Midway through season five, episode eleven, of Netflix’s series House of Cards,(2013-2018) viewers watch as Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) walks across the spacious interior of the Whitehouse residency. It is something that we have witnessed her do on numerous occasions; yet in this instance, she abruptly stops, turns, and looks straight at the camera to deliver her first direct address. Despite season five providing hints about an impending power struggle between Claire and Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey), Claire’s use of the device caught the viewer off guard. This is largely because providing access to the internal thoughts and feelings of two (or more) characters through direct address is an unusual occurrence on stage or screen. Crucially, Claire’s admission that she had “always known” the audience was there came six months before Kevin Spacey would be fired from the series over sexual assault allegations. Throughout the previous sixty-two episodes, viewers had been privy solely to Frank's direct address. Claire’s subsummation of the device, however, signalled a new trajectory for her character and for that of the series’ narrative.
Direct address, where a character within the confines of the narrative breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to an implied audience was a specialty of William Shakespeare. Indeed, Spacey stated that the “truth is Frank wouldn’t exist without Richard III,” the titular character of Shakespeare’s history-tragedy written around 1593.1 Richard III traces the Machiavellian rise to power of King Richard III of England, centering on issues of corruption, deceit, and abuse of power. Like Claire, Frank, and later Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Richard III controls the narrative, other characters, and the audience, though the employment of direct address. This article investigates House of Cards’ adaptation (and appropriation) of the direct address used by Shakespeare’s Richard III, examining the links between the use of the device and the power and control a character imposes over other characters, the narrative, and us, the audience. Central to the argument is an examination of the conspiratorial nature of the direct address; as will be shown, the device is often employed by characters to elicit audience sympathy and control the discourse. Further, the discussion surveys the importance of direct address to the powershift that occurs between Frank Underwood and Claire Underwood at the end of season five and extends to Doug Stamper’s use of the device in the final season (see Figure 1).
While Shakespeare was a well-known proponent of the aside, and often employed soliloquy, Richard’s moments breaking the fourth wall are “firmly in the tradition of the direct address.”2 The Shakespearean direct address provides clues to characters’ personality and motivations, while providing the audience with information that other characters in the narrative do not possess. Indeed, for those familiar with early modern drama, House of Cards is likely to evoke the golden age of English theatre, immortalized by the works of Shakespeare (along with his contemporaries, in particular, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Johnson). Early modern drama, also known as English Renaissance theatre, typically refers to the dramas produced in England between 1562 and 1642. During this period, the genre of the historical play, depicting the lives of kings and the political machinations of court life, proved extremely popular. Yet, while Richard III has long been considered a prototypical early modern stage villain, there is an earlier period of drama influencing Shakespeare, and ultimately, the House of Cards showrunners. The medieval morality plays were the forerunner to Shakespeare’s own influential work of early modern drama, and an important vestige of the morality play in the Western world was the employment of the aside, or direct address. Indeed, Shakespeare was aware of this device when writing his own dramas, and in Richard III he acknowledges the history of the Vice character of morality plays, coupled with breaking the fourth wall through direct address, in a single instance.3 In Act 3, Scene 1, Richard attempts to manipulate his nephew, the young Prince Edward, the rightful heir to the throne. In the exchange, however, the Prince, oddly, notices Richard’s aside, drawing audiences’ attention to the device:
Richard: (aside) So wise, so young, they say, do never live long.
Prince: What say you, uncle?
Richard: I say, without characters fame lives long.
(aside) Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity,
I moralise two meanings in one word.
As Bill Overton has noted, “Richard’s special brand of the direct address comes from the role of Vice in Morality plays.”4 Indeed, by referencing Iniquity, Shakespeare is evoking two vestiges of the dramatic form employed by his predecessors—direct address and the employment of the Vice character. The Morality plays were allegorical dramas that typically contained a protagonist who personified moral qualities such as charity or vice, while most of the minor characters were personifications of good and evil.5 Of course, the clear majority of Shakespeare’s characters resist being reduced to any fixed principles, yet, just as with Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences, modern audiences are presented with numerous narratives that break the fourth wall. Films that have characters speak directly to the audience range in scope from A Clockwork Orange (1971), to Goodfellas (1990), to Funny Games (1997), to Fight Club (1999),to The Lord of War (2005), to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and, perhaps most famously, Ferris Buller’s Day Off (1986). Yet, in modern television series the use of direct address is less common. The absence of direct address on TV lead Kevin Spacey, speaking of his character Frank Underwood in House of Cards, to say:
Michael Dobbs wrote the book and the original TV show in Britain based on Richard’s direct address. I didn’t invent that: Shakespeare invented that whole idea of making the audience a co-conspirator, bringing you in on his ideas and plans. The experience I had doing that in front of audiences, looking into the eyes of people around the world as I brought them in was a huge thing to learn, before I started shooting “House of Cards.” It’s different than Frank Underwood looking down the barrel of the camera lens. It’s naughty fun looking into the eyes of people around the globe.6
Spacey incorrectly suggests that it is Shakespeare that invented the co-conspirator through the employment of direct address, yet he correctly points out that it is a technique shared by both Richard III and Frank Underwood.7 Indeed, it is their dazzling use of language that keeps Richard and Frank’s audiences fascinated and their subjects and rivals under their control. It is through direct address that we, the viewers of the narratives, get invited into a very private world – the inner thoughts and feelings of the lead character.
Historically speaking, the direct address is a crucial antecedent for character interiority that is a marker of the modern novel. It is no surprise then, that in the fictional worlds of Richard III and House of Cards, Richard and Frank become narrator-like figures of their own stories, punctuating narrative events with their inner thoughts. In this way many of the similarities and benefits of first-person narration are embedded in the code of the direct address. The most important similarity, arguably, is the ability for the protagonist to espouse principles, morals, and ideologies that influence the audience through employment of the direct address. Just as a first-person narrator of a short story or novel can position a reader to align and sympathize with their specific worldview, particular discourse choices employed during the use of direct address by actors of theatre, TV, and film operates to establish a similar level of intimacy and connivance with an audience. A solitary character that employs direct address is assuming a certain level of complicity from their audience.8
The power of the direct address rests in a character’s ability to make us accomplices and co-conspirators in deeds we would otherwise find abhorrent. Take for example the direct address we receive at the end of the first episode of the second season of House of Cards – the same episode where Frank kills Zoe Barnes, the intrepid Washington Herald reporter who is threatening to uncover Frank’s murder of congressman Peter Russo:9
Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you’d hoped I had. Don’t waste a breath mourning Miss Barnes; every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless at first—small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood, sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted. Welcome back. (S2E1)
In this relatively short direct address Frank executes several verbal strategies to align us with his way of thinking – to indoctrinate us. In his first act, despite suggesting that we may have wished to be left alone, he acknowledges his inattentiveness. Although writing about season four in a March 2016 article on Digitalspy.com, Morgan Jeffery asked “Why isn’t Frank Underwood talking to us?”. Jeffery goes on to write, “The entire first episode [of season four] goes by without the President addressing his people once. We felt upset. Why had we been snubbed?”.10 As viewers, we become accustomed to the regular and direct attention from Frank. As an episode of House of Cards unfolds, many viewers anticipate when Frank will turn to the mode of direct address to impart private information. Frank’s acknowledgement of the absence of his interiority draws viewer attention to the need he has created, and we feel “snubbed” when he ignores us.
For his second speech act, Frank positions Zoe as one deserving of her fate; through the analogy of the kitten growing up to possess the dangerous claws of fully-grown cat he imbues an otherwise innocent person with maleficent motives. It is in this speech act that Frank forces the viewer to question the alternative – that had he not acted it would be he who was prey. When it is put to us in this way, we begin to rationalize that Zoe was becoming dangerous, and she wasn’t as innocent as she might have outwardly appeared. It is here that we begin to empathize with Frank’s predicament— that to survive he had to go on the offensive.
In his final speech act, Frank welcomes us back; we are once again part of the inner circle, the inner circle of a powerful man who does what is needed. Frank is a hunter, someone with the fortitude to do what needs to be done, someone the viewer would like to think they could be if push came to shove – perhaps not murder, but at least a will to survive that overpowers everything else. As Beau Willimon, writer and co-producer of House of Cards has stated:
Francis is someone who won’t play by the rules and through him we get to see a vengeful and duplicitous side that may lie within us. There is an element of wish fulfilment there; he shines a light on the darker, more primal elements of ourselves that all great drama is trying to illuminate.11
Supporting the notion that Frank is reflecting a “duplicitous side that may lie within us,” the scene is shot from behind Kevin Spacey, the figure of Frank reflected in a bathroom mirror (see Figure 2). As I will discuss later, this technique is repurposed in the final season of the series when Doug Stamper breaks the fourth wall. In both scenes, the mirror acts as a form of confession, a device that “reflects” the innermost thoughts and feelings of Frank and Doug. Systematically revealing intimate details through direct address becomes a narrative necessity, and finding novel ways for characters to confess to the audience is vital to our ongoing complicity. Confiding “darker, more primal elements” to a secondary character on stage or screen can feel contrived – particularly over the course of a multi-season television series. The secondary character is generally a friend or sidekick that acts as a soundboard for the primary character’s internal thoughts and feelings. Direct address circumvents this generic requirement in favor of a far more personal approach – that of being spoken to discreetly by the lead character. Further, for viewers to maintain interest in Richard III and House of Cards, Shakespeare and the showrunners needed a mechanism through which the heinous acts committed by Richard and Frank (and later Claire and Doug) could be reconciled, or at least, alleviated. Hearing an individual’s rationalization for a certain choice or specific action will always humanize the decision made.
In Creating Compelling Characters for Film, TV, Theatre and Radio, Rib Davis has stated, “the monologue, while being a self-description, is also a statement of a state of mind. This is one of the most successful functions of speech direct to the audience – expressing a character’s state of mind.”12 Firsthand accounts offer a direct, and seemingly factual, representation of events, particularly of character interiority. The power of the direct address in Frank and Richard’s hands is that we are privy to their reasoning; no matter the act, there is always an explanation that enables viewers to acquiescent to their way of thinking about the world. Through the power of the direct address, viewers are invited into a character’s “state of mind,” leading to viewers being interpolated into Frank’s constituency, and sympathetic of Richard’s tyrannical pursuit of the throne.
Further, what the direct address does so brilliantly, just as a first-person narration does, is it allows the protagonist to control the message that we as the viewer are receiving. Of course, this raises questions surrounding the reliability of the account we are being provided; there is little doubt that Richard and Frank are manipulating us. However, there is an authenticity to their moments of direct address – the audience never feels like the characters are being anything but forthright with us – even if we question their motives. Discussing the issue of complicity and interiority Spacey has stated, “Where I was able to make an adjustment in my own thinking about it [eliciting complicity] was that, instead of thinking like I’m talking to lots and lots of people, I’m talking to my best friend, the person that I trust more than anyone.”13 Spacey’s acting establishes a confessional, interpersonal, nature to Frank’s direct address and we are often found to be aligned with his way of thinking.
Indeed, we cannot overlook Kevin Spacey’s enormous talent as an actor in this process of character/viewer alignment. The winner of two Oscars, one for Best Supporting Actor in The Usual Suspects (1995), the other an Academy Award for Best Actor in American Beauty (1999), viewers were accustomed to Spacey’s captivating onscreen performances long before his role as a ruthless politician. While there will always be those who dislike a fictional character, a consensus has formed both anecdotally and in a multitude of publications that supports my argument that Frank is viewed positively by viewers, or in the very least, admired for his varied talents.14 In fact, Spacey’s pre-controversy charm carried over into the role of Frank Underwood and led commentators such as Robin Burks to state, “He’s a liar, a cheat, a manipulator, a murderer and perhaps worst of all, a politician. However, there’s something about House of Cards' Frank Underwood that we absolutely love.”15
Of course, Burks’ statement could apply just as easily to Richard III. Frank Underwood is cut from the same satisfying villainous cloth as Shakespeare’s original anti-hero. Those familiar with Richard III will immediately recognize the similarity between the titular character and Frank Underwood, adding a further layer of narrative depth and characterization.16 Viewers of both Richard III and House of Cards would also be familiar with being spoken to directly by the central character. Traditionally, the employment of direct address has been the domain of a single character, often the chief protagonist, or principal agent in the narrative.17 The protagonist with control of the direct address subsumes a superior epistemic position within the fictional world – quite literally they hold a privileged position within the narrative. Characters who employ direct address can manipulate how we view certain aspects of the narrative simply by interjecting themselves into the discourse. Often this privileged position manifests in insightful personal awareness; for example, in Act 1, Scene 3 of Richard III when Richard remarks:
I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl.
The secret mischiefs that I set abroach
I lay unto the grievous charge of others.
Clarence, who I indeed have cast in darkness,
I do beweep to many simple gulls,
Namely to Derby, Hastings, Buckingham,
And tell them ’tis the queen and her allies
That stir the king against the duke my brother.
Now they believe it, and withal whet me
To be revenged on Rivers, Dorset, Grey.
But then I sigh, and with a piece of scripture
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil.
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil
In this insightful direct address, Richard confesses to the audience that he is being duplicitous, acting as the saint, but being the devil. His privileged position within the fictional world is revealed through his intimate knowledge of character motivation and narrative action. Here, Richard reveals himself to be what Gillian Day terms “a cynical puppet-master,”18 covering his abominable actions with lines of scripture while convincing the unsuspecting minor characters he is innocent of all wrongdoing. Richard’s all-encompassing vantage point of his current predicament speaks to the privileged position of the character that holds the direct address – they generally know more than other characters. Since control of the narrative is at stake, utilizing competing voices through direct address rarely occurs on stage or screen.
Further, there is immediacy to the delivery of a character’s message to the audience; the character that controls the direct address has a direct line of communication to the viewer. While I have shown that this immediacy enables the character to manipulate the narrative after a scene has occurred, as was evidenced by Frank’s direct address after killing Zoe Barnes, a character controlling the direct address can influence our reception of narrative events prior to them occurring. For example, in the first scene of the first act of Richard III we learn of Richard’s plot – a determination to “prove a villain” – that influences viewer reception of the narrative from the outset:
Richard III: Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate, the one against the other;
Through direct address the audience is made aware of Richard’s political machinations. Indeed, the audience is given access to the internal thoughts of the lead protagonist through the employment of the device, rather than through another means of narrative exposition. Like that of Richard’s “plots,” “prophecies,” and “dreams,” Frank’s employment of direct address in House of Cards is often used to guide audience’s attention to what he believes is the most salient issue. In doing so, Frank is capable of skewing viewer perspective and reception of characters and events. As Manfred Pfister has stated “One of the functions of… asides is to inform the audience about the background to the dramatic situation and the speaker’s plans and thus both to create a level of suspense for what is to follow and to ensure the audience has an informational advantage over the victims of the intrigue.”19 We witness this occurring in episode eight of season four when Frank is forced by the Democratic Party leadership to meet with a potential Presidential running mate:
Frank Underwood: [Directly addressing viewers as he gestures towards the man waiting in the oval office] Senator Dean Austen of Ohio, the leadership’s top choice for running mate. [Starts counting with his fingers] Twelve years in Congress, helps us with a major swing state, middle of the road, very few enemies, and most important to them, long-time friend of the NRA [raises all five fingers one by one]. Now his shortcomings are [starts counting with fingers again]: he’s another middle-aged white guy, underwhelming, unimaginative, and a long-time friend of the NRA. [only middle finger remains] So you can see how I feel about the leadership’s choice.
To emphasize Frank’s position, direct address and action are combined in this scene. Frank’s words, and the gesture of sticking his middle finger up, leave little to the viewers’ imagination. Indeed, Senator Austen never stood a chance; through direct address Frank performs a character assassination on the would-be Vice President prior to him speaking a word. Frank’s privileged position within the fictional world is on display here. Characters without the powerful oratory device of direct address are not afforded the same agency, and therefore the same, literal, voice. Those denied direct address, ostensibly everyone else in the narrative outside the key protagonist, are vulnerable to having the connotation, the substance and essence of their message, distorted by a far more dominant voice – and there are none more dominant than Frank Underwood’s – particularly when he is on the offensive. Some stock examples are when he advises us to “Shake with your right hand but hold a rock with your left” (S2:E5), or that “When you're fresh meat, kill and throw them something fresher” (S2:E11).
The importance of direct address, and by proxy who controls it in House of Cards, became more apparent after the release of season five in May, 2017. Season five centers on shifting power dynamics, specifically the transition of Robin Wright’s character, Claire Underwood, from vice-president to president of the United States. It is within this transition of power that we witness a shift from Frank as principal agent in the narrative, to Claire’s new position as lead protagonist.20 Astute viewers will recall the final scene of the final episode of season four where Claire breaks the fourth wall for the first time. Sitting with Frank in the Whitehouse Situation Room, Claire looks directly down the lens of the camera as Frank delivers the line, “That’s right. We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.” As previously mentioned, two characters breaking the fourth wall is an uncommon occurrence on stage or screen. Yet, the dual employment of the device signals the impending power struggle between Claire and Frank, although Claire has yet to find her voice.
Claire’s first time breaking the fourth wall coincides with her suggestion that Frank leverage the public’s fear surrounding the fictionalized ISIS group, ICO, and her dispassionate reaction to the subsequent live beheading of James Miller, an innocent American civilian. What viewers’ witness from this point in the narrative is a shift in power from president to vice-president, from husband to wife, and from the silent to the vocal. In the process, Claire subsumes the weaponized, vitriolic rhetoric, previously the domain of Frank alone. Further, the peculiar nature of the link between direct address and power coincides with Claire’s increasingly callous behavior. Yet, rather than subsuming control immediately, as the fifth season unfolds, and as Frank increasingly loses his grip on power, Claire is involved in several pseudo direct addresses. Thus, the gradual shift in power from Frank to Claire is reflected in Claire’s gradual acquisition of the direct address.21
Just after the Netflix title image fades to black in the opening scene of episode one, season five, a close-up of Claire Underwood’s face appears on screen; she is looking directly down the lens of the camera as she was at the end of the last episode of season four. Given the continuity of the two scenes,22 viewers are deceived into thinking she is once again breaking the fourth wall by her opening line, “I’ve been meaning to talk with you.” The employment of “you” catches the viewer off guard; we believe that in this moment Claire is breaking the fourth wall. This summation is supported by the position of the camera, a tight focus on Claire’s face, leading the viewer to conclude Claire is addressing us, just as Frank has done in the preceding four seasons. Yet as Claire continues her address, stating, “It’s terrifying, isn’t it? The President and I have a simple request: tell us what you see,” the camera begins to pan back revealing a TV monitor. The viewer immediately realizes that not only has Claire been addressing a camera, but also that we’ve been doubly removed from the anticipated, verbal, direct address by proxy of viewing Claire through the monitor, rather than the camera lens (see Figure 3).
In this instance, it turns out to be nothing more than a campaign message Claire is delivering for Frank— something for the bloggers to bemoan once the scene is revealed to be a ruse. Finally, however, in episode eleven of the fifth season Claire speaks directly to the audience for the first time in the series. As she is crossing the hallway between her bedroom and Frank’s bedroom in the Whitehouse residence she stops abruptly, turns to look directly down the lens of the camera, and states:
Just to be clear, it’s not that I haven't always known you were there. It’s that I have mixed feelings about you. I question your intentions and I’m ambivalent about attention. But don’t take it personally. It’s how I feel about most everybody.
Claire’s first verbal direct address is very direct; and in the process of breaking the fourth wall, she establishes an interesting dichotomy. While the audience had some inclination that she was cognizant of an “existence” outside the fictional world, Claire directly references the implied viewer as an entity privy to the machinations of her private and political life. Although not referencing the device of the direct address specifically, V.F Perkins’ observations about the fictional world of film has relevance here; Perkins stated, “Though… performers have to be aware of the camera’s needs, their playing most often creates the camera’s absence and thereby transforms the nature of the space in front of them. It is not that these characters are oblivious to the camera. There is no camera in their world.”23 The direct address stands in direct opposition to Perkins’ assessment: despite the material impossibility that characters on screen can look directly at us, Claire’s direct stare, and acknowledgement of the existence of an observer outside her fictional world, immediately establishes a new relationship between character and viewer.
While the viewer had been the voyeur of the relationship up until this juncture, Claire’s admission that she has “always known [we] were there,” inverts this dynamic. Throughout this article, I have been arguing that the direct address offers the viewer insight into characters’ interiority. Claire’s observation, however, turns the lens toward the viewer in what could be described as the most Brechtian moment of the series so far. Just as I have argued that characters who control the direct address often have the most insight into narrative events, Claire’s declaration draws viewer attention to the privileged position we hold; we too gain more narrative insight owing to the engagement of the device within the fictional world. Since Frank had employed the direct address from the outset of the narrative we never experienced a disruption of the same magnitude as when Claire acknowledges our existence. Indeed, alignment with a protagonist who speaks directly to us is counter to the verfremdungseffekt, the “estrangement effect,” or “alienation effect,” often generated by the direct address, and made popular by the Epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht.
At first glance, the connections between real-life and the contemporary political climate playing out in America during House of Cards run would also appear quite Brechtian. In fact, across the six seasons, the connection between events in Washington and the series received a lot of critical attention. This attention peaked after the 2016 presidential election, and Donald Trump’s subsequent victory over Hillary Clinton. Despite critics and viewers drawing parallels between House of Cards and real-life events during this period, including to the #metoo movement and issues surrounding gender politics, Spacey stated that the creative directors and writers “never felt an obligation to compete with the real world.”24 Cast and crew were quick to dismiss any similarities between events depicted on the series, and those playing out in contemporary American politics. The consensus, particularly toward the end of the series run, was that it did not go far enough, and that fact was truly stranger than fiction.25
Despite the narrative being rooted in fiction, there is something uncomfortable about being observed when it is unbeknown to you (once it is revealed), and Claire’s admission that she has “always known [we] were there,” draws viewer attention to the act of “seeing,” or “viewing,” inherent in the employment of the direct address. We also perceive Claire’s familiarity with the audience in the delivery of her first direct address. As John Corner has written in The Television Studies Reader,“The social relations of direct address speech on television make it possible for the speaker to adopt a conversational register and to assume a relationship of familiarity with the viewer.”26 By the time Claire breaks the fourth wall (verbally) for the first time, there are just two full episodes remaining in the season, yet through Claire’s casual direct address, we develop an immediate affinity with her. Our affinity with Claire is aided by her transition into the seat of ultimate power – the Presidency – the seat currently held by her husband with whom we have had an assumed relationship (through direct address) in the proceeding five seasons. In addition, in the following episode, the penultimate episode of the season, Claire murders her lover, Tom Yates, reminiscent of Frank’s murder of Zoe back in season two. In doing so, she has joined the ranks of her villainess husband and the unscrupulous characters of Shakespeare’s plays. She has crossed a threshold from co-conspirator, to conspirator, from accomplice to murder, to murderer.
As Claire becomes increasingly willing to accept violence and be ruthless, she begins to subsume Frank’s share of power, his control of the direct address, and ultimately, control of us, the audience. Similarly, Claire’s short direct address reveals that she too has had an all-encompassing view of both the machinations of the political world she inhabits, and the world external to her in which the viewer resides. Yet, realizing that direct address can only be held by a single character, season five ends with Claire staring straight at the audience and uttering the dramatic words, “My turn.” This simple direct address references Claire’s control over the United States as its President, her ability to control the narrative, and by proxy, us the audience. In between season five and season six, however, Kevin Spacey was fired over sexual assault allegations, leading co-showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson to revise the final eight episodes. Indeed, by the opening episode of season six, Frank has mysteriously lost his life and his longtime friend and confidant, Doug Stamper, remains in a mental health facility claiming responsibility for Zoe Barnes’ death. The revision meant the series would chart a showdown between Claire and Doug Stamper, not Claire and Frank as had originally been planned.
Needing to explain Spacey’s sudden exit from the series, a trailer released by Netflix prior to the sixth season revealed Frank’s fate to fans. In the short clip, which begins in medias res, Claire stands at Frank’s tombstone on the family property in Gaffney and states: “I’ll tell you this though, Francis. When they bury me, it won’t be in my backyard. And when they pay their respects, they’ll have to wait in line.” Continuing the legacy of breaking the fourth wall witnessed in the final scene of the final episode of season five, Claire looks directly at the camera as she delivers her final line. Viewers will immediately recognize the insult bestowed upon Frank; he is buried next to his father (whose tombstone he urinates on in season 3), rather than the Arlington National Cometary in Washington D.C. Further, Claire’s knowing glance at viewers leaves no doubt as to who is in charge of the narrative as we enter the final season.
From the outset, House of Cards’ final season orbits around Doug Stamper’s
defense of Frank’s legacy and Claire’s attempt to destroy it. For five seasons, Stamper was Frank’s confidant and loyal ally; with Frank gone, Stamper is pitted against Claire,27 replacing the power struggle that was originally meant for husband and wife. Michael Kelly, who played Stamper, stated that “Doug's whole season is dedicated to protecting this man’s [Frank’s] legacy and trying to clear his name. The irony of it all is that’s what he’s doing all season.”28 In order to illuminate the struggle for control over Frank’s legacy, and control over the narrative presented to viewers, the showrunners once again reverted to two characters breaking the fourth wall. As has been argued above, the character that controls direct address is in a superior epistemic position – their voice being able to shape narrative perception in a way other characters are incapable of. Yet, just as Claire usurped Frank’s voice and control of the narrative in the latter half of season five, she too must contend with the competing voice of Doug Stamper in the concluding episodes of the final season.
Showrunner Frank Pugliese stated of Doug Stamper breaking the fourth wall, “All kinds of characters are negotiating or wrestling with the narrative over the course of the season, and that’s Doug overtly stating his version or his attempt to control the narrative as well.”29 Just as Claire’s gradual accession to power coincided with her acquisition of direct address, Stamper’s own attempt to control the narrative coincides with his breaking the fourth wall. Seeking the narrative closure required of the final season, the showrunners had Claire and Doug employ direct address to send a message to each other, and also, by proxy, to the audience. In episode six of the final season, Claire breaks the fourth wall – looking directly at the camera, she sends a message to Stamper (and the audience), “Come and get me, Doug.” Enraged, and clearly anticipating a final showdown with Claire, Doug goes to the bathroom where he cuts himself shaving. Rubbing the blood between his fingers, Doug looks directly at the audience and utters, “She [Claire] leaves me no choice.” The combination of his words, and the cut, are a premonition of the bloodshed to follow. Yet, the scene is also reminiscent of Frank’s direct address from season two where he implored us to not “waste a breath mourning Miss [Zoe] Barnes.” Like Frank four seasons earlier, the scene is shot from behind Michael Kelly, the figure of Doug reflected in the bathroom mirror. Further, and once again reminiscent of Frank’s mirror scene, Doug offers his own confession to viewers. In Stamper’s case, his line can be read in two ways; first, that he intends to kill Claire, and second, that he intends to seize control – both of the narrative and the way in which the narrative is being told.
With Frank dead, the final scene of the series presents the climactic showdown between the two remaining characters who have broken the fourth wall (see Figure 4). Of course, two competing voices directly addressing the audience is untenable in a narrative that relies on audience complicity, only one character could remain. The showrunners employed Claire and Doug’s competing voices like any other narrative device; using the speech act to heighten dramatic tension, yet aware that a resolution was required. Seeking a pardon for Frank, Doug goes to the Oval Office and reveals that it was he who killed the ex-president. Frank had intended to kill Claire, yet Doug intervened in order to protect Frank’s legacy from himself. After Claire refuses his demands, Doug holds Frank’s letter opener to Claire’s throat. Incapable of carrying through with the murder, Claire turns the letter opener on Doug, thrusting it into his abdomen.
Signaling the importance direct address had on the entire series, Claire utters the words ‘There. No more pain’, as she looks straight at the audience, breaking the fourth wall for the final time and ending the series run with a fade to black. Claire’s statement forces the audience to consider their own complicity in the multitude of painful acts witnessed throughout the previous six seasons. Further, the astute viewer will recognize the line ‘No more pain’, and the subsequent final glance at the audience, as a mirroring of the first scene of the first episode of the first season where Frank euthanized an injured dog with his bare hands. Through direct address, the series completes a full circle; just as Frank took pity on the injured dog in the very first scene of the series, Claire takes pity on Doug Stamper – Frank’s very own version of a loyal attack dog – in the final scene of the show.
While the audience has little knowledge of what becomes of President Claire Hale after Doug’s murder, we are cognizant that she is the only character remaining capable of direct address. The knowledge that Claire now controls the ultimate power that is the presidency speaks to the importance of direct address to the series. Throughout House of Cards, direct address was employed to impose control over characters, the narrative, and the audience. Power, control, and the direct address are a triumvirate that operates to engage viewers as complicit accomplices in abhorrent deeds, while evoking intimacy and trust through the externalisation of character interiority. While three unscrupulous House of Cards characters break the fourth wall (Claire, Frank, Doug), only one can ultimately endure. Claire’s use of the device of direct address, like that of Frank and Doug Stamper’s, was of paramount importance to narrative exposition, just as it was for characters of the morality plays, and just as it was for William Shakespeare’s Richard III.
1 Anne Thompson, ‘Kevin Spacey Q & A: House of Cards Wouldn't Exist Without Richard III, Focus of Self-Released Doc (VIDEO)’, IndieWire, 2 May 2014, www.indiewire.com/2014/05/kevin-spacey-q-a-house-of-cards-wouldnt-exist-without-richard-iii-focus-of-self-released-doc-video-192386.
2 Bill Overton, ‘Play of the King?: King Richard III and Richard’, Critical Survey, 1:1, Spring 1989, p. 7.
3 For more on the link between the Vice character and House of Cards see: James R. Keller, ‘The Vice in Vice President: House of Cards and the Morality Tradition’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 43:3, pp. 111-120.
4 Overton, ‘Play of the King?’, p. 7.
5 See: John D. Cox, The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350–1642, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.147.
6 Anne Thompson, ‘Kevin Spacey Q & A: House of Cards’.
7 While the focus is currently on the character of Frank Underwood, I turn to examine Claire Underwood and Doug Stamper’s appropriation of direct address later in the article.
8 I will be discussing the issue of single character direct address toward the end of this article.
9 It is also important to note here that Frank was having an affair with Zoe prior to murdering her. As I will examine later in this article, Claire Underwood also murders her lover once she begins to subsume Frank’s political power and the direct address.
10 Morgan Jeffery, ‘House of Cards season 4: Why isn't Frank Underwood talking to us?’, Digital Spy, 4 March 2016, www.digitalspy.com/tv/house-of-cards/news/a785641/house-of-cards-season-4-kevin-spacey-frank-underwood-talk-to-camera.
11 Scott Ellis, ‘Spacey balances out the diabolical in House of Cards’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 2013, www.smh.com.au/entertainment/spacey-balances-out-the-diabolical-in-house-of-cards-20130502-2iu2p.html.
12 Rib Davis, Creating Compelling Characters for Film, TV, Theatre and Radio, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 120.
13 Ziyad Saadi and Alison Willmore, ‘10 Things We Learned From Kevin Spacey About Frank Underwood, Netflix and House of Cards Season Two’, IndieWire, 6 February 2014, www.indiewire.com/2014/02/10-things-we-learned-from-kevin-spacey-about-frank-underwood-netflix-and-house-of-cards-season-two-30267.
14 In a long thread on Reddit titled ‘Are we supposed to like Frank’, viewers debate this very question. Some of the responses criticise Frank, citing his ruthlessness and lack of empathy. Yet, many more state that they either like Frank, or in the very least, respect or admire him. Respect and admiration are traits that align us with characters, even if we are unable to bring ourselves to ‘like’ them. See: ‘Are we supposed to like Frank’, Reddit, 21 December 2014, https://www.reddit.com/r/HouseOfCards/comments/2pyife/are_we_supposed_to_like_frank/
15 Robin Burks, ‘“House Of Cards”: Why We Love The Despicable Frank Underwood’, Tech Times, 3 March 2016, www.techtimes.com/articles/138083/20160303/house-of-cards-why-we-love-the-despicable-frank-underwood.htm.
16 This is not to say that those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s work miss out; they still benefit from the original characterisation of Richard III when watching Frank Underwood.
17 Of course, this isn’t the case in all narratives. In literature, there are numerous examples where a narrator isn’t the protagonist of the narrative: Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925)are just two prominent examples.
18 Gillian Day, King Richard III: Shakespeare at Stratford Series, (London: Bloomsbury, 2001), p. 26.
20 As mentioned in my introduction, Claire’s transition into this position was instigated prior to Kevin Spacey being fired from House of Cards in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.
21 In addition to the scene analyzed below, another intimated direct address occurs at the end of Episode 5, when it is revealed that Congress was unable to choose between Underwood and Conway. Here, Claire walks purposefully towards the camera and takes a breath, but once again does not speak directly to the viewer.
22 The continuity is exacerbated by the prevalence of ‘binge watching’ the series.
23 V.F. Perkins, ‘Where is the World? The Horizon of Events in Movie Fiction’, in Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film, John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds.), (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 24.
24 Nick Levine, ‘Kevin Spacey Responds to Claims House of Cards “Steals” Ideas From Trump and Real Life’, 21 June 2017, NME, https://www.nme.com/news/kevin-spacey-responds-to-claims-house-of-cards-steals-ideas-from-donald-trump-2091078.
25 As Malcom Venable has written: ‘short of introducing a black villainess, a scorned porn star, an entertainer off his meds, a couple of full-blown race riots and central members of the Underwood campaign going to jail, nothing House of Cards could do in its final season could come close to the insanity and dread its viewers experience every time they scroll their feeds.’ See: Malcom Venable, ‘House of Cards Just Couldn't Be as Interesting as Real Politics Anymore’, 8 November 2018, TV Guide, https://www.tvguide.com/news/house-of-cards-final-season-review-real-world-politics.
26 John Corner, ‘Adworlds’, in The Television Studies Reader, Robert Clyde Allen & Annette Hill (eds.), (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 228.
27 Claire reverts to her maiden name, Hale, after Frank’s death, becoming President Claire Hale.
28 Jackie Strause, ‘House of Cards Star on Series Finale Fate and “Releasing the Demons”’, 7 November 2018, Hollywood Reporter, www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/house-cards-series-finale-doug-stamper-death-explained-1158562.
29 Jackie Strause, ‘House of Cards Showrunners Unravel Series Finale Death Mystery’, 5 November 2018, Hollywood Reporter, www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/house-cards-series-finale-francis-underwood-death-explained-1157831.
Burks, Robin. ‘“House Of Cards”: Why We Love The Despicable Frank Underwood’, Tech Times, 3 March 2016, www.techtimes.com/articles/138083/20160303/house-of-cards-why-we-love-the-despicable-frank-underwood.htm. Accessed 20 January 2021.
Corner, John. ‘Adworlds’, in The Television Studies Reader, Robert Clyde Allen & Annette Hill (eds.), New York: Routledge, 2004.
Corruption93. ‘Are we supposed to like Frank’, Reddit, 21 December 2014, https://www.reddit.com/r/HouseOfCards/comments/2pyife/are_we_supposed_to_like_frank. Accessed 7 February 2021.
Cox, John. The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350–1642. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Davis, Rib. Creating Compelling Characters for Film, TV, Theatre and Radio. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Day, Gillian. King Richard III: Shakespeare at Stratford Series. London: Bloomsbury, 2001.
Ellis, Scott. ‘Spacey balances out the diabolical in House of Cards’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 2013,
www.smh.com.au/entertainment/spacey-balances-out-the-diabolical-in-house-of-cards-20130502-2iu2p.html. Accessed 19 January 2021.
Jeffery, Morgan. ‘House of Cards season 4: Why isn't Frank Underwood talking to us?’, Digital Spy, 4 March 2016, www.digitalspy.com/tv/house-of-cards/news/a785641/house-of-cards-season-4-kevin-spacey-frank-underwood-talk-to-camera. Accessed 22 February 2021.
Keller, James. ‘The Vice in Vice President: House of Cards and the Morality Tradition’, Journal of Popular Film and Television 43:3 (2015), pp. 111-120.
Levine, Nick. ‘Kevin Spacey Responds to Claims House of Cards “Steals” Ideas From Trump and Real Life’, 21 June 2017, NME, https://www.nme.com/news/kevin-spacey-responds-to-claims-house-of-cards-steals-ideas-from-donald-trump-2091078. Accessed 17 January 2021.
Overton, Bill. ‘Play of the King?: King Richard III and Richard’, Critical Survey, 1:1, Spring 1989, pp. 3-9.
Perkins, V.F. ‘Where is the World? The Horizon of Events in Movie Fiction’, in Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film, John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds.). Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Pfister, Manfred. The Theory and Analysis of Drama, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Saadi, Ziyad and Willmore, Alison. ‘10 Things We Learned From Kevin Spacey About Frank Underwood, Netflix and House of Cards Season Two’, IndieWire, 6 February 2014, www.indiewire.com/2014/02/10-things-we-learned-from-kevin-spacey-about-frank-underwood-netflix-and-house-of-cards-season-two-30267. Accessed 23 February 2021.
Strause, Jackie. ‘House of Cards Star on Series Finale Fate and “Releasing the Demons”’, 7 November 2018, Hollywood Reporter, www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/house-cards-series-finale-doug-stamper-death-explained-1158562. Accessed 2 March 2021.
Strause, Jackie. ‘House of Cards Showrunners Unravel Series Finale Death Mystery’, 5 November 2018, Hollywood Reporter, www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/house-cards-series-finale-francis-underwood-death-explained-1157831. Accessed 2 March 2021.
Thompson, Anne. ‘Kevin Spacey Q & A: House of Cards Wouldn't Exist Without Richard III, Focus of Self-Released Doc (VIDEO)’, IndieWire, 2 May 2014,
www.indiewire.com/2014/05/kevin-spacey-q-a-house-of-cards-wouldnt-exist-without-richard-iii-focus-of-self-released-doc-video-192386. Accessed 29 January 2021.
Venable, Malcom. ‘House of Cards Just Couldn't Be as Interesting as Real Politics Anymore’, 8 November 2018, TV Guide, https://www.tvguide.com/news/house-of-cards-final-season-review-real-world-politics. Accessed 9 February 2021.