Friday, March 14, 2014
March 14, 2014: AmericanStudying House of Cards: Frank
[To balance out that series on non-favorites, here’s a series inspired by my recent viewing of Season 1 of a new favorite show, House of Cards. Spoilers for that first season, but not for the recently released Season 2, follow! Please add your thoughts on this complex and compelling show, ahead of a special weekend Guest Post!]
On a couple ways to AmericanStudy the anti-hero at the heart of House of Cards.
It’s hard to imagine that there are things I can say about Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood that haven’t already been written and debated and re-written and blogged and etc. Not only because of how great an individual character he is, but also because he represents what feels like an apotheosis of one of the most noticed and analyzed trends in TV history: the rise of the anti-hero protagonists, whether criminal (Tony Soprano, Walter White) or crooked cop (Vic Mackey, Jimmy McNulty to an extent), philanderer (Don Draper) or serial killer (Dexter Morgan), to name only a handful. Frank Underwood isn’t as bad as the worst of those (although he does one truly horrific thing late in Season 1 that I won’t spoil here), certainly isn’t as well-intentioned as the best of them, and instead seems positioned to perfectly embody the median form of this now-dominant TV type.
So I won’t say more about that side of Frank, prominent and compelling as it certainly is. Because there are also interesting and salient ways to AmericanStudy the character that connect him to longer-term national narratives and stories. For one thing, while the anti-hero protagonist may be relatively new on the boob tube, a corrupt, anti-hero political leader embraced not in spite of but somehow because of his corruption is as American as, well, Boss Tweed. Or Huey Long. Or Mayor Daley. Because we the viewing audience have direct access to Frank’s most honest thoughts, it’s fair to say that we aren’t likely to believe (as many admirers of those politicians did) that he’s pursuing his corrupt and conniving ends in service of the greater good; Frank is entirely open about his desire for power on its own terms, and doesn’t speak much (if at all) about communal or public uses to which he hopes to put that power. But on the other hand, it’s hard to know whether any of these historical figures would have privately admitted any good intentions either—and yet, at least occasionally, they managed to do good while doing bad. Perhaps Frank would be the same.
On a more artistic and cultural level, Frank and House of Cards could also be connected to one of our longest-running trends: for about as long as there’s been an American democracy, there have been artistic portrayals of threats to its fragile nature, often leveled by charming con-men. Most of those portrayals have been more symbolic or allegorical than the literal political setting of House: from one of the earliest such threatening characters, Carwin the biloquist in Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798); to one of the funniest, the title character in Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857); to one of the most bigoted, caricatured Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Given how corrupt and conniving the entire world of House of Cards seems, it’s fair to ask whether Frank poses any more of a threat than most of his peers—but given his steady and inexorable move toward power across Season 1, it’d be hard to argue that he’s not defined as particularly talented at conning his way to the top. Which is as American as, well, Aaron Burr. Just another reason to check out this very American and very compelling show.
Special Guest Post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?