We are being controlled

Kevin Spacey, as Congressman Frank Underwood, tells it as it is in 'House of Cards'
Kevin Spacey, as Con­gress­man Frank Under­wood, tells it as it is in ‘House of Cards’

It has been said, or I pre­sume it has been, that there is noth­ing an audi­ence likes bet­ter than being in the loop, feel­ing smarter than the var­i­ous onscreen char­ac­ters who are very prob­a­bly being either duped in some way or another. And we know it, and they don’t. We are in con­spir­a­to­r­ial asso­ci­a­tion. We are being con­fided in.

Such can be said with House of Cards, the orig­i­nal TV series that Net­flix debuted exclu­sively online last Fri­day. It is a mod­ern polit­i­cal drama set in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., full of politi­cians wheel­ing and deal­ing with ques­tion­able intent. One of these is Con­gress­man Frank Under­wood (Kevin Spacey), a house major­ity whip leader. He sup­ported the right man, and when that man became pres­i­dent, Under­wood expected some­thing spe­cific in return. It’s no spoiler to say he didn’t get it.

The man’s seething inside. His wife Claire (Robin Wright) chides him for being pas­sively resigned to the fact he’s not going to be the Sec­re­tary of State, so he puts his mind to it. It doesn’t seem dif­fi­cult. Under­wood makes a plan of ret­ri­bu­tion and revenge, with power as the ulti­mate goal. “There will be lots of nights like these,” he tells Claire, both perched by the win­dow shar­ing a cig­a­rette. (It is a nightly habit of theirs, a moment of quiet, mutual under­stand­ing.) Hard work and exhaust­ing all-nighters will fol­low. “I would expect noth­ing less,” she replies, and they kiss.

Frank Under­wood is a lying, deceit­ful snake of great charisma and intel­li­gence. He’s almost always in con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion and of other peo­ple, end­lessly manip­u­lat­ing and coerc­ing to his per­sonal advan­tage, Some­times, it’s hard to like him. But it’s even more dif­fi­cult to not.

Because we feel like we are friends with this man, a man who doesn’t really have any friends. Because we are being informed of things that no one else knows, and that we shouldn’t know. Because we are in the loop. Because, at one point or another in House of Cards, Kevin Spacey will turn to the cam­era and speak directly to the audi­ence watching.

Some­times, Under­wood breaks the fourth wall in the midst of con­ver­sa­tions with oth­ers — the Pres­i­dent, maybe — and then resumes as if noth­ing hap­pened. (Spacey doesn’t try to hide it, either.) A wink might suf­fice some­times. Some pithy alle­gories on nature that applies to Wash­ing­ton­ian pol­i­tics. Or just a quick glance of smug­ness that can only come with tem­po­rary vic­to­ri­ous sat­is­fac­tion, like a “I told you so” moment. I told you he couldn’t resist such a seem­ingly golden oppor­tu­nity. Come, let’s deliver the final nail in his cof­fin together.

And he tells the truth with us. Not with any­one else, not even his wife, but with us he spills the beans. Frank Under­wood trusts us implic­itly like we were an exten­sion of him­self, us watch­ing him from the safety of our couches or beds, behind a com­puter or iPad screen. Why not? We’re harm­less. He con­trols our infor­ma­tion, what we know. He’s the mas­ter of his realm and of the audience.

This is inter­est­ing, I think. Frank Under­wood isn’t lik­able; he gives us some exclu­sive lee­way into the fas­ci­nat­ing machi­na­tions of his brain and, cou­pled with Spacey’s innate charm even when he’s play­ing a rot­ten devil — he was born to flaw­lessly inhabit this role — we are on his side. If not sym­pa­thetic, mor­bidly intrigued enough, at least for the good major­ity of the thir­teen absorb­ing episodes that com­prise House of Cards’ first season.

And, if one were so inclined to ram­ble on, it’s funny how our wan­ing impulse to like Under­wood as the story pro­gresses mir­rors his slip­ping grasp on the increas­ingly com­plex sit­u­a­tion at hand in Wash­ing­ton. He’s los­ing us and he might be los­ing them, too.

Audi­ences love watch­ing bad peo­ple behav­ing badly, so maybe if the fourth wall had been left untouched and undis­turbed there wouldn’t have been any dif­fer­ence. Cer­tainly, some would pre­fer it. But I do think it is a sly, clever move — per­haps per­fected by David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes (his mut­edly, sleekly aggres­sive and dark style car­ries over to the rest, how­ever) and uti­lized sim­i­larly mem­o­rable tricks in Fight Club.

I want to know — what did you think of House of Cards repeat­edly break­ing the fourth wall? Tacky? Ter­rific? Indul­gent? Insanely bril­liant? Or did no strong opin­ion on the mat­ter sur­face? Leave a com­ment below.

2 thoughts on “We are being controlled”

  1. I stopped watch­ing House of Cards after 5 min­utes because of the break­ing of the fourth wall. Break­ing the fourth wall doesn’t pull you into a story… it brings the story to a screech­ing halt. I’m the type of per­son that likes to get enveloped by a good story. It’s hard for that to hap­pen when a char­ac­ter keeps open­ing the enve­lope with a sharp let­ter opener.

  2. We are being con­trolled | The Smell of Pop­corn” gen­uinely makes myself think a small bit fur­ther.
    I actu­ally loved each and every indi­vid­ual piece of this post.
    Thanks for your effort ‚Gabriela

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