clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

On House of Cards, lying to others works great. It's lying to yourself that's the problem.

Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Frank's complicated sexuality turns out to be a key to understanding what the series is trying to do.
Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Frank's complicated sexuality turns out to be a key to understanding what the series is trying to do.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I'm not a big fan of House of Cards, but its most recent, third season gave the show something it's needed for a while, something it will require if it wants to go to another level: a major theme to organize around.

For much of the show's run, the series has seemed to be built around some pretty basic ideas — power corrupts and politicians lie. There's nothing wrong with either idea, but the show seemed to present each as if it were the first fictional story to ever have thought of it. The tone of the show has always been mildly self-congratulatory, of both itself and the audience that watches it. "This is how it really is!" the show says, as a way to excuse its campier melodrama.

In season three, House of Cards didn't abandon these ideas, not at all. But it did give them both more nuance. The argument the show makes now is that all politicians lie, but dishonesty is less about lying to other people, than about lying to yourself. Power doesn't corrupt. Repression of the self does.

Spoilers for the full season follow.

In the closet

The most obvious example of this is the sexuality of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Season one presented him as a basically asexual man, who had perhaps been most passionately in love with a male friend back in his college days. Season two advanced him as a bisexual, genuinely attracted to both his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), and Secret Service agent/bodyguard Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow).

Season three shuffles the deck all over again. Frank and Claire have sex early in the season, but she does most of the work. When he comes close to actually connecting with someone sexually, it's novelist Tom Yates (Paul Sparks). In the season finale, Claire begs him to have sex with her, but he can't become aroused while looking at her. And throughout the season, the specter of Russia's terrible laws against its LGBT citizens — and Frank's refusal to stand up firmly for gay rights — haunts the proceedings, a clear indication that we're meant to read Frank's reticence as a reflection of how little he wants to talk about his sexual interest in men.

Frank is still, technically speaking, bisexual. He sleeps with both men and women, and he does seem to possess a sexual attraction to Claire. (The other woman we've seen him sleep with, reporter Zoe Barnes, was clearly someone he slept with as part of his Machiavellian scheming, which may be his truest love of all.) But when we see him truly connect with another person, in terms of genuine intimacy and arousal, it's always a man. There are obstacles between him and Claire. The only ones between him and, say, Tom are self-imposed.

So Frank seems to be primarily attracted to men, and the third season is intent on us knowing this. What's more, the series constantly films his sexual encounters thusly. When he's with Claire, she and Frank are genuinely equal partners in whatever they're doing, in terms of position within the frame. (The one exception to this: the season's early sex scene, where Claire holds all the power.)

But when Frank flirts with a man, he's usually reduced in power, both for story reasons (he's drunk!) and in terms of how the camera regards him. In his discussion with Tom, for instance, Tom is placed as the most powerful person in the scene, with Frank seeming to almost slide off the screen. He's not powerless. He's disarmed by what he feels.

Frank is also not a good person. He's pushed a lover in front of a train and manipulated a mostly innocent president out of power and taken everything he wants for himself. What season three makes clear is the direct line between Frank's repression of his homosexual attractions and every other horrible thing he does. To be honest with the self is the center of coming to terms with one's wrongdoing. But when you are forced to constantly lie about something as central to the self as your own sexuality, there's simply nothing to do but become more and more amoral.

This works with everybody else, too

Again and again, we see this is the case with House of Cards characters. It's just not always sexual in nature.

Claire, for instance, wants so much more than to be the wife of a politician, but she keeps getting reduced to that role anyway. And with every reduction in her status, she becomes more and more of an accessory to Frank's duplicitous rise.

Frank's right-hand man Doug (Michael Kelly) struggled for two seasons with his feelings for a woman he was supposed to kill. His true return to Frank's bosom comes in the season three finale, when he finally ignores those feelings and kills her. (This also marks him as a character beyond redemption in the show's world view.)

Or consider the opposite of this. Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), one of Frank's most trusted allies, is tossed aside when she begins to give in to the genuine love she feels for the husband she married mostly for political convenience — and the step-children that came with that marriage. There is no room for the genuine in Frank's circles, even if he's only subconsciously aware of the way he's tossing those who have earnest, true emotions aside.

In this way, House of Cards plays with the usual trope of dishonest politicians in a new way. Lies are a part of politics, the show argues. They may even be useful. But when a politician starts lying to the public about who he or she truly is, things start to go off-kilter.

Standard House of Cards caveats apply

Of course, it's not immediately clear this is a conscious choice on the series' part — or even that it's aware it's doing something interesting in this regard.

House of Cards often uses something we might as well call the, "hey, have you noticed?" school of storytelling, where every episode is just a collection of random notes head writer Beau Willimon and his writing staff have noticed about the political process. Frank's attraction to men has, thus, often felt like something of a riff on, say, former Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who was caught soliciting sex from men in an airport bathroom. Frank's complicated sexuality is less about deeper themes, in this view of the show, than it is in an attempt to be as salacious as possible.

In addition, the show's use of its "repression leads to amorality" theme is inconsistent at best, particularly since we know so little about so many of the series' side characters. It's hard to say, for example, how Remy (Mahershala Ali) fits into all of this, because we know basically nothing about him.

And even when the characters are being true to themselves, the show sometimes cuts them down anyway, because Frank must be elevated above all others, at all times. For instance, Claire spends most of season three seeming to actualize herself, then being punished for doing so, which cuts directly against this theory.

But the more I think about season three, a strained, messy season of TV, but one clearly trying to say something, the more I think this is probably central to what the show is trying to do. House of Cards still might be a mess, but it's become a much more interesting mess, and one with a central idea that might allow it to grow up to be a great drama someday.

House of Cards, season three, is currently streaming on Netflix.