Mar 19, 2020
BINGE OR NO? House of Cards, Season 4
The good new for House of Cards fans is that Season 4 found the mojo that went missing in Season 3. The bad news is Frank hasn’t murderized anybody with his bare (or gloved) hands since Season 2.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, or if you’re the kind of twit who replies to the question with “I’ve never seen the American version,” there are some pleasures to be had. Watching the antics of Claire (Lady Macbeth on the Potomac) and Frank (Richard III) Underwood is a guilty pleasure that feels more grown-up than watching super villains make trouble on the latest offering of the Marvel-verse. What makes Frank more sympathetic than he should be is that he’s not corrupt in the sense of taking bribes. Nobody “owns” him. He’s simply ruthless and power hungry, and at least for the first two seasons he was motivated by a desire to avenge himself by screwing over the boss who gave the promised promotion to someone else. Who can’t relate to that? It’s the ultimate work-revenge fantasy.
As far as other behind the scenes political dramas go, it’s a lot less sanctimonious than the The West Wing. Frank may be the worst of the lot, but many of his peers come close. However, both shows operate under the same fantastical premise – that we’re living in a democratic republic where power ultimately rests in the hands of elected officials and not the big money men pulling their strings.
Aside from its cynicism, there were two things that made the series feel like something we’d never seen before. First off, Frank did at least some of his own killing. Except for OJ Simpson and Robert Blake generally the rich and/or powerful prefer to hire those jobs out. Second, there was the marriage…
Sure, the Underwoods bear a certain resemblance to another political couple whose staying together is a mystery to us, and I’m not talking about the Florricks, but Clank (Clances? Fraire?) take it to a whole other level. Their union is strange, weird, and at times downright unholy. It’s an open marriage. Claire steps out on Frank to get her uh needs met – the ones both emotional and physical that he’s not very interested in. The only time we’ve seen Frank go outside of his marriage for sex, he didn’t seem to enjoy it. He was boning an emotionally needy young journalist as part of a plan to keep her close. While Frank seems to be bisexual, he appears more than anything to sublimate his sexuality. Power is what really gets him off. By the third season, the Underwoods have separate bedrooms, and in Season 4, Claire comes very close to leaving Frank for good. Gone were the halcyon days, (Season 2) when they would get the Secret Service guy drunk and have a threesome to spice things up.
Yet, by the end of season four, even with Claire’s human vibrator installed in the White House, the Underwoods are as bonded as ever. They’re a conjoined entity, and it’s not clear whether either of them could survive alone.
For those who haven’t seen it or need their memories refreshed, here is the (spoilery) Season One elevator synopsis: Newly elected President Walker backs out of the deal he made with majority whip, Frank Underwood, to appoint him secretary of state. Frank hatches a plot to avenge himself and seize power. He ends the season by being appointed vice president. Season 2 is the sequel. As VP, Frank manages to bring down Walker from behind the scenes, and assume the presidency. At his swearing in, he gleefully reminds us of what he’s accomplished without a single vote being cast. And that’s another fun thing the show does: Frank’s machinations are so complex that he has to break the fourth wall and explain them to us.
The problem is, once Frank becomes President Underwood, where do we go? Holding on to power is a lot less interesting than clawing your way up to it. Frank was so busy he didn’t even murder anybody. Claire decided it was her time, and forced him to make her UN Ambassador. Congress said hell no, but Frank gave her a recess appointment. Then the otherwise calculating Claire screwed it up by acting impulsively and on principle. Principle? Who were these people? As for Frank’s everybody-gets-a-job program, sure he did it to ensure a legacy and get elected for a full term, but if we wanted to know how a bill becomes a law, we’d be watching C-SPAN.
Season 4 fortunately involves less policy, and more Machiavelli. Just to make things interesting, Claire’s new boy toy is someone we met earlier whom we thought might be more interested in Frank. (Unfortunately, it’s not Remmie.) Frank’s past misdeeds come back to haunt him in the form of a disgraced, crazed reporter who knows what he’s done. While it would be pretty difficult for a sitting president to actually strangle anyone in the Oval Office, Frank does manage to threaten an underling into submission by admitting he is the devil. There’s even an assassination attempt. And that’s not even the good part! Guess who wants to be vice president? If you guessed Claire Never Held Elective Office and Kind of Screwed Up at the UN Plus Three Abortions Underwood, you’d be correct. Sure it’s outlandish. The show acknowledges as much, but manufacturing the public’s consent becomes a challenge the Underwoods take on by any means necessary. Claire and Frank are forced to explain their marriage – or at least the public version of it – to we the people, turning what should be a major liability into an asset. They go way beyond Bill Clinton’s “two for one” quote. They present themselves as an evolved form — literally the next step in human development, a fully operational creature with one mind and two bodies. Then fate steps in or maybe karma, plus a lot of behind the scenes finagling, and Claire’s approval ratings go through the roof.
So binge-worthy? If you’ve never seen the series, Season One should hook you, and Season Two may be even better. Just fast-forward through the third season or read a synopsis. For those who liked the series, but became disenchanted, give it another try. While Season 4 doubles down on the absurdity, it also brings things full circle, and some old favorites are back, including handsome Remmie, and Freddie the barbecue guy – neither of whom are feeling much love for Frank. It’s fun seeing Frank begin to lose control of his own narrative, as those he screwed over begin to plot their own revenge. When the going gets really rough, how far will he go? The season leaves us hanging, but it looks like he’d go pretty far, and drag the country along with him. Next season, which should be the last, will either involve Frank’s well-deserved downfall or see him take over the world – which still won’t be enough.