Originally published at Let There Be Movies
I finally got the chance to sit down and watch House of Cards. This is a show that has been nominated 97 times for various awards with 15 wins including Golden Globes for Best Actor and Actress for Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as a ruthless, political power-couple. Fans on Twitter and Facebook have created paintings, digital art, and fanfiction. Even President Obama watches the show. Truly House of Cards has left an influential mark on the culture. But what is this show that has so many watching and talking?
In the first episode of Season One, we are introduced to Frank Underwood (Spacey), an ambitious Democratic House Majority Whip that has hitched his ticket to political ascendancy to current President-elect Garrett Walker (Michel Gill). Walker has promised Frank, once inaugurated, that he will appoint him Secretary of State. But, at the last second, Walker changes his mind thus leaving Frank in the lurch and struggling to reassess his goals. With his cold-as-steel wife Claire (Wright) at his side, Frank decides to undercut Walker’s presidency and take the White House for himself. But the cost will be deception, betrayal, and eventually murder.
The cast of House of Cards does an excellent job portraying the various players on the Hill: loyal Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), manipulative lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), ambitious reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Of course the show is largely carried by its main character, Frank, who is just the right mix of Southern, elitist banality and cold, calculating evil. Spacey plays this very well, particularly as he threatens others with his deep baritone growl and seething glares that cut through opponents like butter. Wright is perfectly matched with Spacey as Claire, an equally heartless co-conspirator in Frank’s political machinations.
The antihero protagonist seems to be the go-to formula for Hollywood storytelling these days, and Frank is certainly a cut above the rest. Perhaps the culture finds traditional heroism (i.e. adhering to a moral code, displaying courage, and self-sacrifice) boring and/or outdated. Perhaps not. But, whatever the reason, antiheroes are a dime-a-dozen in television and film: consider Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Ryan Gosling as The Driver in Drive, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man, or even next year’s villainous, Expendables-style, team-up flick Suicide Squad. Antiheroes don’t seem to be going anywhere.
An antihero is essentially someone who lacks the qualities I previously mentioned (i.e. a moral code, courage, and self-sacrifice), thus the opposite of what we consider to be traditional heroism. This is not to say that an antihero will refuse to perform a good deed. He may do so, but likely for selfish gain. Therefore antiheroes are those that possess deep character flaws and can sometimes oscillate between doing good and evil. For this reason, I think antiheroes are compelling as characters since their flaws make them more three-dimensional and relatable (as opposed to characters that never do anything wrong). Due to their capacity for performing both good and evil deeds, antiheroes can be useful in telling stories that match a Christian worldview. But they need to be told in the right way. Antiheroes can become repentant and, thus, reformed by the end of their story or they can be unrepentant and face true justice.
The Bible and Frank Underwood
Consider the two stories of Abimelech and King David in the Bible. In a particularly bloody power play, Abimelech convinced the leaders of Shechem to finance the hiring of thugs to help him kill seventy of his brothers so that he would ultimately rule Israel (Judges 9:1-6). It worked. He ruled for three years (v. 22). But God righted the scales of justice by allowing Abimelech to die, ironically, when a stone crushed his head during battle (v. 53). I say, ironically, because Scripture says Abimelech killed his brothers “on one stone” (v. 5); thus, Abimelech received a similar death for his evil actions.
King David is characterized in Acts 13:22 as “a man after [God’s] heart” and yet he slept with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and orchestrated Uriah’s death after she became pregnant (2 Samuel 11:2-17), all through a series of deceptions. God saw that David had done an evil thing (v. 27) and sent the prophet Nathan to exhort him. David genuinely repented and wrote Psalm 51. So in the first instance, God brought justice to the unrepentant Abimelech and, in the second, he brought grace to the repentant David. This is the expectation of Christians for those who do evil: grace for the truly repentant, justice for the unrepentant. So which one is Frank Underwood?
Frank is clearly unrepentant. As I mentioned previously, he has lied, cheated, and murdered to climb the political ladder; and it seems clear that he believes he is justified in his actions. Speaking of himself, Frank says, “Moments like this require someone who will act, who will do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.” Of course, Frank gets to decide what is “necessary” in the name of his selfish pursuits. Regardless of the fact that others in his inner circle have moments of doubt and uncertainty (even his stalwart cohort Claire in Season Three), Frank displays none appearing to slink deeper and deeper into the eternal fire of soul corruption. This is where those Christians who may be watching this show need to be very clear about who Frank is.
Frank and Future Seasons
Frank is not someone to admire. He may do some good things in the show (i.e. love his wife, keep his promises, show kindness to colleagues and staff, etc.), but he almost always does so with impure motives. James 4:3 shows us that doing something right with wrong motivations is still wrong because God looks at the heart (Proverbs 21:2). So Frank should not be admired. Neither should he be chuckled at, particularly when he gets away with his schemes. This is a man who manipulated and ended people’s careers so he could advance his own. A man who murdered several people because they posed a threat to his plans to become President. A man who walked up to a crucifix in the middle of a church and spat on it, probably due to hubris for not having yet received the just penalty of his actions. No, Frank should not be chuckled at. He is a character that should be recoiled from, an Abimelech-style parable waiting to be finished.
We know that, sometimes, evil does prevail in this life (particularly in politics). Justice is not swift. But we also have the promise that the Creator will judge every act (Ecclesiastes 12:14) and all will be made right in His eyes (Psalm 9:8). Antiheroes like Frank Underwood can be useful lessons, if handled properly; that is, Frank could turn out to be an Abimelech or a King David (the more I see, the more I’m thinking the former). But, for secularists, there is an unbiblical third option: Frank wins; he gains strength by killing the weak in a survival-of-the-fittest political ecosystem; and he receives no justice because, ultimately, there can be no such thing in a godless, relative world.
If the show pursues this third option and brings no justice to Frank’s character in future seasons, what worldview will have been expressed to the viewer? That is the most important question we Christians can be asking fans of House of Cards.
 See Captain America