House of Cards’s fourth wall

The audience is the show’s most interesting character. Whom is Frank talking to, and what does that make us? (Spoilers!)

Zach Seward
Feb 10, 2013 · 6 min read

The first time Frank Underwood speaks to the audience in House of Cards, it’s not exactly clear whether he’s addressing us or just thinking aloud. His neighbor’s dog has been hit by a car, and Frank is attending to the grim task of putting the animal out of its misery. “Moments like this require someone who will act,” he says, glancing toward the camera but not quite at it, “do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.”

We quickly learn that, yes, Frank is talking to us; he stops being coy about it and looks straight at the camera. Breaking the fourth wall is typically associated with Shakespeare — and that comparison grows stronger as the season progresses — but my mind quickly went to the Charlie Kaufman film Adaptation. It makes liberal use of voiceover while also indicting the practice: “God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends, God help you,” says screenwriting coach Robert McKee. “That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”

House of Cards takes itself too seriously to make fun of its own solution for explaining the main character’s thoughts. In any event, the question is not whether Frank’s asides are lazy — would we rather explication through heavy-handed dialogue? — but what the asides accomplish and what they mean for us, the audience. We’re in this, too.

A sword to fall on

Frank speaks to us not to explain what’s in his head, exactly, but to illuminate his strategy (and assure us that he has one). When Woody Allen turns to the camera in his films, it’s usually an empathetic move: Can you get a load of this? With Frank, it’s more pedagogical,as though Tip O’Neill were sitting us down to explain that all politics is local.

Frank’s asides clicked for me over a stretch of scenes beginning in episode two, when he’s meeting with Donald Blythe, who wrote the first draft of the education bill that Frank just leaked to the press in order to squash it. Donald is distraught and unaware that the culprit is Frank, who says, picking up the phone, “I’ll fall on this grenade myself just to piss them off. Get me John King at CNN.” Pause.

We know Frank is bluffing, but to what end? He turns to us to explain: “What a martyr craves more than anything is a sword to fall on. So you sharpen the blade, hold it at the right angle, and then 3, 2, 1…”

“It should be me,” Donald says on cue. He takes the blame, and Frank ends up in control of the education bill.

Donald is among Frank’s easiest marks in season one, rolling over as helplessly as the injured dog that opens the show. But the scene teaches us an important lesson that prepares us for episode three, when Frank travels to his home district to deal with a dead girl’s parents who, in their grief, have the potential to derail his political ambitions. The father, Dean Masters, is belligerent and seems ready to put up a fight.

“Would you like me to resign, Mr. Masters?” Frank asks. “Just say the word, and it’s done, if it will bring you any satisfaction.” Having seen this gambit before, we know Dean is going to shake his head even before he does. The sword was effectively sharpened. (Frank follows this up with an aside about playing to Dean’s “humility.”)

All of this sets us up for the dramatic scene midway through the season, in which an hysterical Peter Russo, at Frank’s house, appears ready to bow out of the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race too early. Frank orders him to strip down naked and get into the bathtub, placing a razor blade at his side and telling Peter to “cut along the tracks not across them; that’s a rookie mistake.” That blade has been on the tub’s mantel since episode two, and we know the strategy well enough that Frank doesn’t have to explain it. There are no asides in that scene.

Threading Frank’s martyr lesson — and similar examples — through several episodes helps explain why he’s talking to us in the first place.It also turns us into Frank’s protégés, which is an unusually compromising position for an audience to find itself in and all the more fraught because Frank is an unholy character.

The passage of power

The most creative shot in House of Cards comes in episode 13. Frank is in his office, waiting for the president to conclude a meeting that will determine if his master plan has succeeded. He looks up at the clock above his desk; the camera — the audience — is perched inside the clock as the second hand ticks forward. Frank tells us that waiting is agony, and from our unusual perspective, we can see that he’s been reading The Passage of Power, the fourth installment of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, which was released last year.

That’s a pretty loaded product placement. Johnson was a southern politician, known for his skill at manipulation, who became the most powerful man in Congress. The Passage of Power documents Johnson’s ascent to the vice presidency and, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Oval Office. Is Frank — who, it should be noted, has not shown a hesitancy to kill — reading some kind of playbook?

Whether or not the Caro reference is foreshadowing season two, we’re obliged to give it credence, given the relationship we’ve established with Frank. It’s complicated, though, because we can’t know if Frank has slid Caro into the frame, like a friendly reading recommendation, or if we’ve caught a glimpse of Frank that he didn’t intend.

If the latter, it’s a jolting reminder that Frank’s asides not only explain the plot but craft our impression of him. He’s constantly making the case that Francis J. Underwood is a savvy political operator around whom all others gravitate. Even in situations where he admits to lacking leverage, his ability to size up that dynamic is itself a form of power. But the suggestion that FJU fashions himself an LBJ is a different kind of vulnerability, rendering him more of an aspirant than conspirator. It forces us to consider how the asides, though presented as a way to fill us in on Frank’s plans, may actually be another form of manipulation. And it lays bare his ambition at a time when we, as an audience, would prefer to celebrate Frank as a master strategist.

Frank is a protagonist in the style of Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper — “middle-aged male anti-heroes,” as Alan Sepinwall puts it in his book about the television renaissance that made shows like House of Cards possible. As an audience, we are drawn to root for Frank’s success even as we know he’s deplorable, just like the leading men of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. But those other guys never get to speak directly to us. (Tony comes closest, speaking to Dr. Melfi.)

In that sense, Frank’s asides implicate the audience even more directly in his schemes, and it’s appropriate that only at the very end of season one are we nudged to remember that Frank has been playing us as much as he’s been playing everyone else.

    Zach Seward

    Written by

    Chief product officer and executive editor at Quartz