No narrative has dominated the modern golden age of television like that of the “anti-hero.” Mirroring the golden age of film in the 60s and 70s, which brought us Clyde Barrow, Michael Corleone, and Kit Carruthers, the anti-hero saga introduces a charming but morally bankrupt lead who descends further and further into pure evil until whatever likable qualities that first endeared him to audiences — these characters are almost always men — are lost. Tony Soprano is an anti-hero. Walter White is an anti-hero. Vic Mackey… you get the idea.
But somewhere along the line — probably around the time Sons of Anarchy tried to become Breaking Bad — the anti-hero narrative grew stale. How many more spins could television writers devise on the “uncommonly-talented-man-who-doesn’t-play-well-with-others-commits-horrific-deeds-for-what-he-tells-himself-are-heroic-reasons” plot arc? Even True Detective, despite the harrowing degree-of-difficulty for the actors and director alike, couldn’t make this story fresh. It merely featured two anti-heroes instead of one – innovation! The well had run dry.
That’s why House of Cards’ Frank Underwood was so refreshing. Underwood is not an anti-hero; he is a straight-up villain. There are no justifications, false or otherwise, for the lives he ruined and people he murdered on the way to the top. He has no family to support; his is an “empire without heirs,” as one character calls it. He has no unique knowledge of what is best for the country; his talents lie in destruction, not leadership. Nor can he use the “Omar Little” defense — that he lives by a code and is therefore worthy of our respect. No, Underwood simply wants power for power’s sake. Perhaps it’s because as a child he had no power at all, suffering his drunk, abusive father. But while these psychological pressures may humanize him, they do not make him a hero.
In The Sopranos, audiences are challenged to square the fact that Tony would probably make a great drinking buddy with the fact that he is a psychotic mass murderer. Walter White, for all his faults, can be a pretty damned good father when he wants to be. But with the exception of the occasional tenderness — always fleeting — exhibited toward men and women he loves, Frank has few redeeming qualities. And because the audience is not asked to sympathize with Frank, viewers could revel in his murderous machinations without guilt. As I wrote in my preview of Season 3, the distance we feel from the characters is one of the things that allows the show to be the best procedural drama on television.
But something changed in Season 3. Or, more, specifically, Frank changed. Now that Underwood is President Underwood, he has no more room to ascend. This naturally puts him on the defensive, as his Party, eager to wipe their hands clean of the corrupt Walker administration, tries to force him out of the upcoming Democratic Primary.
In keeping with the thrilling first two seasons, Season Three could have focused on these challenges to his power, requiring Frank to craft almost-supernaturally clever gambits to cast off these domestic opponents.
But the hunt for his party’s nomination is almost an afterthought to the writers. At the crucial Iowa caucus, for example, there are no suspenseful vote-counting scenes. The audience only knows Underwood has won when the episode abrupty cuts from an unrelated scene half-way across the country to show his opponent Dunbar’s concession speech. And with the exception of a couple last-minute defections from team Underwood, very little drama surrounding the primaries at all.
Instead, the season focuses on a handful of B-subplots — ranging from mildly interesting to aggressively boring — that test Underwood’s ability to govern. When faced with a stubborn and possibly insane Russian president, or a natural disaster that threatens to drain the funds he appropriated for a federal jobs package, we see Frank like we’ve never seen him before: out of control. The Frank Underwood of Season 3 is neither villain nor anti-hero. Instead, he’s something approaching… a hero.
There are two problems with the show suddenly humanizing Underwood and asking the viewer to sympathize with him. First off, let’s not forget this is the same man who engaged in a bizarrely paternal sexual relationship with a young reporter in order to control the messaging in the media, and then murdered her in cold blood once she was no longer of any use to him. He also murdered — and forever soiled the reputation of — a Congressman because he developed a conscience and tried to do the right thing.
That’s not to say television shows can’t create sympathy for terrible people — again, that’s the entire basis for the anti-hero genre of TV. But again, Frank Underwood, is not an anti-hero but a villain. Audiences may root for him in their own perverse way, but they do not feel sorry for him.
And second, as I wrote in that preview, House of Cards’ strengths lie in its ability to build and deconstruct complex schemes that audiences revel in watching Frank execute. Its strengths are not, however, in developing complex characters and telling us something about the human condition — and yet in Season 3, I fear the writers forgot what they were good at.
But now that [SPOILER ALERT] Claire has left Frank, I hope House of Cards will bring Frank firmly back to the darkside. Otherwise, the show will be little more than a bland political drama, instead of that deliciously dark profile of an evil twisted Shakespearean villain we all fell in love with.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]