Frank Underwood, The Perfect Character For The Virtual World

Note: Spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of House of Cards are ahead. There are no spoilers for NBC’s Chicago Fire.
House Of Cards
House Of Cards

I live with three other guys. When you live with three other guys, you spend a lot of late nights in the main room of your apartment, not really doing anything of worth. The realities of modern-day of male bonding renders this pretty much inevitable — in a four-plus person apartment, the common room’s sole intention is to compromise one’s ability to function independently, mostly via showing each other above average youtube videos.

Once that’s done, you’ll find yourself listening to everyone’s onslaught of daily stressors. Guys are interesting when ‘venting’ — it’s acceptable to talk about how awful work is becoming, or how you could’ve handled that Tinder ‘breakup’ a little better. But it’s equally as acceptable for the other parties to just sit there and not entirely take it in; the venting is background fodder to mindless Facebook scrolling, Knick’s score checking, and the other life-avoidance methods that come with being a ‘dude.’ Nobody admits they need to talk, so nobody admits that they’re not listening. It’s a convenient social contract.

A month or two ago I was sitting in this aforementioned void, when a Call of Duty commercial came on. I don’t really play video games, mostly because I take great pride in acting like I’m too busy to devote time to playing Call of Duty — I’m not a consultant who works till 9 pm and then unwinds by smoking weed and bathing in virtual bloodshed, so I’ve taken to other means in order to forget about my mortality.

This specific commercial though, caught my attention. An animated version of Kevin Spacey was in the commercial, doing his best impression of Frank Underwood. Scratch that. The character in the commercial was President Frank Underwood.

From some minor googling and further discussion, we discovered that Frank Underwood, while not officially in the game, voices a character named Jonathan Irons — the CEO of a private military corporation who looks and acts strikingly similar to our beloved majority hwip, turned VP, turned Pres. The four of us talked this out, weirdly fascinated by seeing Frank Underwood so far away from his beloved Claire. We reasoned this cross-platform mashup made sense in this day and age given new media’s obsession with milking personal brands and personas for all they’re worth [1], but we still found it astonishing. Namely, we couldn’t think of another character who could make that transition so seamlessly. Jack Bauer? He’d probably have to be the main character. Rusht Cole? That would probably be a pretty confusing video game.

***

House Of Cards is clearly a well-crafted show — but it’s certainly not perfect. And like anything else, it does have its detractors. In a BS Report from this past summer, Bill Simmons and TV critic Andy Greenwald contend that the show went downhill after Peter Russo was offed — Greenwald notes that Russo was the show’s “only human character,” which I’d interpret to mean that he was the only major character who doesn’t constantly act like a deranged fusion of Scar and his Hyenas — that unlike Claire, Frank, Remy, and the others, Russo’s faults are expressed through the unpredictable and inherently flawed nature of his actions.

Greenwald compares Season 2 Frank Underwood to “a cartoon villain crushing a city,” a notion that’s made very obvious early on. The most WTF occurrence of the season was almost certainly from the premiere, when Mz. Zoe-ah Bahnes, like many a DC resident, found herself at the cruel mercy of WMATA. I particularly thought this was a turning point — that this action in particular seemed to violate many a viewer’s tacit agreement with the show. We were going to rave about an uncaged version of Washington, DC politics, but only if that animalism didn’t cross some invisible line that the show had been audaciously flirting with from the get-go [2]. I think to many, Frank throwing Zoe onto the metro tracks in a mildly reckless manner was a violation of that agreement.

***

House of Cards has always felt straight out of philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ playbook. In case you doodled through philosophy class [3], Hobbes was the guy who though that humans were naturally at war with one another, and that people needed to be kept in check by a larger authority. He talks about the importance of a social contract in order to keep humans in line; one that Frank continually violates by killing people in order to advance his career.

In relation to House Of Cards, the importance of Hobbes’ social contract could be boiled down to the following: while many ruthless politicians may have thoughts about killing people to attain power, no one would ever really act on those thoughts. Because morality aside, the societally-induced consequences of murdering a Congressman to ascend to the Vice Presidency are simply too high. Which means that rather than physical murder, we are used to more subtle forms of murder — backstabbing, manipulation, blackmail, etc. There is still a tremendous shock value in these things, as they all hinge on a sort of directy callous cruelty we aren’t used to, in the sense that we don’t routinely experience it in our everyday lives.

This is House Of Cards‘ bread and butter — many of the characters on the show are masters of this form of cruelty, which is one of the reasons why the show is so captivating. Power and Morality are constantly at loggerheads, and the arms race between the two makes the championship-caliber winning percentage of Power ever-more shocking. Additionally, the characters rarely, if ever, exhibit any sort of empathy; ensuring that the natural state of DC Politics cruel, cold, and gleefully unforgiving. Most people feel terrible when they ruin someone else’s career, but appears that the vast majority of House Of Cards characters — from Raymond Tusk to Jackie Sharp, have zero qualms doing this whenever it’s advantageous. In other words, we enjoy House of Cards because the characters on House of Cards are all sociopaths. There are forms of these characters within all of us, but we’d never act on our inner Franks or Raymond’s due to (a. moral qualms, or (b. practical limits, as governed by social contracts. (Hopefully, the first one.)

***

Frank, almost certainly, is the most crazed sociopath of them all. Yet, he remains an extremely beloved character in pop culture. First we had that Oscars Impression, then he was on the Colbert Report, then in Call of Duty. Kevin Spacey seems to be trending exponentially upward in “17 Times Kevin Spacey Made Everything More Awesome” love declarations that are now part of the pop-culture media cycle, and it’d be hard to argue that this sudden upward surge wasn’t directly related to Frank Underwood.

Frank Underwood, then, has clearly transcended the show. Part of this, I think, boils down to that fact that his character is essentially an archetype. He’s an unrealistic character in a premise that enables his actions to be considered somewhat realistic, so we’re able to watch and admire his successes — the sorts of things we might do in our own lives, if we, like Frank, didn’t have to consider moral consequences as a significant factor in our decision making.

But more than that, I’d argue he’s a very “relevant” archetype for the ever-growing virtual world; a world that seemingly rewards the same sort of one-track extremism endorsed by Frank’s archetype and House Of Cards in general. Online media consumption and messaging thrive in uncompromising hyperbole (this is the best video ever, if you don’t agree with me you should crawl in a hole and die), and the realities of social media intrinsically funnel us more towards exaggerated personas. Frank then, is the human iteration of this exaggeration — he’s governed solely by motive and outcome evaluation, the same sort of guiding principle that takes hold when we compose a Facebook status and want to get the most likes possible. It’s almost like he’s what would happen if the virtual versions of ourselves had to survive in the real world; everything he does has some sort of hidden motive, you have a sneaking suspicion that he’s never being completely sincere, and of course, his excruciatingly long-winded political rants always seem to secretly be about him.

Frank can exist in Call Of Duty because that same callous directness can be applied to any situation. Peter Russo, and the variability that comes with being “human,” can’t.

This article started as a rant to my roommates, but I’m pretty they were all too busy zoning out to take in anything I had to say. Which honestly, is why the apartment common room is a very sacred space. Since it firmly exists outside the virtual, it’s one of the last places on earth with no hidden motives. TC mark

[1] Extended synergy alert: In the show, Frank plays Call of Duty as a means of relaxing after a long day of sabotaging livelihoods.
[2] Arguably, this is the thing that makes the show so compelling and addicting.
[3] Apologies to my Intro-level philosophy Professor freshman year — that class was the pinnacle of my doodle-game.

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