Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey in the new series House of Cards, is one of the most challenging, dynamic characters to hit the small screen since Nurse Jackie debuted on HBO. Spacey’s portrayal of the politician is comparable to some of his finest roles, including his first-rate performance as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects.
Underwood, the House Majority Whip from the 5th district in South Carolina, is hungry for power and advancement. That’s where many shows would stop, leaving them with a driven, if flatly-written, character. House of Cards, however, takes Spacey’s character a few steps further.
First, Underwood is a master manipulator of people, events, and the political process. He knows very well how to use people’s desires, fears and ambitions to get what he wants. He’s also not afraid to use those around him against each other, with or without their knowledge or consent.
However, the Democratic legislator also underplays his desire for advancement, often pushing other people into positions of power, as long as he is able to have some control over them, or get something major in return for his assistance. Underwood waits until those around him fall into place before informing them of their situation, when he chooses to do so at all. This is the sort of role at which Spacey excels – he has a natural sense of an underlying, quiet power that can project quite strongly when unveiled.
Even more intriguing is the relationship that Frank Underwood has with his wife, Claire, played by Robin Wright (The Princess Bride). Whereas Frank tends to manipulate those around him like pieces on a chess board, Claire is a driving force behind his lust for power and advancement. Claire is strong, and she demands the same from her husband. She delivers a softer public face for the couple while Frank opens up the channels of power to his wife.
Another big part of the personality of Frank Underwood is his relationship with Zoe Barnes, a similarly-ambitious young reporter, played by Kate Mara (Iron Man 2). The two first encounter each other under covert conditions, as Barnes becomes a way for the Congressman to reach the media anonymously, while the reporter gains access to the halls of Congress. By just a few episodes into the show, Zoe begins to re-mold her life into the form desired by Underwood, providing another victory for our southern Congressman.
Underwood would seem on the surface to have very little in the way of integrity or values. However, this character also has a deep belief in what behaviors are right and wrong, and although his actions may not always reflect these views, he often strives to justify his behavior based on other deeply-held beliefs.
Frank Underwood is dynamic, deep, and offers viewers a multi-faceted personality, full of surprises in this new series from Netflix. Let’s just hope that our real-life politicians aren’t all as devious as Frank Underwood.