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.