Frank Underwood: Just a Guinea Pig in a Cage
Warning: massive spoilers for both seasons of Netflix’s “House of Cards”
There’s been a lot written about the second season of House of Cards, most of it focusing on the moral implications of the actions of Francis and Claire Underwood. This isn’t surprising, as both of them have had several very shocking moments this season. Their scheming, manipulating, and sacrifices came to a head in the final episode, and we ended on Francis Underwood taking the Oval Office and showing us he was ready to do battle.
But is the Oval Office what Frank really wants? In his quest to get revenge on a man who passed him over for another job, I think that Frank may have put himself and his wife in a very large, beautiful, cage. And I think there are plenty of signs in the season to indicate that this is the case.
Last season began with Frank as the sitting majority whip, waiting to be confirmed as the US Secretary of State only to find out that wouldn’t be happening. His goal, since that moment was to get revenge on the sitting president for denying him this position. He managed to dispatch the Secretary of State, and then began working his way up the ladder to get a chance to ruin the President. This involved convincing the sitting Vice President to become governor of Pennsylvania again after Underwood conveniently arranged for the front-runner in that race to self-destruct in spectacular fashion.* With the Vice President out of the way, Underwood was able to present himself as the obvious successor. Season one ended with him confident that he would be the next Vice President, and he and his wife went for a leisurely jog without a security detail or their phones. They were happy, free, and confident in their future. Each episode of the second season took them further from that place.
It begins quickly. While Frank is able to turn down full Secret Service protection long enough to eliminate the threat represented by Zoe Barnes and negotiate staying in their home rather than moving to the Naval Observatory, their house is soon taken over by construction and a fleet of Secret Service personnel. Even Frank’s video games are denied him, as the line he played them over wasn’t secure.
As the season progresses, Claire begins to feel the pinch more than Frank as her efforts to persecute her rapist and stand up for victim’s rights brings protestors to their corner. When news of her affair with Adam comes out, she’s forced to give up her evening runs and both she and Frank admit that they won’t be able to engage in the sort of open marriage they had previously enjoyed. She voluntarily gave up her work at the CWI, but she may not have realized how many other sacrifices of her personal freedom she would have to make. The cheating accusations in the tabloid even end up affecting the “approved” work she’s trying to do, as she watches the supporters of her bill on sexual assault in the military drift away from her when the taint of scandal sets in. She obviously starts to feel the stress of this scrutiny by the end of the season, as we see only the second real outburst of emotion from her when she sits down and cries on the stairs. I don’t think these are tears of emotional distress, but rather tears of frustration. She has given up so much of her life and herself in pursuit of Frank’s goal and her efforts to do something worthwhile with her new position are failing at every turn. Her allies have abandoned her to save their own reputation (which is what Claire would do in their place), her private moments and experiences are being dragged through the mud, and a fellow rape survivor has accused her of caring more about politics than revenge. She, at least, has started to understand how trapped she has become by her new status.
By the end of the season, the President resigns due in part to events Frank sets in motion, though for a while it seems as though Frank might go down with him. This lands Frank in the White House, surrounded by security detail every hour of his day for the rest of his life. He will never take an unscheduled trip to the park without at least a dozen Secret Service members, never mind impromptu trips to a reporter’s apartment, or a metro station. Every communication he has will be monitored, every meeting recorded, every single move observed or noted by someone, somewhere. His careful efforts to cultivate Meechum’s loyalty specifically for use in circumstances when he needs someone he can trust completely have been in vain, as he will never be allowed to go anywhere with a single agent again. And while he may be triumphant now, anyone who’s taken a high school government class (or picked up a newspaper in the last 6 years) knows how little power the President actually wields if he doesn’t have Congress and the Senate behind him. The only friends Frank has in the House are the ones he trained in manipulation and back-stabbing. Besides which, the chances of Frank Underwood actually winning a general election with all the mess in his history (cheating wife who’s admitted to an abortion, working with a disgraced President and being implicated himself, the chance that even one gossip rag will give Lucas Goodwin a jailhouse interview, etc.) are very slim. His time in the White House is limited, and I don’t think he’s fully thought through what he wants to do with that time beyond punish President Walker.
I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for the next season of House of Cards. It’s been approved, but they have yet to begin shooting as some real life political machinations have come up. Whenever it returns, though, I expect that Frank will start rattling the bars of his shiny white cage very quickly, and what comes next may be what finally brings this Machiavellian mastermind to his knees.
(*After which, Underwood killed him. Can’t leave things to chance, after all.)