I have become a big fan of House of Cards, the first Netflix original series. Of course I had to overcome my disgust at the decision to have Kevin Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, break a dog’s neck in the first scene of the first episode. You should never open a story with any of the following: animal abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, or suicide. However, afterwards I was hooked and marathoned all thirteen episodes in a week. Now that I’ve reached the end of season one, I’m left with a big unanswered question—why is Frank Underwood a Democrat?
My first degree is in political science, and I’m deeply interested in how fiction authors write about politics, so much so I’m creating a course about writing political fiction. One of the most important questions an author of political fiction must ask themselves is why a character holds their particular political beliefs. What is it about their background, experience, values, religion, et cetera that informs their politics? The reader or viewer may not agree with the character’s beliefs and may even have radically different politics, but nevertheless they need to be able to understand the character’s motives. If a character lacks honest and genuine motives for their beliefs, the character risks becoming a caricature, a one-dimensional figure who represents an abstract idea (gun control, abortion restrictions, etc), rather than a real human being. You’ll know what I mean if you, like me, endured terrible didactic plays while at church where someone died and woke up in Hell.
Over the course of the first season, we watch South Carolina Congressman Frank Underwood do very un-Democratic things like attack striking teachers, push an anti-union education reform bill through the House, and back the interests of an oil company. Then we learn he attended military school at the Citadel. Then he murders a man. The entire plot is driven by his Machiavellian scheme, one so complex Rube Goldberg and Richard Nixon together could not have conceived of it and not once are we offered a glimpse as to why this twenty-year veteran of congress from the Deep South is a Democrat.
Salon put the question to Beau Willimon, the man who adapted the original 1990 British series for America, but not before interviewer, David Sirota, threw him a bone: “by casting him as a Democrat, House of Cards is avoiding the standard cartoonish portrayal of Washington as a place of Evil-And-Powerful Conservatives and Idealistic-But-Powerless Liberals.” This is just the first of many stupid things in the piece. Salon, can you provide a single example of a movie, novel, TV show, haiku, et cetera where this is how Washington is portrayed? I cannot, and I bet you can’t either.
Willimon explains he initially had a simpler motive: he believes an iconic line from the British series (“You very well might think that—I couldn’t possibly comment”) would only sound believable from an American with a southern accent, (I disagree) and since Willimon is from South Carolina, he decided the character would be too. Perhaps after the fact, Willimon then needed to justify this decision in terms of character. In the interview, he says he thinks Southern politics is more about personal relationships than ideology. “That means politics there has been, up until recently, less about party affiliation, and that means stuff there is inherently more political as opposed to ideological.” This creates a character who is willing to compromise and behave in a myriad of ways, liberating Willimon as a writer from the restrictions of someone who is ideologically rigid.
Let’s ignore for now how factually wrong Willimon’s statement is (party affiliation in the South has always—always—been ideological and personal relationships defines politics in all fifty states). Let’s also ignore the general Democratic Party bashing in the article (“there are fewer principled ideologues and more shape-shifters in the Democratic Party than there are in the Republican Party”). Let’s simply take Willimon at his word. This may be what he believes, fine, but he still hasn’t answered the question:
Why is Frank Underwood a Democrat? What in his heart makes him a member of the Democratic Party? Whether he is liberal or moderate, an ideologue or a compromiser, why did he attach his ego, identity, and fortune to a party that is in the minority in his state? His choice implies he wasn’t pursuing power. He was willing to be the underdog, to fight the majority, and even to lose. What then, was he willing to fight for and why?
Even if a character’s motivations are never explicitly revealed to the viewer or reader, an author must know the answers to such questions if they are going to write an authentic character—a true human being. With each episode of House of Cards this season, Frank Underwood became less a true human being, and more a caricature of an amoral, power-hungry politician. I’m waiting to see is this will be corrected in season two.
— 25 March 2013