Some thoughts on the 4th season of House of Cards

house-of-cards

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.

Some thoughts on House of Cards – Season 3

House_of_Cards,_season_3,_promo_image

It’s nice to have Frank Underwood back in my life.

One benefit of this very long and very cold winter is that I don’t feel too terrible when I decide to spend the weekend curled up on my couch binge watching TV shows or movies. The idea of venturing even a mile down the road to the movie theater seems like too much effort when you have to clean off your car and deal with the wind chill, so I am more than content to fully immerse myself in multiple episodes of a TV show or a mini-movie marathon in the comfort of my apartment. Thank goodness for Netflix, who may not have invented the idea of binge watching, but certainly increased its popularity. Their habit of dropping entire seasons of shows has made this winter somewhat bearable. Knowing that House of Cards was dropping on Friday, I didn’t even care that there was even more snow predicted in the forecast; even if there was a blizzard on the horizon, knowing that I had 13 new hours to spend with everyone’s favorite scheming fictional politician was enough to make my winter blues momentarily fade away.

As I’ve written before when discussing the first two seasons of the show, House of Cards is definitely a program that benefits from binge watching. It’s a good show, but not a great one, and it is much easier to gloss over the show’s failings when you quickly move on from one episode to the next without dwelling too much on what just happened. House of Cards is a show that runs on adrenaline and plot twists: even when you think a baseline has been established for what these characters are willing to do to each other in the name of power, they move the needle to even more deplorable and ridiculous behavior. I easily sat through ten episodes of the series on Saturday; every time that I considered taking a break, the knowledge that there were more episodes right at my fingertips proved too compelling. House of Cards is like crack – once you’ve had a taste, you just can’t help yourself.

This season of House of Cards examines a slightly different dynamic that we’ve seen in previous seasons; while the first two seasons focused on Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) trying to climb his way to the top, the third season examines Underwood’s attempts to stay in power. Just as campaigning and governing are two different animals, Frank for the first time has to focus on maintaining his position rather than his upward mobility. Once you are the king, you become the target and this is a spot that Frank is unfamiliar with. He has a much higher profile and his Machiavellian tactics don’t necessary work as well as they used to. A frustrated Frank Underwood is a new Frank Underwood. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

The third season also finds Frank not only dealing with conflict in his political life, but in his personal life as well. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) has been her husband’s partner in crime from the beginning and has complicit in a lot of his questionable actions. However, she has tired of being the woman behind the man and wants her turn at the spotlight. Her patience has run out and she wants to start her political career – no matter how much that adds to the difficulty of her husband’s already precarious position. In her mind, this political marriage is a full partnership and she’s been denied the spoils of their victories. Seeing discord in the Underwood marriage is also an interesting new development; while Frank and Claire certainly have an unorthodox marriage by most standards, the one thing that you could count on was that they always had each other’s back. Watching the two of them plot out their next move over a secret shared cigarette was a hallmark of the first two seasons. To see them deviate from the established game plan shakes things up and adds a compelling new dynamic to the new episodes. It’s one of the most interesting new storylines.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of time in the third season devoted to storylines that simply refuse to die. The issue of Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) has been an issue since season one and was getting kind of tedious in season two. That storyline is still chugging along in season three and takes up way too much of the narrative. She’s a lose thread that I’m not really sure why anyone is still worried about, given that after watching every episode I can barely remember why she’s an issue. Frankly everyone on the show has much bigger fish to fry and the amount of energy and time spent on this former prostitute is mind numbing. I know that it can be the smallest slipup that can topple an empire, but considering how poorly Frank and his cohorts have covered their track in general (like don’t use your own cell phone for nefarious plotting – that’s The Wire 101), it seems odd that this particular problem confounds them all so much. It’s boring and I found my attention drifting whenever this particular issue came up. Overall, as much as I enjoyed House of Cards, this new season didn’t require my full attention; I could work and watch the show without either suffering, which is not necessarily a bad thing but gives you an idea of how compelling the series is. When if grabbed me, I was fully invested – scenes between Frank and Claire, for example – but for the life of me I couldn’t get super excited about anything related to Rachel or the press corps (as much as I enjoyed the addition of Kim Dickens to the cast). This happens every season to some extent, but I thought season three had more ignorable storylines than in the past. It was more hit-or-miss than I remember earlier seasons.

Some other thoughts:

  • My biggest complaint about season 3 of House of Cards – not enough Meechum (Nathan Darrow)!
  • In a case of life imitating art, these new episodes introduce a new roadblock for Frank – the very Putin-like President of Russia, Victor Petrov (it’s even the same initials!). Even Pussy Riot gets a cameo.
  • I now have a new item on my bucket list – beer pong at the White House!
  • We see a lot of Frank’s bodily fluids this season. I won’t elaborate further.
  • Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), the Solicitor General, gets a lot more screen time this season. More of anyone named Heather is a good thing.
  • Some familiar faces from previous seasons that you might not have been expecting to turn up do in fact turn up.
  • Kevin Spacey does not miss an opportunity to drag out his Bobby Darin impression.
  • I become about 50% more scheme-y after watching House of Cards, which isn’t good for anyone because I am pretty scheme-y to begin with (though I usually don’t act on it).

The third season of House of Cards was more uneven than the first two, but there is still plenty to enjoy. One major improvement this season is that Frank is no longer able to plot and scheme is his way out everything. In the first two seasons there were some hitches in his master plan, but he always seemed to land on his feet pretty quickly and things tended to break his way. After a while, that’s not as exciting. This season, he gets himself into some quagmires that are not so easy to extract himself from and he can’t bully his way out of them quite the same way. For the first time in a long time, Frank Underwood is something of an underdog and seeing him struggle and have to get scrappy is far more interesting television. The tension in the Underwood marriage is a fascinating extension of this and I think was a necessary change to liven things up. The refusal to abandon some storylines is the major hindrance to this season and is a distraction from the pieces that are really working; hopefully in the show’s presumed 4th season, we get a tighter and more focused narrative. It’s time to cut some bait and move on and the latter episodes of season three indicate that they might be willing to do so. Here’s to hoping.

Even with this unevenness, House of Cards was still a fun way to spend a weekend. I don’t think this will ever be a great show, but it’s an addictively fun one, which is just as important. Even with all this two-timing and manipulation, the fictional government in House of Cards gets more done than our actual one, which makes me wonder what our elected officials are actually doing with their time. This show does nothing but reinforce negative stereotypes about politicians, but that’s a far more entertaining prospect and what we want to believe anyway. Frank Underwood’s house of cards isn’t quite as steady as you would think, and I look forward to seeing how this show continues to play out.

House of Cards is currently streaming on Netflix.

House of Cards – Season 2

bloggif_5302c1d202251

There is nothing like a little political espionage to break you out of the winter doldrums.

Netflix really couldn’t have timed their release of the second season of House of Cards any better. Going into the Presidents’ Day long weekend, I was in something of a slump. Between a rough couple of weeks both at work and in my personal life and the incessant snow and cold, I really needed a distraction. Unfortunately for me, the Olympics have pretty much derailed all regular television and I wasn’t desperate enough to go see any of the dreck that is at the cinema. I was even without my pal Jimmy Fallon to make me laugh as there was a week hiatus between the ending of Late Night and the beginning of The Tonight Show. So it was like a gift from the heavens when I could binge watch House of Cards and lose myself in political scandal and maneuvering. From late Friday evening until Sunday afternoon, I immersed myself in the power hungry world of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey).

And it definitely did not disappoint.

In the first season of House of Cards, a lot of time had to be spent building the world in which the series takes place; we had to meet all the important players and understand their relationships to one another and their secrets before the show could really dive into the insanity and constant positioning and repositioning for power. With that groundwork already established, the second season doesn’t have to take its time and can dive right into the juicy stuff. Season two hits the ground running, literally, picking up just minutes after the season one finale that found Frank and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) going out for a midnight jog. Because the entire season is posted at one time and there is an assumption that most people will watch multiple episodes in one sitting, the normal storytelling structure just doesn’t apply to House of Cards. Cliffhangers don’t really apply, since the viewer can jump right into the next episode if they wish, so big moments that might be saved for later in the season can pop up at any moment in the series. Within the first hour of the series, the first of many game changing moments occurs; I was audibly shocked by what transpired and I knew that I was in for quite a crazy ride. It may have been the first surprise of the season, but it certainly wasn’t the last. The stakes are higher in the second season, which is saying a lot since plenty of shenanigans (including murder) transpired in the first. But as Frank accumulates power, his moves have to become bigger to maintain his position. To say more would be to spoil much of the fun; just know that things move more quickly and dramatically in the second season. There may be some new players in the game, but the word of the day is still manipulation.

One of those new players is Deadwood alumni Molly Parker, who is welcome addition as a potential ally for Frank.  As a member of Underwood’s party, she has similar goals as Frank but also has her own way of doing things. Another new face will be familiar to fans of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – Jimmi Simpson (one of the McPoyle brothers on Sunny) turns up as computer hacker Gavin Orsay. Some returning characters are increased in prominence; Robin Wright becomes more central to the political storylines when a secret from her past is revealed. Gerald McRaney (Raymond Tusk) was introduced at the end of the first season, but is a prominent player in the second. Even BBQ maven Freddy (The Wire’s Reg E. Cathey) is given more room to shine. Some of the characters that are given more screen time aren’t worthy of this promotion; I quickly got bored with reporter Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) and his part in the series. I also could have done with a continued focus on Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan); I felt that her story had really wrapped itself up in the first season.

House of Cards still remains a good, but not great series. The issues that I had with the first season are still there. It’s a whole lot of fun to watch, but there are definitely some ridiculous plot moments. It’s all a little over the top and if you really stop to ponder a lot of what you witness, it all seems unbelievable. It is definitely entertaining, but it all doesn’t amount to much other than a lot of scheming for scheming’s sake. There is less humanity in the second season than the first; there were characters in the first season that were at least conflicted about their roles in political machine. That is absent in the new season and I think that it the series is slightly weaker for it. There weren’t a lot of sympathetic characters in House of Cards to start with, but by the end of the second season there are almost none. Without that contrast, all of the posturing and political masterminding feels a bit empty and repetitive.

Still, despite these limitations, House of Cards is immensely addictive. I felt compelled to continue watching episode after episode, only taking breaks when I felt that I was getting a little too drawn into this world. The Underwoods might be ambitious and terrible people, but they are absolutely fascinating to watch. Kevin Spacey seems to be having a grand time with this role and chews the scenery to his heart’s content. House of Cards has plenty of soapy elements, but it is executed in a more sophisticated way.  It may not have a lasting impact on the viewer, yet there is no denying that this is a show that is a hell of a lot of fun to consume. It’s like Lay’s potato chips – you can’t watch just one episode. Once you are down the House of Cards rabbit hole, kiss your free time goodbye. The only negative side effect is that spending too much time with these people may bring out your inner schemer; halfway through the series, I was ready to start plotting my own big moves and start taking some people down. That’s not good for anyone.

Some other thoughts:

  • You know that your show has made it when the President is tweeting about spoilers:
from @BarackObama

from @BarackObama

  • I’m not joking – I think the House of Cards Congress passed more legislation than our actual Congress.
  • If you want to relive some of Frank Underwood’s greatest hits, here’s a supercut from season one of the series:

 

  • This first season recap video came in handy in refreshing my memory on what had previously transpired before I started the new season:

 

  • I don’t know how anyone hasn’t opened a Freddy’s BBQ Joint in Baltimore. It’s a clear way to cash in on the popularity of the show.
  • SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! One of the more shocking moments of the second season has been turned into a GIF.Seen in slow motion, it is all sorts of ridiculous.
  • I may now have to double back and watch the British original that House of Cards was based on.
  • I can’t be specific without ruining yet another WTF moment, but I was glad that they didn’t forget about a detail from Frank’s backstory that was raised in season one.

I’m anxious to see the insanity continue in the third season; my problems with House of Cards don’t outweigh my overall enjoyment of the show and I’m dying to see how they outdo themselves. I really can’t think of any better way to spend a wintery weekend than binge watching such an addictive series. House of Cards plays into our worst thoughts about politicians, but that is what makes it so fascinating. It’s dirty business and you may feel like you need a shower after watching it (and not just because you’ve been sitting on the couch all day), but being a voyeur to such scheming and plotting is just too delicious to resist.

Season two of House of Cards is currently streaming on Netflix.