Wisdom cries out in the street: “How long, O simple, will you persist in your simplicity? How long, o fool, will you wallow in your folly?
Three years ago, I fell in love with Frank Underwood. Played by Kevin Spacey, this anti-hero is the protagonist of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Season one combined great writing with superb acting, and I finished it changed by the show: “This must be how DC really works!” I told my wife.
Frank initially struck me as a modern Shakespearean villain. His understanding of human motivations and psychology mixed with his drive for power (superficially) resembles Iago, Shylock, or perhaps King Claudius.
Part of what drives Shakespeare to the heights of literature, however, is his balancing of humans’ desire for good with our capacity for evil. Frank has no desire for good. Why does he want power? Because he hubristically asserts he and he alone knows what to do with it! Lacking any goal or motivation beyond garnering more power, Spacey has no room to further develop the character.
There’s Nowhere for Frank Underwood to Go Now
As with all simple infatuations, my love for Underwood has smoldered, doused by the ennui that marks season five. Once again, Frank’s quest for power has been checked; once again, his response is to assemble a web of lies, secrets, and threats to destroy anyone who opposes him. Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright, joins Frank as the second spider constructing each web. The acting is still stellar, the script rings with bright lines, the show still resonates as a commentary on evil rising to power. Why, then, do I no longer love the show?
Season five suffers from a fatal malady: there is no creativity to Frank’s evil. As any experienced pastor will confirm, people sin in a predictable number of ways. The Underwoods have already enacted this drama; back in season one, Frank wanted to be become vice president. In seasons two through four, he continued his manipulations to achieve the presidency. By the end of season four, his goal became re-election.
Predictably, season five turns on Frank’s scheming to win re-election by any means possible, showing Frank dreaming of fascist-style continual re-elections in 2020, 2024, 2028, 2032, and so on. Frank has nowhere else to sink or grow as a character; his tricks have become stale, and, by episode seven of season five, Frank’s only hope of staying in power lies in the incompetency of his opponents.
There’s Nothing More to Frank than Power Hunger
Season five leaves me with two conclusions. First, “House of Cards” descended from a great show in season one to mediocrity in season five, and serves as a cautionary tale showing why a network should end a storyline when the tale is complete. The revival of the BBC’s “Doctor Who” and its use of the “regeneration” plot device to introduce new actors into the title role illustrates one way around this difficulty in storytelling—either by ending a story or beginning it anew, serial storytelling has to wrestle with this problem.
Simply repeating story arcs at higher levels of power and influence does not suffice. Russell Kirk called politics “the art of the possible.” Why not show Underwood as a defeated politician wrestling with returning to state politics after the excitement of national and global power? Or perhaps navigating the question of leaving a legacy after choosing to forego children? Without changing the scene or reinventing Frank’s persona, “House of Cards” is doomed to repeat the drama of gaining power; Frank has nowhere to ascend beyond the presidency, dooming the series to endless repetition.
Second, Frank reminds me that the manipulators of power who inspired Niccolo Macchiavelli to write “The Prince” are not themselves the lasting contributors to human culture. Their efforts at garnering power make for exciting drama within their own generation, but such figures have rarely left enduring legacies. The scheming of the Medici, the connivings of diplomats, the abuses of authority—all illustrate the truth that “these too shall pass away.”
The cathedral builders constructed their masterpieces with eternity in mind, and their work shall endure far longer than those who seek nothing more than personal advantage. Edmund Burke wrote of human societies as bound together by “an eternal contract” of the dead, the living, and unborn; those who live well bring these three planes together. Macchiavelli endures as an observer of men who schemed for greater power, but those he observed are forgotten, except to people who specialize in early modern Italian political history.
We’re Over, Frank Underwood
My love for “House of Cards” in season one allowed me to connect with the characters. As a young man at the beginning of a career, I understood Zoe Barnes’ drive to be in the spotlight. I felt the wrong Frank felt when his president failed to honor his promise. I saw the way, weird as it was, that Claire supported Frank and summoned him to stand strong in the face of adversity.
The combination of strength and weakness, honor and scheming, power and knowledge all contributed to making the show a complex mimetic, allowing viewers to conclude, “Politics must really work in this way.” Without those complex motivations, however, the show fails to sustain the plot.
Frank’s ambition is insufficient; he no longer speaks to me because people are more than creatures driven for power. I fell in love with the rich complexity Frank Underwood represented, but as the show continues his complexity flattens, leaving my love smoldering and nearly extinguished.