My husband and I have been spending the past several evenings watching the new, American edition of House of Cards. It’s a sinister but engaging series about the machinations of power at the highest levels, featuring an anti-hero protagonist. Francis (Frank) Underwood is a character of Shakepearean dimensions—a latter day version of what you might get if you were to cross Iago with Macbeth (indeed, some of the episodes are decidedly elegant and clever riffs on these).
He’s also a psychopath. The recent definitions of psychopathy do not require violent behaviours or any other such displays. Instead, the current construal of the condition has more to do with a lack of compassion or empathy, combined with a superficial charm or charisma. This juxtaposition means that the psychopathic individual is observant enough to be able to enact appealing behaviours that persuade others to do things for them—but in cases where the charm doesn’t work, such individuals are not burdened by conscience, guilt or regret.
This doesn’t automatically translate to violence, as most psychopaths are smart enough to know that violence isn’t always the easiest path to obtaining the outcome they seek.
In the case of Frank, he is possessed of an overweening ambition, combined with a keen intelligence and a complete lack of compassion—one gets the sense that he sees people with no more or less empathy than he has for the pieces in the chess game that he is occasionally seen playing.
I find him repugnant,* even as I am fascinated by his combination of cold brilliance, a willingness to cross line after line in pursuit of his ends, and an ability to strategize and manipulate as necessary, with what seems like an almost preternatural effectiveness. Continue reading