Being Frank? Breaking the ‘fourth wall’ in Netflix’s House of Cards
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This chapter explores the use of direct audience address in Netflix’s flagship drama House of Cards, and the role of this technique in building up a relationship between the show’s Machiavellian anti-hero, Frank Underwood, and the television audience. As was the case with the BBC series on which the show was based, critics were divided on the ‘theatrical’ strategy of breaking the ‘fourth wall’ between the audience and the lead character. This chapter, however, will argue that the device of direct address is key to the characterisation of the anti-hero as well as to the viewer’s investment in his story. On a simple level it gives us privileged access to Frank’s character allowing us to enjoy the ‘operational aesthetic’ of watching his plans unfold. On a more complex level it creates an inter-diegetic space and a reflexive metanarrative, while employing a shifting tone that subtly informs the dynamics of the narrative. Frank’s use of direct address to camera is as variable in form as it is in function, producing a degree of affective disorientation, both in terms of our cognitive and emotional alignment with Frank himself and in terms of our immersion in his story-world. We are lured into an imaginative investment in the anti-hero, who at once seduces us with this cleverness and repels us with his cynicism; simultaneously we are reminded that both he and his world are fictional constructs, enabling us to set aside our own moral judgement and blamelessly enjoy his wickedness.

Complexity / simplicity

Moments in television

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