Netflix’s House of Cards remains mostly consistent in his soapy depiction of Washington politics
I fully intended on reviewing the first few episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards season four when they dropped on Friday.
One thing with binge-watching that drives me up the wall is the Internet’s obsessive need to be first. First to finish. First to review. First to spoil. It’s all too fast-paced to allow for a thoughtful, complete analysis of the material. Plus, the first three or so episodes of the Emmy-winning series are a complete and total mess. There had to to be more to it, I begged. And so, I waited to finish the whole season before forming an opinion.
Rest assured, there are no major spoilers here. Given the broad spectrum of events that transpire across season four, I’m not even sure I could remember all the spoilers.
House of Cards ended its third season with Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood engaging in a seemingly insurmountable split in their relationship. Claire’s attempts at an unique identity were met with aggressive resistance by Frank. As a result, she walked out on him after exchanging a more than a few withering looks and razor-sharp barbs. The new season begins with Frank embroiled in his first presidential campaign trail. You’ll remember he wasn’t ever actually elected to the post.
Claire, of course, is nowhere to be found, having fled to Texas for purposes of her own. There, she hides at her mother’s (Ellen Burstyn) southern plantation while attempting to convince a local congresswoman (Cicely Tyson) to step aside. The end goal is for Claire to use the congressional seat as a springboard to a political career of her own. Separate from Frank, of course. She enlists the aid of Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) as political advisor. The Internet later dubbed Leann “Lady Stamper,” an inappropriate monicker given Leann’s pesky morals.
House of Cards season four is broken down into three acts: Frank versus Claire, Frank versus Heather Dunbar, and Frank versus a third opponent (no spoilers). It’s the first section that gives me the most pause. Claire’s plans are extremely ill-advised, transparent, and poorly conceived. Much of House of Cards feels like screenwriter orgasms, but this section, in particular, made no narrative sense. Given all her faults, Claire is still a savvy politician. I never once believed she failed to see the issue with unseating a prominent African American woman out of the blue simply for political gain. There are huge, obvious political problems here. Eventually, the issue kind of fades away, ADHD screenwriting finding another shiny object on which to focus. By episode four, the series is effectively itself again with a wild twist that juices the material. It regains the House of Cards reputation that Emmy voters know and love.
The series’s remaining two acts deal with Frank’s struggles and political machinations to maintain power. By highlight scenes of Frank and Claire rehearsal for major political speeches, House of Cards puts forth an attempt at a theme – one of the political theater. It’s a small addition to the season, but it works better than the asides Spacey makes directly to the camera. Additionally, the creative team reaches back into the previous three seasons to bring old characters back to the forefront in logical ways. Most welcome but tragically underused are Kim Dickens (reporter Kate Baldwin) and Nathan Darrow (Secret Service Agent Edward Meechum). Less welcome is Boris McGiver (Tom Hammerschmidt) who is saddled with the credible-only-in-movies role of the crusading journalist. Finally, I did enjoy the addition of Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) as Republican presidential candidate Will Conway. Kinnaman’s Conway is a shrewd commentary on candidate ideals, think Robert Redford’s The Candidate for the modern era. Faced with challenges from all fronts, the Underwoods ends the season on a chillingly tantalizing note, our anti-heroes becoming increasingly ruthless as they vow to win through fear and inti
midation over winning voters’ hearts. Funny thing, I thought that’s what they’d done in the first place…
Still, given the heated campaigns of our current political environment, does House of Cards go far enough? I can turn on the television at any given moment and hear about Donald Trump’s member or Hillary’s emails or Benghazi or Bernie Sanders’s latest internet memes or countless prognostications over delegate counts. How can a TV drama top political reality? It manages to do so, but reality sadly comes dangerously close to overtaking House of Cards. Does the series’s engaging second act Democratic convention foreshadow a heavily contested Republican convention? Time will tell.
House of Cards remains a consistently engaging enterprise, despite the first act missteps. As always, Robin Wright is the superstar here even if Claire’s motivations make no sense. The opportunity to dig into Claire’s relationship with her mother provides some uncharted character territory for the actress to mine, even if by the end she’s double-down on Claire’s iciness. Spacey is Spacey. Frank hasn’t changed since day one. Likely he never will. The same can be said for Spacey’s performances. Michael Kelly is always great as Doug Stamper, although his character has fewer arcs this season.
Ultimately, I did like the season despite its wild, ADHD plotting. Frankly, it’s nothing I haven’t already come to expect with House of Cards. Season four falls somewhere in between the emergence of Claire in season two and the manic season three. Still, it’s a shame that such a classy, top-notch production has to lower itself with such base, soapy material. It’s a catfight and a few shoulder pads away from an Aaron Spelling soap opera of the 1980s.