In this Man of Character column, Man of Many takes a look at some of popular culture’s most notable male protagonists. We discuss the origin of the character and why they have had such an enduring influence on the popular consciousness.
‘The gift of a good liar is making people believe you lack a talent for lying.’ – Frank Underwood
When Netflix made the decision to enter the realm of original programming in 2011, ‘House of Cards’ seemed the ideal candidate – a prestige drama that drew on our endless fascination with what is often referred to as the greatest political show on Earth – the US presidential campaign.
After five seasons, it arguably remains Netflix’s most enduring series – a sort-of parallel universe of US politics that holds a mirror to the culture of corruption, betrayal and intrigue that lies at the heart of all modern politics.
Based on the original British novel and television series of the same name, ‘House of Cards’ follows the political career of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the erstwhile Democrat Whip and Southern gentleman whose ascendancy to the US presidency is defined by a series of increasingly transgressive acts.
The eminently quotable, fourth-wall breaking Underwood is a study in manifest evil – a murderous, traitorous psychopath that is beyond-Shakespearean in his pursuit of power at any cost, and singular in his approach. An irredeemable sociopathic monster, he is the greatest embodiment of Machiavellianism in modern popular culture and a startling reflection of our darkest human impulses.
Whereas other regarded television anti-heroes, such as Tony Soprano and Don Draper, are celebrated for their flawed humanity, Underwood is unrelenting and irrepressibly malevolent. Even his relationship with Claire (Robin Wright), his wife and long-time co-conspirator, is characterised more by mutual expedience than it is genuine affection.
What on the surface appears a fairly nondescript representation of the archetypal Washington power couple, is in fact a relationship of antibiosis, where each view the other as little more than a chess piece to be used and manipulated for their own ends.
Despite a level of villainy that often borders on the cartoonish, Underwood is anchored by Spacey’s charismatic, unapologetic performance. By allowing the character to speak directly to the audience through a series of frequent soliloquys, we remain invested in his rise to power, even as his actions grow ever more unbelievable and abhorrent.
Yet, following the 2016 US Presidential election, and the subsequent inauguration of Donald Trump, and the character has taken on a sinister, realistic edge. Where previously the show served as an enjoyable, but fantastical, outlet for the public’s growing dissatisfaction with the political process, Underwood now seems a strangely prophetic figure.
With the increasingly self-serving nature of American politicians, working in a system defined by special interests, misinformation and cronyism, Underwood’s rise to the presidency has morphed from a vicarious thrill-ride to a disturbing insight into the type of behaviour potentially required to achieve political office.
Plagued by the ongoing investigations into potential Russian interference in the election, and Trump’s own personal controversies, the current US administration serves as somewhat of a vindication of ‘House of Card’s more outlandish machinations.
Spacey has won a Golden Globe and received four Emmy nominations for his portrayal of Underwood, becoming the first actor (alongside Wright and ‘Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman) to receive an Emmy nomination for a web television series.
Yet the character’s greatest legacy may be as a fictional portend for an especially tumultuous period of American politics that may still destroy the tenets of Western democracy.