We watch our screens and we see a transparently craven and amoral hustler make a mockery of the political system and we are as enthralled as we are dumbfounded. Why would anyone vote for this terrible man? I’m talking about Frank Underwood, of course, the spectacularly hollow wretch at the center of House of Cards, and the chilling pleasure of watching him on the stump in the show’s engrossing if preposterous (or is it?) fourth season. The cutthroat wheeler-dealer who lied, cheated, and murdered his way into the Oval Office finds himself in the fight of his life as he tries to keep his ill-gotten gains by actually winning an election. The odds are against him. But ‘tis the season for improbable things. Just look at the polls.
Which makes House of Cards a fitting if imperfect comment on our now. We find Frank as we find ourselves, flailing through a topsy-turvy primary season. The public hates him for soaring gas prices. A righteous opponent (Elizabeth Marvel) is slagging his rotten character and scoring points. His slippery press secretary (Derek Cecil), certain of doom, is sabotaging him. Everything about Frank – his establishment rep, his white male privilege, his Dixie heritage – is a liability, and even more so as the scandals come. Old skeletons and older ghosts comes back to haunt him – the show’s history works marvelously to its advantage this season – and by episode 4 Frank’s worst sins are exposed and put before the electorate for judgment. His arc feels like the final leg of an antihero’s journey, especially as things turn downright apocalyptic, though it surely isn’t: Netflix has already renewed the series for another year.
Kevin Spacey, that wicked walking wink, remains a spellbinding hoot as Frank. But more than ever, it’s the First Lady – and Robin Wright — who rules this term. Her story resonates with issues of gender, race, and power, bringing in a trio of actresses who provide a sparky jolt. Last seen leaving Frank, Claire sets up in a different white house, the ghostly family homestead in Texas occupied by her hermetic, ailing mother (Ellen Burstyn), Elizabeth. Their conflict not only echoes Claire’s relationship with Frank but helps to explain it. Watching her cruelly impose her will on her mother – catharsis for the powerlessness she feels with Frank — is heartbreaking.
Aided by a savvy political operative (Neve Campbell), Claire tries to launch a new life and political career by usurping the domain of an African American congresswoman (Cicely Tyson). An ironic civil war ensues between Claire in the South and Frank in the North, creating complications and opportunities for those in the crossfire. Watching Frank use and abuse his authority to corral his breakaway wife – and watching her retaliate with exquisitely executed betrayals – makes for outrageous, sometimes overwrought, but consistently satisfying melodrama.
In a gutsy move, Wright doubles down on Claire’s iciness and scores. She transfixes with her smoldering polar gaze, her Popsicle stick posture, her deceptive “I feel nothing” inertness, whether in still life close-ups or in frozen silhouette. She’s the most perfect realization of the precise and chilly aesthetic minted by co-creator David Fincher. Wright frames many of the season’s most striking images herself. Her direction of episodes 3 and 4 is magnificent, whether it’s staging huge violence involving dozens of extras or small moments of surprising intimacy and odd, deadpan humor, like a scene in which we hear a thump off camera.
Claire is most commanding in a game-changing stretch that has her playing seductive scorpion to the overwhelmed frog that is the vice president (Reed Birney) and builds to a showdown with an old nemesis, oily Russian president Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen). By episode 6, the last episode made available for review, Frank and Claire are in a different place, and we wonder where, exactly, their quest for power – in their marriage; in Washington – will land. President Claire Underwood? She has my vote.
As topical or political narrative, season 4 of House of Cards lacks the resonance or imagination of American Crime or The People v. O.J. Simpson, arguably the two best dramas on TV right now. The show is more elliptical in its strategies for relevancy than on-the-nose soapbox pop like The Good Wife and Scandal. But House of Cards exist in its own pocket universe and aims for thematic timelessness, not timeliness. You can understand why. Given that it’s a binge-at-your-convenience show on a streaming service, the drama must work whenever and wherever we find it or take it. It has to transcend our circumstances, or at least, survive them.
This is all to say that if you want House of Cards to reflect our current political spectacle, you’ll find fitful satisfaction. The drama is smart about media in the most generic of ways. It doesn’t capture the specific made-for-TV, reality show nature of the 2016 campaign. Frank’s narcissism, his bullying, his me-against-the-world solipsism and his us-versus-them populism feels familiar. But he’s more classically Nixonian than Trumpian in his out-of-control noxiousness. And being a Southern gentleman, albeit a profoundly flawed one, Frank could never bring himself to as be as unabashedly vulgar as The Donald. In one crucial moment, Frank actually dares to engage his protestors instead of banishing them from his sight with a curse. There’s a bit of scandalous business involving the KKK that comes off as somewhat prescient, but only somewhat.
A political potboiler best served as cold as possible, House of Cards will always skew toward extreme cynicism. And who wants more of that? As I write these words, I’m reading analysis arguing that to some degree, we have ourselves to blame for our dysfunctional political culture and our own disenfranchisement by buying into the belief that government is hopelessly broken and corrupt, that it’s against us and not for us – a narrative nourished and reinforced with entertainments like House of Cards. I probably shouldn’t enjoy Frank and Claire as much as I do. But I cannot tell a lie: I do. They are catharsis and cautionary tale. I love them. I hate them. I want them to succeed. I want them destroyed. The meaning of the show lies not with the couple at the empty center, but the people and the culture around them. Who will stop them? How should they be stopped? Why would anyone vote for this terrible man? House of Cards creates a psychic space for me to wallow in my frustration, then directs me toward better, righteous ways for expressing it in the real world. It delights me, it indicts me, it is, on many levels, a true guilty pleasure. B+