"For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted."
He's a liar, a cheat, a manipulator, a murderer and perhaps worst of all, a politician. However, there's something about House of Cards' Frank Underwood that we absolutely love.
Why are we so fascinated with this fictional character who is probably one of the most despicable human beings ever seen on TV? Why do we tune in season after season to see what he's up to next? Why do we root for an Underwood presidency, even knowing that he's the lowest of the low, a man who manipulated his way into that position?
Kevin Spacey As Frank Underwood
Can you imagine any actor other than Kevin Spacey handling Frank in a way that would make him such a compelling character? Spacey not only makes Frank believable and despicable, but also creates a sympathetic character that we still relate to, in spite of his nastiness. At this point, we'd probably buy the Brooklyn Bridge from Spacey if he tried to sell it to us.
Spacey is an actor's actor, a guy who knows how to work a stage and a camera to elicit the best effect. It's no wonder that his turn as Underwood has given him a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Drama, as well as two consecutive Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series.
When Spacey breaks the fourth wall on House of Cards, we believe that he is Frank and not just an actor portraying him. We pay attention. That takes serious acting chops.
Frank Underwood Is An Effective Politician
Although Frank has done everything illegal, unethical and illicit to get to his position of power, he is still a very effective leader. Let's face it, he's probably no different from many politicians sitting in D.C. right now, who crawled their way from the bottom to the top by stepping on a lot of toes, heads and other appendages to get there.
"I also think that we can even look back at real political history, at figures who were at the time, and after they were in office, deemed as ruthless sons of bitches," Spacey said to CBS, "Very tough, unreasonable, uncompromising, who had very effective political careers."
For example, President Lyndon B. Johnson's policies in Vietnam made him hated, yet he's still the President who passed several bills regarding civil rights during his presidential term.
Perhaps we inherently understand that it takes a certain kind of villain to make waves in U.S. government and actually get things done. It's likely that at least in politics, we believe that nice guys do actually finish last.
Frank Underwood Teaches Us About Self-Motivation
In spite of his many sins, one thing Frank teaches us is that self-motivation can take us far, or in his case, all the way to the White House. Not only does House of Cards show Frank's motivation in action, but it also shows how he plans everything down to the most minute detail so that he can achieve his goals. He has a specific timetable for everything he wants to accomplish and he manages every task he needs to in order to get to where he wants to go.
The result of all that effort? Frank managed to achieve the highest role in government as the President of the United States.
Underwood often understands, too, that he can't always do it alone, meaning that he has a close group of trusted allies who often do his work (including dirty work) for him. One man is not an island, especially when he wants to become president. Every politician needs at least a Doug Stamper.
Underwood also shows us about other things that are important when one is self-motivated, including ways to let off steam (for Frank, it's video games). He also values the importance of exercise, keeping the body as fit as the mind.
We Love Villains
Perhaps the simplest reason for our love affair with Frank is that we love bad guys. It's also no secret that TV has learned to create better, sympathetic villains. From Tony Soprano to Dexter Morgan to Walter White, bad guys are now something we can understand and root for because that's how TV shows write them.
These aren't the mustache-twirling villains of yesterday: these are fully drawn-out complex characters with families, lives and issues that we can relate to.
"They have multi-faceted personalities, and they have the same kind of concerns that we do," Difficult Men author Brett Martin said to the CBC. "We may not be mobsters, but we know what it's like to have a job and a family that compete for our attention. We know what anxiety is like. We know what needing to provide for your family is like in the case of, say, Walter White of Breaking Bad. We know the temptations of living like you don't have any rules. We know that there's a tremendous amount of wish fulfillment to be a Don Draper or a Tony Soprano, or even a Dexter."
There's also a psychological reason for why we love guys like Frank: they teach us more about ourselves. Psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that villains help us face our "shadow" selves, and by doing so, we become stronger, better humans.
House of Cards season four premieres on Netflix on March 4.