Frank Underwood (House of Cards)
|House of Cards character|
Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood
|First appearance||"Chapter 1"|
|Created by||Beau Willimon|
|Portrayed by||Kevin Spacey|
|Full name||Francis J. Underwood|
|Occupation||Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina's 5th congressional district
House Majority Whip
Vice President of the United States
President of the United States
|Hometown||Gaffney, South Carolina|
|Alma mater||The Sentinel, Harvard Law School|
Francis Joseph “Frank” Underwood is a fictional character from the Netflix web television series House of Cards played by Kevin Spacey. He is the series protagonist and is a variation of Francis Urquhart, the main character from the British novel and television series House of Cards from which the American Netflix series is adapted. He is married to Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), but also had a sexual relationship with Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) in season 1. Underwood made his first appearance in the series's pilot episode, "Chapter 1".
Underwood is from Gaffney, South Carolina. He graduated from The Sentinel, a fictionalized version of The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, and Harvard Law School. Much of Underwood's dialogue throughout the series is presented in a direct address to the audience, a narrative technique that breaks the fourth wall. The character speaks in a southern dialect. During season 1, he is the Democratic Majority Whip in the United States House of Representatives. In season 2, he is the newly appointed Vice President of the United States, before becoming President of the United States in the season finale.
The character has been described as manipulative, conniving, and Machiavellian, and even evil, while receiving significant critical praise as one of 21st century television's antiheroes. Spacey shared the distinction of being among the first three leading web television roles to be nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards when the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards were announced on July 18, 2013. Spacey's portrayal of Underwood is the only one of those three to earn a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series nomination. Spacey has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Award and SAG Award for his performance.
Background and description
Underwood's hometown is Gaffney, South Carolina. He graduated from The Sentinel—a fictionalized version of The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina—and Harvard Law School. He speaks in a southern dialect. Underwood's great-great-great grandfather was fictional Corporal Augustus Elijah Underwood, who died at the age of 24 serving the 12th Regiment of McGowan's Brigade at the Bloody Angle engagement in the American Civil War. Underwood's great-great grandfather was 2 when his father was killed. Publicly, Underwood speaks fondly of his father, who died at age 43 of a heart attack, as a political ploy; in reality, he hardly knew his father, and did not think much of him. Nonetheless, he was influenced by his father. In Season 2's finale, he says that, at the age of eight, he walked in on his father putting a shotgun in his mouth, and that his father asked him to pull the trigger. Underwood says that his biggest regret is that he did not do it, as his father's alcoholism and abuse caused the family several more years of misery.
Much of Underwood's dialogue throughout the series is presented in a direct address to the audience, a narrative technique that breaks the fourth wall. Immediately prior to starring in House of Cards, Spacey had starred in a production of William Shakespeare's Richard III as Richard III of England, a character that serves as a partial basis for both Urquhart and Underwood. Among his few vices are smoking cigarettes and playing video games. When his online gaming service becomes unavailable after he becomes Vice President, he begins a hobby of creating model figurines.
Spacey viewed portraying Underwood for a second season as a continuing learning process. "There is so much I don’t know about Francis, so much that I'm learning...I've always thought that the profession closest to that of an actor is being a detective,...We are given clues by writers...Then you lay them all out and try to make them come alive as a character who’s complex and surprising, maybe even to yourself."
Underwood's sexuality is ambiguous throughout much of the first two seasons; he has sexual liaisons with both men and women, but he is never explicitly identified as gay or bisexual. Before Season 2, various sources speculated about his homosexuality. The New York Times blog review of "Chapter 8" notes that he had a one semester experience with homosexuality in college. According to David Carr and Ashley Parker, although it is unclear how his youthful homosexual experience influenced his choices, we never see Frank and Claire have sex in season 1. Slate journalist Hanna Rosin notes that, if Frank and Claire Underwood were a real-life Washington couple and they were found each to be having an affair, Frank would be accused of being "secretly gay, turned on by women only when he can use them for a pure power play". Other sources make no definite stance on Underwood's sexuality, but hypothesize that he is not sexually attracted to Claire. In season 2, Frank is involved in a threesome with his wife and male secret service agent Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow).
Underwood vs. Urquhart
Underwood is an Americanized version of the original BBC character Francis Urquhart, a Machiavellian post-Margaret Thatcher chief whip of the Conservative Party. Urquhart employs deceit, cunning, murder, and blackmail to influence and pursue the office of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. According to series producer Beau Willimon, the name change stemmed from the "Dickensian" feeling and "more legitimately American" sounding resonance of the name Underwood. Whereas Urquhart is an aristocrat by birth, Underwood is a self-made man. Urquhart was one of television's first antiheroes, whereas Underwood follows the more recent rash of antiheroes that includes Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, Walter White of Breaking Bad, and Dexter Morgan of Dexter. However, unlike most other antiheroes, Underwood is not forced into immorality either by circumstance (White) or birth (Soprano). In his review of Season 2, Slant Magazine's Alan Jones writes that Underwood is evil by choice. Although the character is based on the BBC show's lead character, in interviews during the writing and filming of season 2, creator and showrunner Willimon said that he used Lyndon B. Johnson as a source of themes and issues addressed in House of Cards. Unlike the right-leaning Urquhart, who is affiliated with the Conservative Party, the centrist Underwood is a member of the Democratic Party, but cares little for ideology in favor of "ruthless pragmatism" in furthering his own political influence and power.
Relationships with Claire
Stelter described Frank and Claire as a "scheming" couple. Michael Dobbs compares the compelling nature of the relationship between Frank and Claire favorably to the characters in the original British show and likens them to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Frank has strong feelings for Claire, and frequently plots with her at night. He says "I love that woman, I love her more than sharks love blood." While Frank is Machiavellian, Claire, like Lady Macbeth, encourages her husband to do whatever is necessary to seize power. Hank Stuever of The Washington Post describes her as an ice-queen wife. She encourages his vices while noting her disapproval of his weakness, saying, "My husband doesn’t apologize...even to me." Her overt encouragement gives a credibility to their symbiosis. Smith says "The Underwoods have proven themselves almost robotic in their pursuit of power." Upon viewing a four episode preview of season 2, Goodman says the series "...sells husband and wife power-at-all-costs couple...as a little too oily and reptilian for anyone's good." Willimon notes that "What's extraordinary about Frank and Claire is there is deep love and mutual respect, but the way they achieve this is by operating on a completely different set of rules than the rest of us typically do." Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara makes the case that House of Cards is a love story on many levels, but most importantly between Frank and Claire. It is a story about a man who will commit almost any crime imaginable while in pursuit of power and a political wife who gives him the encouragement to pursue that power.
Relationships with Zoe
Underwood develops an intimate relationship with reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), with Claire's knowledge. Stuever notes that as the show begins, Barnes is desperate to rise from covering the "Fairfax County Council" beat to covering "'what's behind the veil' of power in the Capitol hallways." Stanley notes that by the end of the first episode, Mara's Barnes is among the cadre of Frank's accomplices. They begin a relationship, with Zoe promising to earn his trust and not "ask any questions" in return for his supplying her with sensitive political information. Toward the end of Season 1, she ends their personal relationship and begins investigating his connection to Congressman Peter Russo's apparent suicide (Underwood had in fact murdered him). Frank kills Barnes in the season 2 premiere after she begins to follow clues related to the murder.
Underwood is passed over for an appointment as United States Secretary of State even though he had been promised the position after ensuring the election of United States President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill). Presidential Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) gives him this news prior to the January 2013 United States presidential inauguration. With the aid of Claire and his Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood uses his position as House Whip to seek retribution. He quickly allies with reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), whom he uses to undermine his rivals in the press, and begins manipulating Pennsylvania Rep. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), whom he eventually murders as part of his plan. The viciousness of Underwood's manipulations escalates over the course of the season. In the season finale, "Chapter 13", he is appointed Vice President to replace Jim Matthews (Dan Ziskie), whom he had manipulated into resigning earlier in the season.
According to Time television critic James Poniewozik, by the end of the first episode, it becomes clear that Underwood both literally and figuratively uses meat as his metaphor of choice. He may begin a day with a celebratory rack of ribs, because "I’m feelin’ hungry today!", and he depicts his life with meat metaphors. For example, he describes the White House Chief of Staff with grudging admiration: "She’s as tough as a two-dollar steak", and plans to destroy an enemy the way "you devour a whale. One bite at a time". He also endures a tedious weekly meeting with House leaders, as he tells the audience, by "[imagining] their lightly salted faces frying in a skillet."
Frank assumes the position of Vice President of the United States. Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter notes that with his new position "he's got more power now and that means he instills more fear in his enemies". At one point during the season, he states "The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties. I need to prove what the vice president is capable of." Frank and Claire "continue their ruthless rise to power as threats mount on all fronts." Over the course of the season, Frank "faces challenges from similarly ambitious businessmen, the Chinese government and Congress itself" as he continues to pursue his political aspirations. His plotline revolves around battles with billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), involving Chinese money laundering. Over the course of the season his biggest challenges are the institutional power of the Office of the President and Tusk's power as a billionaire industrialist.
According to Sara Smith of The Kansas City Star, Underwood fails to break the fourth wall as he had done throughout the first season until the end of the first episode in this season, when he finally asks the audience "Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had." Subsequently, Underwood begins with his trademark fourth wall statements beginning with "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 finds new rivals in Tusk, who seeks to replace him as Walker's right-hand adviser, and his former chief of staff, Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), who is now a lobbyist working with Tusk.
At the beginning of the season, Underwood is trying to erase all links to Russo's death. Thus, he throws Barnes under an oncoming Washington Metro train, killing her. Another early task for newly promoted Underwood is finding his own replacement as House Majority Whip. He supports Jacqueline Sharp (Molly Parker), a military veteran and third-term Representative from California, although he refrains from offering public backing.
Toward the end of the season, Frank orchestrates Walker's downfall. He secretly leaks the details of the money laundering, for which Walker is blamed. While publicly supporting Walker, Frank works behind the scenes to have him impeached, with Sharp's help. In the season finale, "Chapter 26", Walker resigns, and Frank succeeds him as President of the United States.
Frank and Claire engage in a threesome during the season, but have otherwise largely given up intramarital and extramarital sex in favor of their pursuit of power. International Business Times critic Ellen Killoran notes that this may relate back to Frank's quotation of Oscar Wilde in Season 1: "A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power." Avoiding sex may retain the balance of power in their relationship. Frank's relationship with Claire is the epicenter of season 2.
The New York Times' David Itzkoff called Underwood a "scheming politician" who does "some of the most evil and underhanded things imaginable". Brian Stelter of The New York Times said Underwood "…is on a quest for power that’s just as suspenseful as anything on television." New York Daily News critic Don Kaplan says "…conniving Congressman Frank Underwood, is easily one of the most complex antiheroes on TV — except he’s not on TV". David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle describes the character as one who "all but salivates over the chance to use his considerable power to gain more power, especially if it involves pulling the rug out from under some colleagues and the wool over the eyes of others."
Director David Fincher describes the character as a "Machiavellian taking you under his wing and walking you through the corridors of power, explaining the totally mundane and crass on a mechanical level to the most grotesque manipulations of a system that is set up to have all these checks and balances". Beau Willimon describes him as a "remorselessly self- interested, desiring power for power's sake" person. Andrew Davies, the producer of the original UK TV series, feels that Underwood lacks the "charm" of the original character, Francis Urquhart.
The Independent praised Spacey's portrayal as a more "menacing" character, "hiding his rage behind Southern charm and old-fashioned courtesy," while The New Republic noted that "When Urquhart addressed the audience, it was partly in the spirit of conspiratorial fun. His asides sparked with wit. He wasn't just ruthlessly striving, he was amusing himself, mocking the ridiculousness of his milieu. There is no impishness about Spacey’s Frank Underwood, just numb, machine-like ambition. Even his affection for his wife is a calculation."
Poniewozik praises Underwood's accent, saying "Spacey gives Underwood a silky Southern accent you could pour over crushed ice and sip with a sprig of mint on Derby Day." Nancy deWolf Smith of The Wall Street Journal describes the accent as a "mild but sometimes missing Carolina accent". Time listed him among the 11 most influential fictional characters in 2013.
According to Salon's David Sirota, by making Underwood a liberal rather than a conservative "'House of Cards' is avoiding the standard cartoonish portrayal of Washington as a place of Evil-And-Powerful Conservatives and Idealistic-But-Powerless Liberals. Instead, it is more honestly admitting that in many cases, both parties’ leaders are equally vicious, powerful and corrupt."
Spacey says he followed the real life House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy in order to add realism to his portrayal. He also claims that the portrayal of a Congress that is efficient and effective is both enviable and realistic.
According The Kansas City Star's Smith, "Frank hasn’t changed, and neither has his brand of Machiavellian political theater" and "Spacey has lost none of his smarmy magnetism as the cartoonish villain". According to Variety's Brian Lowry, "Kevin Spacey’s showy performance as an unscrupulous politician" is foremost among the show's strengths, but the show's weakness is the "failure to present its scheming protagonist with equally matched foes". Lowry feels that as conniving as Underwood is, it is unfathomable that "nobody else in a town built on power seems particularly adept at recognizing this or combating him". Goodman says "Spacey is nothing if not constantly magnetic". The delayed use of the fourth wall is perceived as clever. Alison Willmore of Indiewire says that "Unlike Walter White or Tony Soprano, Frank feels at peace with his ruthless pragmatism and what he does in pursuit of power, and reminds us of the fact in his asides to the camera...he may be a ruthless sociopath, but there's something to admire there". However Willmore noted that Frank became lighter in season 2 noting that the season was "...delivered with more of a wink by Frank than before."
Poniewozik notes that "It also remains a delight to watch Spacey pump the humid breath of life into House of Cards’ arid Capitol chill. If only his character weren’t so dominant of his surroundings as well. One reason the series’ movements can feel so mechanical is that, so far, no one seems nearly in Underwood’s league: not the adversaries he battles directly, nor the sad sacks that he gulls without their even knowing it." Chuck Barney of the San Jose Mercury News notes that the preview episodes show that "Frank's "Survivor"-like back-stabbing is beginning to feel a bit repetitive." and that his lack of an adversarial foil has become an issue: "...things always seem to fall neatly into place for him. Even his showdowns with the president (Michel Gill) come off as one-sided..." Verne Gay of Newsday notes that "Frank Underwood has no remorse, no superannuated sense of Washington tradition or decorum, and certainly no second thoughts. He is TV's perfect monster of the moment - a compleat malefactor, with a pleasing honey-toned drawl."
Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times says "By positing a Johnsonesque power broker and master schemer who wields cabalistic influence behind the scenes, House of Cards assigns order and purpose to what, in real life, is too often just an endless, baffling tick-tack-toe stalemate." NPR's Eric Deggans says that Underwood "blends velvety charm and mesmerizing menace like no other character on television".
New York Observer critic Drew Grant notes that although the series aired during the golden age of dramatic antiheroes, Underwood's villainy has become trite: "House of Cards is a good reminder, however, that there is a reason Iago wasn’t the center of Othello. Unrelenting, unexplained cruelty can be as pedantic as constant kindness."
Awards and nominations
On July 18, 2013, Netflix earned the first Primetime Emmy Award nominations for original online only web television for the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards. Three of its web series, Arrested Development, Hemlock Grove, and House of Cards, earned nominations. For the first time, three Primetime Emmy nominations for lead roles were from web television series: Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series to Spacey for his portrayal of Frank Underwood, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series to Robin Wright for her portrayal of Claire Underwood, and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series to Jason Bateman's for his portrayal of Michael Bluth in Arrested Development. Spacey submitted "Chapter 1" for consideration to earn his nomination.
Spacey also earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Television Series Drama and a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series nominations.
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