HOUSE OF CARDS & The Madness of Frank Underwood

Cuz nowhere nearly enough has been written about this awesome show:

frankunderwood_chessby Ben Adams

Spoilers through Season 1 of House of Cards; some mostly spoiler-free discussions of Episode 1 of Season 2.

Season 2 of Netflix’s House of Cards ends with a reminder of a crucial fact: Frank Underwood is crazy. At this point in the episode, we’re already well aware of that fact, based on the horrible things he has done (and which I won’t spoil here). But throughout the episode, the audience has not been treated to Underwood’s signature move, a snarky aside or quip spoken directly to the audience, unseen by the people around him. Only at the very end, as Frank contemplates his actions in the mirror, does he turn to face us: “Did you think I’d forgotten about you. Perhaps you hoped I had.” And then we’re reminded, oh yeah, this guy talks to people who aren’t really there.

Except, Frank Underwood is probably the least crazy person we know. He is ruthless and cunning, seemingly always one step ahead of his foes. If anything, he is a paragon of rationality, pure calculation and self-interest. When we think of someone who “talks to himself,” we jump to the crazy guy we pass on the street, muttering to himself and proclaiming The End is Nigh. Not the guy who is calmly and coolly maneuvering himself into the halls of power.

But there’s another reason we don’t think Frank is crazy just because he talks to people that aren’t there. We know that the people he’s talking to really are there. Frank isn’t talking to hallucinations; the audience, his audience, is very real, and sitting in your living room. Alone in the House-of-Cards-verse, Frank Underwood can see (and talk) to the unseen audience, sitting in the real world.

In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” we are asked to imagine men who have been shackled inside a cave for their entire lives; there is a fire at the cave’s mouth, and the men can see (and have only ever seen) the shadows cast by objects passing between the fire and the mouth of the cave. For those prisoners, the shadows would be Truth. Knowing nothing else, they would assume that the shadows themselves were objects to be observed. The allegory is commonly used to explain the limitations of our senses, to demonstrate that we are the men in the cave, seeing shadows the wall.

But there’s another part to the Allegory. Plato asks us to imagine that one of the prisoners is released, and allowed to leave the cave. While he would at first be confused, eventually he might begin to see the relationship between the objects he observes and the shadows that had been part of his world. In a sense, he would be in a different world altogether. And if he descended back down into the cave, and tried to tell what he had seen, it’s likely that his old friends would think that he was crazy, that he was imagining things.

Frank can see outside the cave—unlike his fellow inmates in the prison of fiction, Frank knows that he’s being watched. Frank isn’t crazy because when he turns to the camera and talks about how it’s “Hunt, or be hunted”, someone really is listening. He’s even been spotted beyond the Fourth Wall, in our world, planning theCorrespondent’s Dinner and sabotaging the Emmys.

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