. It’s a winning technique; he is even able to convince the viewer to like him and root for him, despite his ruthlessness.
“One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated”
The second season hits the ground running – the ending of the first episode leaves every viewer with their heart racing. With nothing more standing in his way, by the third season Frank has become the most powerful man in the world, with the White House as his new address. (Right now, you might be thinking I’ve spoiled things for you, but – leaving aside the fact that the poster for the third season pictures Frank and Claire in front of Air Force One – the fun is entirely in how they get there.)
While this plot twist is theoretically possible according to the Constitution, one wonders: just how much of what happens in House of Cards is actually plausible? Of course, most of the things that happen behind the scenes are forever hidden from us, but there is a ring of authenticity to the Congressional machinations in House of Cards. The novel which both the British and American House of Cards series were based on was, after all, written by Michael Dobbs, a one-time Chief of Staff in Britain’s Conservative Party.
Politicians are important people; their decisions have a direct impact on our lives. But a central theme of this series is that politicians have lives of their own, and that these lives might not always conform to the self-image they want to sell to us, the beleaguered public. Indeed, the threat of something that can affect one’s public image might be enough to compromise one’s decisions. It is a truth as old as democracy, and one explored brilliantly here.
Scandals can quite literally destroy someone’s life, and we now live in a world where information travels faster than the blink of an eye. The news goes live and the shit hits the fan. But, as House of Cards shows us, sometimes more important than who made the shit or who turned the fan on, are the reasons why both elements have come together. It can be the result of deliberate action, but sometimes the shit just accumulates, to the point that it floods out and will reach the fan by itself. House of Cards show us just how dirty politicians can be, an image that is sadly confirmed to us by today’s headlines.
In Brazil, we see a political crisis blowing up and a President being threatened with impeachment. Every day we find out there are more and more politicians from all different parties involved in a web of scandal and self-benefiting deals. This inevitably erodes one’s confidence in the public system, leading one to believe that everyone can be corrupted and no one can be trusted to take charge of public affairs.
But the truth is that the roots of corruption run deep. We show a willingness to break the rules for our own benefit when we do so little as cross the street on a red light, because otherwise we would be two minutes late, or even when we copy homework from a classmate. Corruption, like any other habit, is cultural, and it develops over the course of many years. Rumors of corruption have proven to be true in Brazil, but history shows us democracies being plagued by the same kind of power abuse as far back as Greece and Rome and well into the present day. Outside of Brazil, look only to the recent “Panama Papers” scandal, which has implicated 12 current or former world leaders, and brought down the Prime Minister of Iceland’s government.
Ultimately, Frank and Claire Underwood show us that for those who crave power, nothing is ever enough, and even the purest souls around them who join them on this path become corrupted by it. The 2016 elections in the U.S. are coming sooner than we think. We see a country divided sharply by two parties, and divided even further within their own parties. The incredible popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, whatever their actual chances of winning, have revealed deep-seated unhappiness with the prevailing status quo. The cynicism of House of Cards about our political system is a sign of the times. It would surely be beautiful seeing a country actually united, like it says in the nation’s name. But it is still good that people do have different points of view, because it leads to reflections that culminate into better decisions. The important thing in the coming election is to consider the issues from every angle before picking a candidate – and, afterwards, continuing to scrutinize them, lest we be charmed into electing a real-life Frank Underwood as our leader.
“After all, we are nothing more or less than what we choose to reveal.”