I am poised on the edge of my seat as the final days tick down to the release of the third season of Netflix’s blockbuster series House of Cards. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright have given us some of the most brilliant archetypes of American power we’ve ever seen, and definitely the most brilliant acting that can be acquired on our televisions. In a culture that thrives on morality plays and good-over-evil, the artists behind this show have given us a thrilling narrative told from the point of view of amorality, replete with all of the tension and release normally reserved for more orthodox characters. People find themselves rooting for personalities who they know to have committed morally and legally forbidden acts, and the feelings stirred up can be quite confusing. Several essays about House of Cards ask the question of whether Spacey’s Frank Underwood is a pure villain, or really an anti-hero in the style of Breaking Bad’s Walter White. The depth of this series’ effect can be seen in the deep conversations that normal television rarely inspires. Still, for my money, they still miss the mark because I believe that Frank Underwood isn’t an anti-hero – he’s a hero, full stop.
Oh yeah, that’s right, I said it: House of Cards’ Frank Underwood is an American hero, and I would be excited to vote for him as a president. Oh, stop it with your Middle Class pearl-clutching and let us discuss this as Frank would, with blistering candor and a complete lack of respect for childish mythologies that should have long ago disappeared if you truly wanted to climb the steep, cruel ladder of power. When you put President Underwood (boo-yah!) up against the rest of the feckless, venal, or even malevolent characters of the show – including the cowed, obsequious American people they purport to represent – Frank is the least morally confused, the most effective, and has the most integrity. His qualities would make a damn fine leader, if he wasn’t, sadly, a work of fiction.
Know thyself (because Frank does)
The ancient Greeks, Western Civilization’s first true power players, were so fond of this concept they wrote it on the temple of Apollo at Delphi: gnōthi seafton or “know thyself.” They didn’t mean “read some self-help books and meditate” in that mealy-mouthed, modern consumer rendering of the phrase. No, they wrote this on the temple door so you might pause and consider your actual position in life before facing up to the Gods, perchance to be crushed like a bug. Ancient Greece was a place where powerful forces, mythical and real, destroyed mere mortals every day. People going face to face with raw power were advised to discard any inaccurate myths they might harbor about themselves, not just as a way to show intellectual integrity, but as a measure of self-protection. Come to think of it, that’s still some good advice.
House of Cards is not about banal quotidian life but about select individuals competing to reach the absolute pinnacle of the power hierarchy in the sprawling American empire. (You’re not going to quibble about the term empire like some church lady, are you? Good.) Each level of the hierarchy requires exponentially more self-discipline and personal resources, and a decreasing amount of tender sensibilities. The rewards are unimaginable and the risks too terrible to contemplate.
The one character of the series who completely and totally embraces this reality is Francis Underwood. When we meet Frank as Majority Whip of the House and as we journey with him for two seasons, he is never once confused about who he is, what he is, or what he intends to do. Frank has decided that he is capable of seizing and managing the greatest power in the land, and he intends to do just that. He is careful, contemplative, insightful, and resolute. The rest of the series revolves around his encounters with people who are just as ambitious, but who fail on one of those four traits, and fail to know themselves in general before playing the roughest power game in the world.
Let’s see how Frank compares to his roadkill before we declare the man a full-on villain.
Peter Russo. Peter is a faithless drug addict, a careerist who turned against the very people he swore to represent in exchange for a few more precious years away from industrial Philadelphia. When he turns to Frank for career rehabilitation, he gives Peter a shot at becoming governor of Pennsylvania. Yet it’s only a matter of weeks before Peter’s arrogance gets ahead of him and he asserts that he is not beholden to Frank after all. Did Underwood then (easily) tempt Peter into humiliating himself with vodka and hookers? Absolutely – though it’s Peter’s utter lack of character that is his actual doom. And did Frank lock a passed-out Peter in a small garage with the motor running after carefully making it look like a suicide? You betcha – but only after Peter threatened to take Frank down permanently. Again, gnōthi seafton: he challenged the bull and got the horns. Too bad, so sad.
Zoe Barnes. Let’s start with Zoe because Frank kills her and that’s supposed to make her a victim. I’ll have none of it – she deserved her fate for daring to play the game as rough as the big kids without understanding her truly precarious position. Oh, she made a good show of it for a while. Not content to shuffle around DC with the other bright-eyed, shallow ambitionbots, she decided to super-charge her career by trading her sex for inside information from a Congressman. Oh, and how she loved speeding past the embittered 30-somethings in their tiny Mt. Pleasant apartments on her way up the media ladder to the Big Time. And oh, how she loved getting Tom Hammerschmidt, her idiot boss who didn’t even know how Twitter worked, thrown out with the recycling. Zoe loved power and spent zero seconds lamenting that maybe she should have played by the rules and slowly built her career through honesty and diligence. No, she loved playing the Frank Underwood way and tragically mistook herself for his peer. When at long last she decides to go back on her own corruption and try to stick to some brand-new moral standard as a regular journalist she totally ignores that she is backing a powerful, driven man into a corner. When she finds herself French kissing the front of a Metro train, I’m sorry but I just had to laugh. This is what the Greeks meant.
Garrett Walker. It is easiest to feel sorry for Garrett Walker and his wife, so deftly manipulated by Frank and Claire Underwood and ultimately thrown face first into a wood chipper. They never knew what hit them, poor things, and by the end of season two, there is a gentle, sad passing in the literal halls of power as the couples change places. HA. I don’t spend a nanosecond on pity for that empty-suited puppet. Walker’s fecklessness should not be mistaken for innocence, as his choice of patrons makes abundantly clear. Whereas Frank Underwood has the work ethic and integrity to go down and personally kill his enemies, Garrett Walker outsources the unpleasant bits to unpleasant people. He has no problem letting Raymond Tusk do the political arm-breaking on his behalf, and no problem with dirty Chinese money funding his campaigns. He is insufficiently insightful for the power he only nominally wields, and is completely ignorant of the dangerous conflict between his closest advisors that would ultimately unseat him. Machiavelli would not give Walker a pass for this kind of incompetence, and I’ll be damned if I do. Good riddance. I wouldn’t want a guy like that with the nuclear football.
Frank Underwood for President
Yes, the show House of Cards is full of ugly machinations, and yet I still find myself with great admiration for the author of some of its most gruesome acts, possibly to the point of floating a CV for Doug Stamper’s old job. Remember, I’m looking for a president who can handle real power, not the nap time specialist for a daycare. There is a 100% chance that the President of the United States will have to do morally ambiguous things in the most expedient manner while navigating a thicket of vicious enemies and duplicitous allies, and this is why I think Frank Underwood is a heroic choice for the job.
“But Eric, we watched Frank kill people!” you’re thinking. Yeah, well American presidents kill people on a very regular basis. Remember the thousands of Iraqi children pulverized into dust by American bombs because of that bullshit Ponzi scheme of an Iraq War? The Iraqis do. I do. They didn’t die any easier than Zoe Barnes. Do you recall the fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Behind that milquetoast Midwestern exterior, Harry S Truman had the cold-blooded amorality to consign hundreds of thousands of souls to the most brutal end imaginable in the name of peace. This outright nastiness appears to be part of the job, and while there’s no question, the death of Peter Russo was somewhat optional if not recreational, I’m not certain it should disqualify Frank for a position that is really such a perfect fit for him.
Lemme tell you, part of the entertainment value of House of Cards is because only in our dreams are DC politicos as completely effective as Frank Underwood. The guy managed to become POTUS from the position of Majority Whip, which is about as difficult as trying to pole vault over the Pentagon using chop sticks. Frank has incredible strategic foresight and yet an absolutely disciplined approach to tactical execution, able to change plans on a moment’s notice to fit the emerging reality. That would prove invaluable on everything from economic policy to national defense. Plus, he has great judgment about his staff, especially their strengths and weaknesses. True, he exploits those weaknesses to his unique benefit as the person immolates themselves, but again I think this trait would be essential for building unlikely political coalitions on short notice.
Allow me to underline that I am looking forward to season three of House of Cards way, way more than I am looking forward to our actual choices for a president in 2016. Dear Lord, it looks like we might have to endure sixteen months of a Clinton versus a Bush or Romney, the perennial inevitable choice versus the ne’er-do-wins with famous Dads. You may tell me that I am a brutish Machiavellian for overlooking Frank’s spicier bits in favor of his absolute qualification for leadership, and I’ll ask you back – is he really a worse choice than Hillary or Mitt?
Nay, I shall remain unmoved in my affection for our greatest fictitious president since Morgan Freeman, and if Kevin Spacey is thinking about a career move, I think 2016 could have a much needed surprise.