Richard III is back from the grave. No, I’m not talking about a heap of bones found beneath Parking Lot A, Leicester, England. The new Netflix-exclusive series House of Cards offers audiences a protagonist equal to scheming old Richard or any heavy-hitting bad guy anti-hero HBO can throw at television viewers. During the show’s first scene, our man, dressed in sharp evening dress, throttles a dog injured in a hit-and-run. He is Senator Frank J. Underwood, and he has a lot more than just mercy killings up his sleeve.
The senator seems like the next contender in a line of dastardly television anti-heroes: Tony Soprano, Dexter, Nucky Thompson. Frank can swear and shout with the best of them, pulling the strings on each of his political puppets all the while. But this politician is more than just brutish; the senator represents a type of character that stretches beyond the television anti-hero into the realm of ancient myth.
Frank is a trickster, an archetype from mythology that lives to create chaos and come out ahead. According to Alexander Eliot’s The Universal Myths, trickster figures appear in folk tales to shake things up, displacing the established order of man and nature, using the weapon of words to accomplish their deceit. The gods or creatures that lay the trickery on thick advance society — taking the unbeaten path to undermine the equilibrium and push mankind forward — whether their acts are kind or malignant.
Ulysses and the Polynesian hero Maui outwitted every strange, one-eyed beast that came their way. In one story, famous from New Zealand to Hawaii, Maui even tried to take on death, hacking at its jaws with a weapon made from the bones of his grandmother.
I can easily see Frank taking on his own mortality, swinging a piece of a dead relative — or maybe he’d just have an unpaid intern do it for him.
Coyote and Raven are two famous aboriginal tricksters; both use language as a weapon, manipulating gods and humans to do their bidding and reaping the rewards of their ingenuity. This is the kind of scheming and fast-talking Frank lives for: he never appears happier than when he outwits whatever giant political machine lies in his path, toppling allies and enemies alike along the way.
The senator for North Carolina is a refreshing kind of character, one that is rarely put to work in a television series so well. Al Swearengen was a solid trickster figure – but the writers of Deadwood fell too much in love with the barkeep, and the show turned into Alapalooza by the third season.
I’m confident House of Cards will continue as it started: balancing the plots with Shakespearean grace and preventing Frank’s asides from curdling with overuse. Senator Underwood may be the best baddie yet, a type of anti-hero that’s both relatively novel and archetypal at the same time. We’ll have to see what new trickery he has in store as season two unfolds. President Underwood?