A good antagonist provides the perfect dark background to contrast a hero. With the antagonist to distinguish him the hero stands out at center-stage. So what about an antagonist without a hero? There’s no one standing in front of the backdrop this time. There’s just a dark, ominous, black tarp at the back of the stage.
Ladies and gentlemen, Frank Underwood.
In House of Cards, Frank Underwood is no hero. He is manipulative and calculating. Throughout the show, Frank climbs the political ladder, shoving anyone off who’s in his way. The political aspirations and personal reputations of others are nothing to a man who has his eyes set on power. He has no regard for the feelings of others; he tells us as much as he addresses the audience directly throughout the show. Frank breaks the fourth wall frequently, and in doing so grants us access into the deepest shadows of his thoughts and plans. Rather than being consistently confused as we watch the Underwoods at work, we are given little slivers of Frank’s strategy as each piece slowly falls into place.
And yet, despite his twisted demeanor and overt narcissism, I find myself cheering for Frank. We cringe when his enemies close in, but I also watch with glee as the Underwoods rip their victims to pieces. Like shadowing a skilled hunter stalking his prey, we watch breathlessly as the Underwoods eliminate their enemies. We feel little regret for those caught in the sight of their scope, and we are eager to follow the Underwoods in their work.
But Frank isn’t just ruthless. Just as every great hero has a hubris, a fatal flaw, every good anti-hero must have a hubris of his own. In this case, Frank’s hubris is his dependence on his wife, Claire. Pieces of this dependency seem admirable. They work in tandem throughout the show, and they appear to genuinely love each other, but when they are at odds, Frank falls apart. He is incapable of executing his plans without Claire, and with nothing to boast about to the audience he stops breaking the fourth wall. It’s a little hole torn in the backdrop, but it’s effective. These glimpses of dependency keep us absorbed in Frank’s character and expose a contrast with the stoicism found everywhere else.
The fact that House of Cards has created a character so ruthless yet so engaging is remarkable. We admire things about the Underwoods, and we love to watch them think their way out of impossible situations. The methods that Frank uses to achieve his goals are relentless and often morally compromising for the audience. Frank lies and cheats frequently on his climb to power. How can we willingly applaud such an anti-hero? But we do; we applaud, and we keep watching. There’s something intensely enjoyable about watching Frank leap over the moral boundaries that keep us fenced in. He breaks rules. He crosses lines and gives us a disturbing, unfiltered tour of his mind as he does.
Author: Ivy Penwell