It’s kind of a sad state of affairs when the fictional world of scheming, politics and murder on Netflix’s House of Cards is more dignified than our current political system, but that’s where we find ourselves in 2016. The characters on House of Cards may be deplorable and morally bankrupt, but they pull off all their plotting with at least the outer visage of decorum. Frank Underwood may orchestrate killing people that get in his way, but he’d never discuss the size of his manhood on national television. Somehow, this makes it all more palpable.
All kidding aside, I was curious how House of Cards would fare when compared to the three-ring circus that is the U.S. presidential election. Would the over-saturation of political discourse in reality make the fictional antics of Underwood and company less appealing? I’ve grown a little fatigued of all the coverage and I’m a political scientist, so it wouldn’t surprise me if election burnout led people to be less interested in devoting their free time to the ruthless world of House of Cards. In my experience, watching House of Cards is best done by binge watching; the longer and harder that you think about the actions of a lot of these characters, the less believable it becomes. Best to consume the season in a quick burst and let the story lines run into each other rather than ponder each episode individually. The third season of House of Cards was kind of a mess, though the final episode did set up an interesting premise for the fourth season; my hope was that this would be a season for them to regroup and focus and return to the quality of the earlier seasons.
The fourth season of House of Cards was definitely an improvement over the scattershot that was the third season, but has not quite reclaimed the heights it reached during its first and second season. That’s partially because we know these characters now, so when they do something salacious or underhanded it is no longer a shock or major plot twist; it is simply expected. Frank also seems to be able to wriggle his way out of just about any situation without paying much in way of consequences, which does tend to impact the stakes. No matter how backed into a corner Frank is, you are pretty confident that he’ll be able to extract himself from his predicament. The fourth season laid the groundwork to challenge this formula in the future, but for the most part, this season was a continuation on the themes that we’ve seen in the past.
However, the fourth season of House of Cards managed to not just be more of the same because of the addition of some new characters and interesting plot points. Ellen Burstyn is always a welcome addition to anything and she shines as Claire’s estranged mother Elizabeth. The introduction of Elizabeth provides some very keen insight into how Claire became the person that she is as well as bringing in someone who sees Frank for exactly what he is. There is no love lost between father-in-law and son-in-law, a fact that Elizabeth is more than willing to drive home with her commentary on Frank. Spending some time with Elizabeth in Texas is a much needed reprieve from some of the drama of DC and is a critical part of a season that gives Claire a lot more to do. Robin Wright continues to great as Claire, though with the damage to the Underwood marriage that was created last weekend, she is not always Frank’s trusted advisor. Seeing the Underwoods play each other, as well as other people, is an interesting new dynamic for House of Cards to explore. If you thought Claire was icy in earlier seasons, you have not even begun to feel the chill.
This season of House of Cards also introduces the Republican candidate who is challenging Frank; Joel Kinnaman’s Will Conway may be the biggest threat to Frank to date. As the Governor of New York, Conway has the perfect family, war record and command of social media to serve as a strong contrast to Underwood, but shares the same winner take all mentality that got Frank in the position that he is today. In a lot of ways Conway is Underwood, just in a prettier wrapper, and it is fun to watch these two play off each other. Selma Blair also joins the cast as a political strategist who gets herself mixed up with the Underwoods and is a threat to the influence of the current White House staffers, who of course do not take these developments well.
It also interesting to see the parallels that the show inadvertently made to real life politics; there are several episodes that deal with the politics of the political convention that may also come into play this year for the Republican party. Frank also has to deal with a political scandal involving his family that wouldn’t be all that surprising in the 2016 election. It’s enough of a break from our political reality that these plot points aren’t too distracting or feel too gimmicky; obviously this season was filmed a while ago and there was no way to predict the potential similarities. The fourth season also wraps up a lot of the myriad storylines that were hanging in the third season, which allows the show to narrow its focus, all for the better. There are still a lot of characters in play for the fourth season, but they are in service of one or two storylines rather than seven or eight. And welcome back crazy Doug Stamper; this show just isn’t as fun when you aren’t making some ill-advised decisions based on your unwavering and borderline psychotic devotion to Frank. There are other plot points that I thought allowed the show to go in some interesting new directions, but they are too spoilery to share.
Some other thoughts:
- My biggest complaint is my usual complaint – not enough Meechum and Freddy (though Freddy certainly makes the most of his very limited screen time).
- As an actual resident of New York’s capital, I enjoyed the few sneering and dismissive references to Albany. Those totally check out.
- Kevin Spacey continues to own the role of Frank Underwood; sure it’s hammy and a little over the top, but he sure sells the hell out of that character.
- Fair warning – the opening scene of the first episode is not at all how you’d expect the season to kick off. I monetarily thought I’d clicked on the wrong show, since I had no idea who these people were and what this had to do with House of Cards.
- This show is beginning to have a weird obsession with threesomes. That’s all I’ll say.
- House of Cards still stretches plausibility; the way that one storyline goes sideways in the final episodes hinges on some really stupid decision making.
Overall, I enjoyed my time down the House of Cards rabbit hole; this season was somewhat less of a slog to get through than the third season was and the more focused narrative, new character dynamics and new cast additions all injected some new life into the series. I don’t think it will every reclaim the thrill of the first season, as we are now conditioned to expect the outlandish things that Frank is willing to do to obtain and keep power, but I’m still curious to see what will happen next season. I do hope that there is a planned end game for the series, but given how the final episode ended there is enough material for at least one more satisfying season. House of Cards actually served as a nice distraction from current affairs; at least when people do something despicable on House of Cards, we can tell ourselves that it isn’t real.
The entire fourth season of House of Cards is currently available on Netflix.