House of Cards Season 4 Review
The fourth season of House of Cards finds the Underwoods at a nebulous plot point (the previous season ended with Claire tell1ing Frank that she is leaving him) and for once the central conflict doesn’t come from the outside. Those viewers who wondered “what now?” when Frank was sworn in as president are probably breathing a secret sigh of relief: Beau Willimon & Co have thrown a feasible wrench into the spokes of the most powerful man in fictional America’s tricycle.
The greatest foible of hour long procedurals, especially those that get released in giant chunks on subscriber-only websites like Netflix, will always be that they stretch themselves out longer than necessary. If nothing else, this fourth season proves that House of Cards can not only grasp our attention, but can navigate the machinations of fictional presidents in a way that simultaneously keeps up with the zeitgeist and provides witty commentary on a bureaucracy purposefully entrenched in confusion. It is this wit and self awareness that make House of Cards timeless. Our real life government is often purposefully convoluted in order to shut out the common citizen. The less one can understand, the less one can get involved and the more those few people who have bothered to learn the system can take all the power. House of Cards took on this concept in a delightfully melodramatic way in the first few seasons by throwing us into a situation rife with political terminology and explaining nothing. At first, it only added to the drama of it all; much like how Grey’s Anatomy isn’t a realistic portrayal of doctors, yet hearing Meredith Grey say “He’s in V-tach!” is exciting. What is V-tach? What does a majority whip actually do? Whatever. We’re having a great time.
SPOILERS BELOW (Skip to the next bold, italicized line for the rest of the spoiler free review)
The sharp edge of this silver spork is that as the seasons progress, the characters are developed enough to actually draw some real comparisons to current events, and all of a sudden, we’ve been roped into some pertinent commentary. (1) Season four finds Claire pushing for a promotion from first lady to vice president, and her intentions are obviously towards the presidential seat. The parallels to Hillary Clinton are massive, and the comments about a politician's wife stepping out from under his shadow are not to be missed. (2) Trump’s David Duke scandal parallels Frank’s father’s similar KKK scandal. (3) Debate over whether experience and elected office go hand-in-hand when privately financed candidate Heather Dunbar makes a bid for office, paralleling with business tycoon Donald Trump. (4) In a pertinent dissection of the age of social media becoming a valuable tool for candidates, House of Cards’ Will Conway is forced into releasing his phone data in order to regain his voter’s trust, which parallels Hillary Clinton’s email-gate. The foreign affairs issues feel ripped from today’s headlines, with ICO/ISIS parallels abounding when Frank enlists a hacker to find a terrorist’s whereabouts, which is especially timely considering Apple's standoff with the FBI over unlocking the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.
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The New York Times' critic, Jen Chaney, posited that season four of House of Cards “...fell victim to its usual tendency to take itself far too seriously”. However, that’s the whole fun of House of Cards - it’s not actually taking anything seriously, and the human stories could be removed of their political context and silk screened onto any canvas. House of Cards could be a show about a Panera Bread employee ruthlessly working his way up the ladder at any cost (indulge me by calling it House of Carbs) and the central message would be the same - if you build your empire from trickery and calculation, the people you played will collapse from under you like a deck of cards. Hence, the title.
I posit a different facet of family game night to represent season four of House of Cards - a sly round of spot the difference between reality and fiction bingo. This show isn’t meant to be a realistic government, certainly, and it’s not really meant to be social commentary on the existing status quo. It’s steeped in melodrama, it’s funny, and many of its most charming or outstanding moments aren’t about politics at all (the Frank/Meechum storyline, the Frank/Freddie storyline, literally any scene with Claire’s mother, or anytime we have to have another furiously polite luncheon come to mind). The real charm of House of Cards is that you get out of it what you put into it - your analysis of it will always prove more about you than about the show. It’s a timeless and placeless story of succumbing to hubris, and season four weaves a tale with fascinatingly (yet ultimately meaningless) familiar threads.