Notions of Power and Morality in House of Cards

This article contains spoilers for all three seasons of House of Cards.

At the end of the second season of Netflix’s House of Cards, erstwhile Congressman turned Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) had finally achieved his goal: the Presidency of the United States. The final shot cut to black on Frank banging his ring on the desk in the oval office, staring down the barrel of the camera, invigorated by his triumph. He had beaten his enemies and achieved the goal he set out for in the series premiere. He sat at the top of the world. Who was there left to fight?

House of Cards season three starts with Frank in a more neutered position. He’s been President for six months, but he’s despised by the public and by his own party. He wants to put forward the biggest American employment package since the New Deal, titled America Works, but he has no chance of getting it past the Republican-controlled congress, or even his own party. There may be no towering giants for Frank to defeat on his way to the top (because he’s already there), but there are plenty of enemies ready to topple him from that summit. Chief among these adversaries are Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) and Solicitor General and presidential candidate Heather Dunbar (Heather Marvel). These two schemers along with Frank’s wife, Claire (Robin Wright), reveal Frank Underwood's moral position and help us clarify him as the unchecked id of specifically American politics. House of Cards also uses them in season three to explore notions of effectiveness in politics and reflect the relationship between power and morality.

Narratively foremost of these antagonists in season three is Viktor Petrov, the President of the Russian Federation. Petrov works as darker foil to Frank. As President of Russia, a political entity that is democratic in name only, Petrov is able to circumvent laws and morality in ways Frank can only dream. While Frank has to manipulate from the shadows by killing Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) or Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) for instance, or getting Claire to sew the seeds that’ll impeach President Walker (Michel Gill), Petrov can directly blow up his own troops in the Jordan Valley in order to force a United Nations removal from the region. His own administration is entirely aware of his illegal actions and does everything it can to bolster his powers.

When Frank visits Petrov in Moscow on an official state visit, Petrov mentions that Russia is not the United States and that democratic process does not stand in the way of what he needs to do to protect Russia and its interests. Petrov is what Frank would be if he were allowed to be the dark manipulator out in the cold light of day. However, although the United States is depicted as far from an ideal in House of Cards, it isn’t Russia. People pass bills or block motions for petty reasons, but the American government follows the rule of law, and even the President cannot openly discard the law. In the one example where Frank tries to act like Petrov, requisitioning FEMA money to fund America Works in D.C., he fails. He’s forced to sign a bill returning the funds to FEMA in advance of a hurricane, bowing to Capitol Hill. Petrov reminds the viewer of what Frank could be if he weren’t American and tethered by the law, even if only in appearance. He’s just as ruthless, but by virtue of being Russian, he’s able to accomplish all he wants without pretence.

Heather Dunbar, the Solicitor General who forced President Garrett Walker’s resignation in season two and Frank’s chief opponent in the Democratic presidential primaries, is the opposite of Petrov. She’s the true blue American who (unlike Frank) refuses to compromise ethics in the quest for power. She’s an unblemished idealogue who earnestly wants to achieve progress through hard work and fair debate. Her only flaw is that she was born rich, divorced from the difficult experiences of ordinary Americans. Her primary campaign slogan is “Balance the Scales,” promoting fairness in government. Her talking points all focus on Frank’s abuses of power and trampling of due governmental process. While Petrov goaded Frank with his inability to act decisively, Dunbar attacks this very decisiveness as a deficiency.

Dunbar clarifies something essential about Frank, which is that his ruthlessness is part and parcel with his effectiveness as a politician. House of Cards has no good things to say about politicians, depicting them as petty, power-hungry and self-serving manipulators, but it does say they can be effective. Dunbar is pure, but as House of Cards has taught us many times, she cannot succeed unless she compromises her principles. Even Dunbar begins to understand this as the season progresses. In “Chapter 38” she threatens Frank with the release of Claire’s private journal, which would reveal Claire lying about her rape in season two, in the event he doesn’t step down from the primaries. She doesn’t have the leverage to follow through on that threat but it does prove that she’s stooping to Frank’s level. Even the moral crusader has to compromise her values in order to win. That’s the name of the political game. Dunbar initially represents the opposite of Frank Underwood, but as the season progresses, she becomes more like Frank Underwood would have been at the beginning of his quest for power: unblemished, unbloodied, but hungry for more.

All of this brings us to Claire, Frank’s greatest ally and potentially his greatest enemy. She starts the series as his partner in crime, acting as Lady Macbeth, fanning the flames of his ego and helping him pull of his minor coup of the White House. But in season three, Claire begins to understand two things. One is that Frank is President and she is not, which means that although she can tell herself that they share the highest power in the land, the fact that there’s only one chair behind the desk in the oval office reveals that she’ll never wield the power in their relationship. Only he will. The other is that Claire has grown a conscience where Frank has shed his. Frank and Claire may be two halves of one whole, but surely every whole has a conscience, and in this case, Claire has inherited theirs.

Claire’s moral awakening is framed around two private conversations she has with disparate individuals. One is Michael Corrigan (Christian Camargo), an LGBT activist imprisoned in Russia for protesting its anti-gay legislation. The other is an Iowan housewife, Suzie (Annie Parisse), who’s caucusing for Dunbar in the primaries. In her scene with Corrigan, Corrigan hangs himself while Claire is asleep in the same room, revealing her own lack of ideals for which she’s willing to die. In the other scene, Suzie reflects on her own inability to escape her abusive husband who freely steps out on her, because she believes she’s trapped. She makes Claire understand how she’s trapped by Frank. If Claire succeeds, Frank wins, but if Frank loses, they go down together.

Claire starts the season wanting to sow the seeds for a future political career (echoes of Hillary Clinton) by becoming the U.N. Ambassador. Frank gives her that, but with trepidation. Frank’s reluctancy wins out when she’s forced to resign during the Jordan Valley debacle. She commits to campaigning for Frank’s reelection but it doesn’t satisfy her. She has begun to comprehend her and Frank’s moral failure as individuals, and, unlike Frank, she doesn’t have the powers of the Presidency to justify the sacrifices she has made. She sold her soul, but only Frank got to enjoy the fruits of that satanic bargain.

In the first chapter of his book on Frank Underwood, novelist and Frank’s biographer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) describes how Frank and Claire can split the atom together. He argues that each is the other’s strongest component, and that together they are invincible. Splitting the atom cuts both ways. It can be creative, as in the case of nuclear energy, where the power unleashed is capable of powering our cities. Or it can be destructive like an atom bomb, laying waste to everything in its vicinity.

Season three ends with Claire telling Frank that she’s leaving him. Frank and Claire have achieved the Presidency of the United States together, but as they now turn their crosshairs on each other, all of Washington may explode along with them.

House of Cards (Netflix) Season 3

Created by Beau Willimon; based on the novel by Michael Dobbs and television series by Andrew Davies; starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Mahershala Ali, Molly Parker, Elizabeth Marvel, Derek Cecil, Nathan Darrow, Jimmi Simpson, Paul Sparks, Kim Dickens, Alexander Sokovikov, Jayne Atkinson, Lars Mikkelsen.