Francis Underwood is a murderer. That is a fact that cannot be contested. However, I think there is something far more sinister and horrific about him, I truly believe he will be revealed to be a sociopath before the series is over. Underwood has never shown a glimpse of true empathy, and each sarcastic, caustic aside only bolsters my sociopathic theory. On top of his capacity to take innocent lives without experiencing a modicum of guilt, Francis (or Frank) has an uncanny – and truly disturbing – ability to infiltrate the minds of those around him, to devastate a person mentally without ever taking physical action. This latest season of House of Cards has finally shown us Frank’s mortality, having him gravely injured by a bullet to the liver and keeping him in a coma for more than an episode. Despite his physical liabilities, his character remains with a cold lack of any real mental or emotional vulnerability, especially in light of the minds and spirits he is able and willing to destroy without a second thought.
First off, we have Lucas Goodwin, forced into witness protection (after Frank gets him arrested and sent to prison) and totally isolated. The shot of Lucas at the bottom of a stairwell when he pleads with Heather Dunbar to investigate Frank to uncover his abuse of power leaves no question as to the amount of pain he is in and the person who caused it. His face is twisted in anguish as he implores Dunbar, who refuses to listen, ‘Please! Please, listen to me. I’m begging you, help!’ He no longer has a life, and it seems like he’s slowly losing any grip he has on his sanity and who he is as his voice cracks under the weight of his despair. His subsequent attempt to murder Frank in broad daylight is proof of this loss: Lucas sees no other option, no other way out of his misery, except to do everything he can to eliminate Frank.
Next, we have Janine Skorsky, banished to upstate New York to teach classes at a college near her mother’s home and perpetually afraid for her life because of what she’s seen befall the people around her. Previously a self-assured political correspondent at a prestigious newspaper, Frank has turned Janine into a shell of the person she once was. In her one scene this season, we see her popping Xanax pills like they’re mints and failing to hide shaking hands and trembling lips. Her expression is all but shattered as she admits just how helpless she is in all of this chaos and devastation. In the light of apparent drug abuse, mental instability, and unbearable inner turmoil, it’s easy to label Janine’s life as more than destroyed, too.
Now, while Frank is undoubtedly at the centre of all this destruction, the havoc that he wreaks becomes even more disturbing when he works through an intercessor. You would be hard pressed to create a more horrific sequence of scenes than the one we saw in the final episode of the show’s last season. With Doug Stamper, first sparing and then turning around at the last minute to brutally murder the woman he is obsessed with – the woman he purportedly loves.
Doug, who, despite all the heinous acts he’s committed, quite possibly loved Rachel and was coerced into killing her because he thought he had no other choice. All Rachel wanted was a life of her own, but apparently that's too much to ask in Frank Underwood's eyes and a life of wasted potential was buried in an unmarked grave in the desert.
Is he simply in too deep with Frank?
Does he love Frank more than anyone else he’s had to hurt for his employer and leader?
Or is he just as despicable as the man who gives him his orders?
I have no idea, because Doug is a character who is nearly impossible to read, in part due to Michael Kelly’s subtle yet terrifying performance. But no matter what truth lies behind his actions, he is undoubtedly another one of Frank’s pawns, someone who is used without a second thought being given to the damage such manipulation will do to his mind.
Each act of manipulation that Frank sets in motion comes with consequences that are more far-reaching than any one person’s mentality or wellbeing. Doug, for one, has found a new obsession this season: a woman whose husband died because Doug himself forced him down the transplant list. Sitting in a car with Doug, and with no witnesses in sight, this woman, Laura Moretti, utters a line that carries an unbearable weight for anyone who’s been watching the show from the beginning: ‘All these people in their houses, about to see this awful thing that they’ll never be able to erase.’ She’s referring to a hostage who is about to be killed by terrorists and have his death broadcast across the nation, but her words cannot help evoking other images: Zoe Barnes being shoved in front of a train; Peter Russo being left to suffocate in his own car, believing that he is a disgrace to everyone, including his children; and finally Rachel Posner, whose death we don’t bear witness to but that I feel all the more because of its – and her – invisibility.
Laura Moretti is not safe. Neither are her children, but she does not know it. Doug pursues her, making a five thousand dollar donation to the fund she sets up in memory of her late husband in an attempt to assuage his guilt and then agreeing to meet with her after she calls him up to thank him, gradually drawing her under his influence as if she were a tool to improve his life instead of an actual human being. This deception seems like an almost hideous betrayal of her trust, an unforgivable invasion of her life and her mind. But I’ve come to expect nothing less from Frank and the people who work for him.
Then there’s the dichotomy of Claire Underwood, who arguably is the person Frank has damaged the most but who has also inflicted unbelievable pain on many others. I’ve heard people say that Claire is far worse than Frank – that she’s much more manipulative than her husband could ever be. First and foremost, I think it’s important to point out the difference between someone who is completely unaffected by the pain he causes others (I ask again: when have we ever seen Frank Underwood feel empathy for another person?) and someone who is clearly emotionally damaged by the recognition of the pain she has caused. I will never get over the shot of Claire sitting on the stairs of her home in D.C. and sobbing, unable to move, having visited a girl who attempted to take her own life after being raped and then used by Claire to further her own career. And you know what? I don’t want to. But many people who watch House of Cards seem to be blind or impervious to the brokenness of this woman, how much she has lost – despite her undeniable privilege – because of a decision she made decades ago, under the illusion that Frank might one day see her as his equal.
In one of his oh so clever asides to the camera, Frank recounts literally putting a young boy’s life in danger because he thought the boy was an ungrateful brat. He chopped down the tree that the boy was sitting in, not giving a flying rat’s ass about whether the boy broke his arm or his neck when he hit the ground. But it’s the punch line of the story that’s truly hilarious. ‘I'll give Claire some time,’ Frank drawls. ‘But for her sake, I hope she comes out of her tree before I have to bring out my axe.’ And this is considered one of Frank’s ‘best’ lines from this season. Clearly, everyone loves an abusive husband.
Now, Frank’s fantasy of beating Claire aside (and don’t give me that ‘she gave as good as she got’ crap. She was defending her fucking life, and it was Frank’s dream, for God’s sake) I think the mental damage he’s inflicted on Claire is far worse. “I think Frank wants me to doubt myself,” she says to the woman she’s hired to be her future campaign manager – for what office, she isn’t sure yet. And that’s probably the understatement of the century.
Frank has spent their entire marriage subtly shaping Claire into someone who truly believes that all she can do and all she could ever be is the person who helped Frank win an election: she is nothing without him, she would fall apart on her own, her life would be meaningless if she hadn’t decided to marry him. Well, I think it’s high time we give Claire credit for surviving the way she has, despite the lengths she’s gone to in an attempt to prove Frank wrong and hold on to herself.
‘What do you know about fighting for anything?’ This is what Yusuf al Ahmadi, the head of a terrorist organisation, asks Claire in the final episode of this past season. And the sheer irony of that statement is heartbreaking. Claire has had to fight for her sense of self ever since she met Frank. And she is broken, but she’s still fighting. I hope.
‘I’m done trying to win over people’s hearts,’ she says to Frank in this final episode, their lies a millisecond away from being exposed. ‘We can work with fear.’ This is all that she knows: being backed into a corner by a man who is willing to use her own mind against her. Perhaps the constant struggle to be who the world wants her to be and who Frank wants her to be and hold on to herself is finally too much for her. Or maybe she’s simply tired of herself, of who she’s become. Who knows? I hope she still has the courage to take Frank’s last words of the season to heart, and to use them against him like he’s used every one of her insecurities and strengths against her: ‘We don't submit to terror. We make the terror.’
Kristen is an aspiring playwright and undeniable fangirl. In her spare time, you might catch her at an Ingrid Michaelson concert or finding her zen on a yoga mat. She’s currently living in Chicago and studying playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University.