Warning: House of Cards Season 4 spoilers!
Ever since that brutal first scene that had us watch as Frank Underwood puts an injured dog out of its misery, I’ve been obsessed with the House of Cards fourth wall breaks. Every episode, I wait, eagerly anticipating the next time Frank invites us to join his huddle.
Tell us, Frank, how are all these pieces about to fall perfectly in place? Oh, you’re about to banish this person into political obscurity? Thanks for filling us in.
Sure, it’s fun to watch as Frank waltzes around with his tactical charm, saying the right things to the right people and making promises with no intention of keeping them (you know, like a normal politician). But it’s these intimate Frank-to-camera moments that really capture us; those brief updates from our anti-hero not only keep us in the loop but serve as a reminder that this man is utterly, brilliantly ruthless.
So following season 3, I was naturally left wondering where our private debriefings had gone. After an initial two seasons that were peppered with insights into the brutal politician’s strategy, the season that first saw Frank serving as commander in chief left us significantly more in the dark, almost like a stranger.
This trend continued into season 4, which didn’t grant us a fourth wall break until episode two! (Chapter 41). While addressing the camera, Frank smugly doctors up a PBJ sandwich and tells us an anecdote from his childhood to illustrate his feelings that Claire wasn’t appreciating him enough. A classic Underwood sidebar, but an unusual insight at a time when sidebars had all but gone extinct.
This all changed in episode seven (Chapter 46). After waking up from a successful liver transplant, Frank and Claire made amends and pledged to be a team again. Just like that, we got hit with more fourth wall breaks in one episode than we'd had in the whole season combined. The Frank from seasons one and two came roaring back, one moment engaging in cheeky political dialogue, the next relentlessly unleashing his private strategy upon us.
Why the sudden uptick? The evidence indicates a strong correlation between the fourth wall breaks and Frank’s relationship with Claire. But is that it?
The decline of the sidebars began in season three, when Frank first began his tenure as President. Unsurprisingly, Frank and Claire’s relationship suffered as the latter attempted to establish herself as a viable politician independent of Frank. In the earlier seasons, the Underwoods’ relationship was portrayed as much as a business partnership as it was a marriage; the two worked completely in tandem in an effort to capture political power. As the show progressed, it became evident that Claire desired power almost as much as Frank himself wanted it.
So when Frank became President, Claire started pushing for her own career. After failing to win the Senate’s vote that would appoint her as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, she had Frank appoint her.
Claire’s tenure as ambassador only served as vehicle to show that the Underwoods weren’t as much of a collective unit as we thought they were. Immediately after Frank reached an important compromise with Russia’s Prime Minister Viktor Petrov, Claire blasted Russia in a press conference that caused Petrov to cancel the agreement. The two then engaged in a heated argument, a first for us to witness.
Later, Claire is manipulated by Petrov into thinking the Russian Prime Minister caused an explosion in the Jordan Valley. This leads Frank to execute a mission that seriously wounds his bargaining position, causing him to comply with Petrov’s demands, one of which is Claire being removed from her position as ambassador. In the season’s final scene, Claire announces that she’s leaving Frank.
As all of this unfolded, our personal moments with Frank dwindled. Again, why? Maybe it’s because as Frank’s relationship with Claire deteriorated, his sense of control left him.
In the earlier seasons, Frank was an unstoppable, composed machine. He always had a plan, and even when something popped up that hindered him, he confidently handled it and moved on. And he had Claire by his side. This was reflected in the fourth wall breaks; Frank always had a plan and smugly kept us updated.
In season three? Frank forgot that he was in a partnership, and as a result alienated his wife. The President saw his compromise in Russia deteriorate and a strong challenger to the presidency emerge, all while telling Claire that she was nothing without him.
As a result, we saw a reeling Frank Underwood who simply didn’t have a plan to report. The plans he actually had, he had no confidence in; the rest of the time he was improvising as he desperately tried to dig himself out of his own mess. Thus, there were fewer fourth wall breaks.
This was mainly the case until Frank and Claire made up in episode seven. The hardships Frank endured (an assassination attempt will knock some sense into you) alerted him to Claire’s importance.
And just like that, the fourth wall breaks returned. The Underwood team is back, and I’m willing to bet that Frank won’t forget how much he needs Claire again.
Claire emboldens Frank, and gives him a sense of direction when he needs it. She serves as an all-important check to Frank when he starts to get carried away.
The show gave a nod to Claire’s importance in the season four finale. In the final scene, Frank addresses us. And for the first time, Claire seems to acknowledge that Frank is speaking to someone; she looks at Frank as he speaks, then they look at each other, then they both look at us. Does this mean that they’re closer than ever, so now she’s in on Frank’s secret audience? Is the Underwood machine that well-oiled, that unstoppable? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.