House of Cards is undoubtedly one of the most popular and internationally acclaimed shows on Netflix, claiming over 7 Primetime Emmys, 2 Golden Globes, 2 Screen Actors Guide and 1 Satellite Award.
Unlike most political thrillers which provides us with a politician that has integrity, honestly, compassion and/or empathy, House of Cards gives us Francis J. Underwood (Frank Underwood). Throughout the entirety of ¬¬House of Cards, our protagonist has lied to and exploited almost everyone he knows; disregarded the physical and political safety of his opponents; and manipulate others to climb up Capitol Hill and into the White House.
Furthermore, Frank has never once shown remorse about his actions despite openly acknowledging to the audience that his techniques are hypocritical and underhanded—Frank embodies a classic sociopath and is a symbol of political corruption. And yet, viewers around the world continue to love this wicked character and root for his presidency and success in future seasons.
In this paper, I will discuss how House of Cards characterizes Frank Underwood as cold and distant and, more crucially, how it forces the audience to build rapport and sympathize with a despicable murderer. This paper asserts that House of Cards’ distinctive cinematography as well as the deliberate and extensive use of breaking of the fourth wall portray Frank as a callous yet sympathetic character.
Firstly, the main title sequence of each episode of House of Cards always reminds us of what kind of person Frank actually is. As opposed to many other openings in different animes, dramas or movies, this title sequence captures my attention and I find myself seating through the entire one and a half minute for every single episode even when binge watching the series. House of Cards title sequence is a montage which showcases cinematic time-lapse shots of iconic neoclassical monuments and buildings such as the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol around Washington while transitioning from day to night. In the background, the theme of the series is played.
Throughout the gross 1.5 minutes of the sequence, there are hardly anyone to be seen in the time-lapse shots, and that the theme is purely instrumental without any lyrics. There are no visual or auditory signs of a person throughout the sequence. I believe that the Washington DC, depicted in the sequence, is a reflection of Frank Underwood—although he is grandeur and magnificent, he is also cold and lacks humanity. The transition from day to night, as well as the shadows coming down on government buildings like Capitol Hill also signals to viewers that many dealings in Frank’s personal and professional life happens covertly—under the cover of the dark.
Furthermore, in an interview with Vice Creators, composer of the theme Jeff Beal revealed that “the harmony changes a lot of that baseline(referring to a part of the theme)—in fact, the base is always playing in A minor but the harmony sometimes goes to A major. And it creates this very strange dissonance in a sense of collision—it’s basically a wrong note!”
As an average viewer, I have never realized the subtle ‘wrong note’ in the title sequence, however, I believe that leaving the wrong note in the theme is a deliberate decision of the producers. The theme, overlaid with sounds of trumpets and drums, again portrays Frank as a virtuoso who pushes through everything and plays the notes however he wants to.
The theme ends with a repetition of the same chords, giving viewers the illusion that the music is still playing even after the screen fades to black and the show begins. This suggests that Frank continues to be the master and will not stop playing the notes. The theme is a metaphor for the tenacity and pure grit of Frank—Frank is someone who will do whatever it takes to achieve his personal goals and is indifferent to the opinions of others, even if he knows that he (ethically) wrong. Secondly, the cinematography of House of Cards, which has been awarded an Emmy in 2013, portrays Frank to be aloof and devious. Throughout the series, there was no dolly zooms, handheld filming or extreme close-ups. Most of the times when we see Frank portrayed, he is framed in a ¾ shot. The camera is almost always static even as Frank moves around—the camera does not pan in the direction the character moves. The camerawork was kept extremely simple while retaining its elegance. This allows Frank to inhabit a lot of space to express himself. The uncompromising rigidness of the camerawork depicts Frank to be cold and unforgiving character; that Frank is hard willed and tenacious. The color palette of each scene also paints Frank as a cold individual. “Almost every single frame of this show is composed to place a pale blue object in the foreground with a pale yellow light in the background.” (Wade, 2015) From the snapshots above, we can clearly see that Wade’s thesis holds true. The lighting on the set of House of Cards always make Frank appear grey and under-saturated in front of a warmer background, making him almost colourless, portraying Frank as a silhouette, hiding him in the shadows. Again, the cinematography here contains a subliminal message that Frank is cold and lacks humanity. Having established the fact that Frank is callous and inhumane, I will discuss how to show portrays Frank to be likeable.