Frank Underwood’s Moral and Political Limits


(Warning: This post contains spoilers from the fourth season of House of Cards.)

I don’t remember who got me into House of Cards. It might not have been a single person at all. Perhaps I just gave into all the buzz surrounding the show’s second season my final semester of Divinity School. Between application due dates for doctoral study and graduation from my Master’s program, I discovered Frank Underwood’s Washington. Like most viewers, I knew from his response to the unseen hit-and-run of a neighbor’s dog that Frank was far from ordinary. Lewis University Professor Michael Cunningham calls him “Machiavellian.” The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch finds parallels to William Shakespeare’s Richard III. Reddit user JamesRenner argues Frank is really the devil. In a well-written piece, columnist Cathleen Falsani argues, “He’s a monster, but he’s still a human, if only just.”

This caveat is important. After Thomas Harris introduced Hannibal Lecter to the American consciousness, the notion that villains are somehow other than human has stuck. Wrongdoers like Once Upon a Time’s Rumpelstiltskin are excused from common morality by circumstances. Others (like Doctor Who’s River Song in “Let’s Kill Hitler”) are granted exemptions by virtue of their conditioning. And on it goes. The “anti-hero” lane of television drama has grown into a highway. From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, we relish the machinations of evil characters. I want to argue this is because we are always struggling to process suffering and injustice. What Frank gives us, then, is a better evaluative measure than Tony Soprano or Walter White because he bears the burden of his actions.

Frank doesn’t make excuses for the harms he inflicts. Rather, he justifies them by claiming adherence to “ruthless pragmatism.” Unlike his fellow anti-heroes, Frank wakes up every day committed to back-stabbing, horse-trading, and legacy-building. He doesn’t parse it. He doesn’t need to justify it. He knows no nostalgia. For him, college is just another four years, (unopened) birthday cards are tossed out, and his predecessor’s (customary) letter makes for better kindling than reading material. In spite of this fact, he managed to get married. Leading up to the third season finale, his formidable wife, Claire, understood herself as Frank’s equal. He disabuses her of this notion through emotional abuse. I actually cheered when she packed her bags and left.

Had the series ended on that note, I’d have said Frank was unable to grapple with the damage of his actions, but then came season four. Faced with a life without Claire, the importance of social bonds became real for Frank. As Majority Whip, he appreciated this. The files he kept on his colleagues reveal a finely attuned sense that love leaves us vulnerable. Though he often claims Claire doesn’t know what it’s like to work for anything—that he’s a “a white-trash cracker from a white-trash town that no one would even bother to piss on”—she’s been by his side the entire time. Faced with losing her, something in Frank clicks and it has changed how I view the series.

It’s easy to view Frank as a ruthless pragmatist, worshipping at the altar of (him)self. But season four confronts us with a rich portrait of a vulnerable human being. Up to season four, Frank had been subject to embarrassment or scandal. Until now, the fight has been for Frank’s political life. But the latest chapters in a longer drama finally bring Frank’s demons to bear.

Close friends can attest to the fact that I often decried Beau Willimon for letting characters and plot lines drop off. There was something beautiful—and sinister—about old faces making a comeback. Their reckoning may yet be Frank’s undoing.

Take, specifically, Frank’s vision of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes in a dark Oval Office. The literal seat of power for the leader in the free world, the Oval demands no further symbolic explanation. He spent a lifetime getting there, but in his near-death vision he tries to escape (only to be met by a broken door handle). In life he noted, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.” Near death, meeting these casualties eye to eye repulses him. Zoe’s sexual overture alludes to an earlier conversation in which he mused, “A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” Tangled up with both sex and power, Frank’s armor cracks.

He can no longer afford to be so reductive, so reactive. He needs Claire. And he hates it… so much so that he daydreams about a bloody confrontation. He has no choice but to accept it, however. For awhile he needed Peter and Zoe. I want to take more seriously the idea that Frank viewed Peter as his friend and himself as a father figure to Zoe. Both, sacrificed easily on the altar of political expediency, haunt him. Corruption, manipulation, and overbearingness are part of Frank’s self-written job description. But murder? This seems to wear at him in a way no other misdeed does.

Think about how he confided in Secretary of State Cathy Durant. He knows how bundled up their fates and futures are. He confesses to murder only to retract at the last second, playing it off as a means of bringing her back into line. We’ve never seen Frank explicitly tell Claire about Peter and Zoe. Some people (like Lucas Goodwin and Tom Hammerschmidt) know, but they don’t have a first-person account). This has to be examined in light of Frank’s musing that they (he and Claire) should have kept some people closer.

This is not the same kind of ruthless pragmatism from the show’s first three seasons. It reveals a moral awakening. Edward Meechum is not the first person to die for Frank’s ambitions. Close to his own death, Peter and Zoe loom large.

Frank is a monster, but as Falsani noted long before season four, he’s a human monster. It makes sense that there are limits to Frank’s stomach for wrongdoing. Whether Peter and Zoe grow like weeds in Frank’s mind remains to be seen, but I’m willing to bet they will be front and center in his eventual fall from grace.

(The above image is pulled from Netflix.)


About wlivings

I'm a PhD student in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University. My primary work is in human rights and pop culture.
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