The Underwood Ethos

Frank Underwood loves his life. We know Kevin Spacey is playing a man thrilled with each day by the way he sings out his window into the DC night at the end of a “House of Cards” episode. The killing and manipulation—especially the manipulation—are skills in a sport, and Underwood is an all star in his prime.


Spacey gave an interview on “This Week,” the ABC Sunday-morning political show, where he said “our storylines aren’t that crazy” relative to real-life Washington DC. The most far-fetched parts, he said, depict Congress working hard to pass legislation.

“Some people feel that 99 percent of the show is accurate, and that the 1 percent that isn’t is that you could never get an education bill passed like that,” Spacey said.

That’s exactly right. “House of Cards” is a great show, but its deepest message portrays our government’s greatest failing: This conniving killer is better than what we actually have.

In October last year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got caught on a hot microphone talking politics with Rand Paul, his fellow Kentucky senator and a big star in politics.

“I just did CNN,” Paul said. “I just go over and over again: ‘We’re willing to compromise, we’re willing to negotiate.’ I don’t think they’ve poll tested ‘We won’t negotiate.’ I think it’s awful for them to say that over and over again.”

“Yeah, I do too,” McConnell answered.

They’re reading lines they aren’t smart enough to write for themselves. Frank Underwood is always acting—yet another layer to Spacey’s performance—but he’s at least a master of improv.

In the new season, Frank negotiates entitlement reform. Retirement ages are raised under a Democratic president. Sick deals are slung, and Frank’s motives for backing the radical legislation are utterly villainous.

But utter villainy is better than our real-life Congress. They are less than nothing. Lower than evil. They poll test stalling messages. They don’t pass shit, on purpose, because they’re preening hacks who like easy work. They get to be rich TV celebs despite how ugly they are, and they don’t have to do anything but attend parties with donors and lie the same tired lies into cameras.



Immigration reform is dead. Speaker of the House John Boehner wasn’t working his connections to make it happen. He wasn’t making deals or threats or even, I’d bet, phone calls. He was drafting his statement for the press. And here’s what he came up with: “Listen, there’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. It’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”

Right. Months (years!) go by without you getting anything done, and then you meekly blame the president. Frank Underwood would slap your face.

I’m not quite done with Season 2, but I love it. Frank is this embodiment of a particular aspect of society—soullessness in politics—who transcends what he represents. He doesn’t want children, yet he cares about his family’s past and his own legacy. He loves his wife. He loves his life.

Daniel Plainview, the oil baron anti-protagonist of “There Will Be Blood,” personified capitalism’s single-minded lust for profits. He also cared for his son and, for a while, longed to reconnect with a long-lost brother. Great characters can stand for something terrible and still be dynamic.

The president in “House of Cards” is a tool. This may not mirror our present Oval Office occupier, but we’ve seen tool presidents before in America. The most recent example exemplifies, again, how this TV character Frank Underwood is better than his real-life counterpart.

“Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?” Dick Cheney famously asked George W. Bush about Saddam Hussein over lunch one day. It was a dare, and it worked.

Cheney manipulated the president into giving what he wanted, but what he wanted was war. That’s not how you get the stone building that stands for centuries.


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