Frank Underwood: A Reason to Care (Spoilers)

by Victoria C. Anderson

Warning: This post contains spoilers for House of Cards. You have been warned.

I have always been fascinated by what I generally think of as “spiky protagonists.” These protagonists that aren’t really nice, aren’t good, have a moral compass that is just a little – or more than a little – off. We shouldn’t like these people, shouldn’t continue to root for them, but we do. But why?

Frank Underwood is a perfect example of this type of character. He is not a nice man; we know this from the start. About 30 seconds into the first episode, he kills a dog. Given, the dog has been hit by a car, and one could argue that it’s a mercy killing. But puppies = good. Puppy killers = bad. (I’m sorry Frank, but that’s how it goes.)

And yet, and yet. He’s the main character, and we keep watching. We are invested in him and we want him to achieve his goals, and while the means that get him to that goal may not appeal to us, we (well, at least I) never stop cheering for him.

Why is that? How have the writers of this show managed to draw us so far into this character despite the fact that we’re not like him, probably at all?

Part of it may be that we wish that we were like him. Do we wish that could stop caring about the consequences of our actions, that we could be cold-blooded enough to use the people around us like the pieces on a game board? He is certainly powerful, lives a life of luxury, is charismatic, is like-able, at least on the surface. Is that enough? We want to be him, in some way, so we cheer him on? Yes, but that’s not all.

There’s also the clever little asides that Underwood has especially for the audience. He explains things to us, he is honest in his interactions with us as he is not with the characters around him. He’ll roll his eyes, shoot us a meaningful glance, tell us his deepest secrets; “I despise children – there, I’ve said it.” Let me put it this way: relationships between people deepen through sharing and trust. You can even actively make a relationship deeper by sharing of yourself, by showing trust. Underwood does both of those for us, the audience, and on top of that, we rarely see him be that honest with anyone else except with his wife.  It’s a clever thing that the writers have done with this show: they’ve had Underwood go through the motions of creating a relationship with the audience, and on top of that, he makes us feel privileged, as even the president is not. And it works. It makes an immoral character like-able. We maybe don’t like what he’s done, but we like how he’s treated us, and we’ll continue to follow, to watch, just to find out what happens to him.

And isn’t that exactly what you’re looking for in a story, whether you’re reading or writing it? A reason to care what happens next.