What is the appeal of Frank Underwood? I don’t mean his appeal as a television character; I mean, what do the people in this fictional world of House Of Cards see in him? We already know there isn’t a great deal of personal affection for him. That became abundantly clear when he was hovering between life and death in a hospital bed and only the emotionally stunted Doug Stamper cared enough to use Underwood-style dirty tricks in order to move the president up the liver recipient list. Yet Frank does inspire a twisted brand of loyalty. People will stick with him, even if they know he’s dangerous, because they still think he can do something for them. That’s why power is so important to Frank, and why he’ll do anything to hang onto it: He literally has nothing without it.
As season four nears its end, his grasp on power and his hold on longtime associates are more tenuous than ever. “Chapter 51” introduces an 11th-hour hostage crisis that both the Underwoods and Will Conway try to work to their political advantage. The candidates are more concerned with outmaneuvering each other than reaching a peaceful resolution after a pair of whitebread ICO sympathizers seize the Miller family and attempt to use their lives as leverage to free terrorist Yusuf Al Ahmadi from Guantanamo. The hostage-takers announce that they will not negotiate with “the criminal” Frank Underwood, only with Conway, who ignores his VP candidate’s advice and announces his willingness to do so because he wants the media coverage. Once again Frank calls him on his bluff. It’s clear that he knows Conway’s fatal flaw, but exploiting it doesn’t come as easy as it usually does to Frank.
At first it looks like this is going down a familiar House Of Cards path: Frank gives Conway enough rope to hang himself by putting him on the call with the kidnappers. Though he stumbles at first, Conway is able to turn the call to his advantage (although his insincere claims to feel ashamed of the killing he did in wartime may cost him a running mate), something he gloats about later while helping himself to a beer in the private presidential kitchen. The writers jump through no shortage of absurd hoops in order to keep giving us scenes with Spacey and Kinnaman together, but you can hardly blame them. Watching them spar has been one of the season’s chief pleasures.
Even as this crisis is unfolding, Frank has a bigger obstacle in his path to retaining the White House. Hammerschmidt’s article is about to see the light of day, with former Underwood associates Remy Danton, Jackie Sharp, and ex-president Garrett Walker all going on the record attesting to Frank’s corruption. By the time the season’s final hour, “Chapter 52,” kicks off, it’s starting to look like we’re going to get a resolution to our real-life election drama long before we see one on House Of Cards. The episode is credited to Beau Willimon and will more than likely be the one he ever writes, given that he’s relinquishing his showrunner duties as of next season. Plot resolution is the last thing on his mind, however: He’s looking to put his final stamp on the characters of Frank and Claire Underwood, and that’s what he does in the hour’s final scenes.
Given the finality with which previous seasons have ended, it’s almost as if Willimon is pulling an Underwood-esque power play on his successors. “Here’s a bunch of cliffhangers for you. Good luck with them.” The hostage crisis is resolved, but in a way that leaves the Underwoods in their most precarious political position yet. Frank has Ahmadi freed from Guantanamo and flown to the United States, where Claire attempts to recreate her diplomatic magic with Petrov earlier in the season. She knows he isn’t really a zealot, but rather an opportunist like everyone else. Frank gets the kidnappers to release the wife and daughter in exchange for the opportunity to speak to Ahmadi. When the time comes, however, Ahmadi abandons the prepared text and tells his followers to release the video and kill the remaining hostage.
At this point, with Hammerschmidt’s article already out and only three weeks to go until the election, Claire and Frank make the decision to go full scorched-Earth. It’s hard to imagine anyone not seeing Frank’s speech from the Oval Office for the transparent political calculation it is—a craven attempt to distract from bad publicity by declaring war. It’s been done, of course—if anything, this is one of the least improbable moments of the Underwood administration—but in cutting off all negotiations with the hostage-takers, Frank knows he’s dooming Mr. Miller to death. Not only that, he’s counting on it.
It’s Claire who has the moment of clarity: We’ve tried making people love us and it hasn’t worked, so it’s time to make them fear us. Frank allows the video transmission to go out unblocked. His staffers watch in horror as the terrorists slit Miller’s throat (and, offscreen, probably cut off his head), but the Underwoods aren’t bothered at all. ”We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror,” Frank says in his final fourth wall-breaking of the season. And for the first time ever, Claire hears him speak to us and she seems to see us, too. Will anyone be surprised if she’s addressing the camera directly next year, too? This season’s biggest success has been in elevating her to a true equal, so it would only be appropriate. How the Underwoods hold onto power remains an open question, but it wouldn’t be out of character for them to suspend the election as long as the war continues (or until their popularity has risen enough to allow it to happen). What matters now is that this is the image Willimon has chosen to leave us with. Frank and Claire may not have a true marriage, but they have a real partnership and an understanding. It’s a match made of the purest black cynicism, but it will take a new set of showrunners to determine if one is truly worse than the other.
- “You said he was a vampire!” Way to spill the beans, Conway kid.
- “That’s the first time you’ve lied to me since you stopped lying to me.” Tom Yates learns what life with the Underwoods is all about.
- It will be interesting to which, if any, elements of this real election year are incorporated into the next season. Even as I write this, the words “Ted Cruz sex scandal” are trending. Maybe there are some depths of horror even House Of Cards won’t plumb.