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House of Cards isn’t a prestige drama- although Netflix desperately wants us to think so. It’s not even a particularly good show. However, it can be a fun trashy drama- a show that revels in melodrama and would much rather indulge in its soapy tendency than attempt to craft a fully coherent storyline over the course of a season. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Heck, ABC has made a killing out of greenlighting Shonda Rhimes-backed dramas that aspire to reach similar heights. The problem is that many people (particularly those who vote for award shows) think Cards is a serious drama, and that is where things start to get murky for me, the critic, when reviewing the show.
I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with House of Cards since it began four years ago. I certainly appreciate what the show is trying to do, but considering the caliber of the shows cast, writing staff, producers, and directors, I expect a lot from it. I’ve watched the British series that inspired this version (and, for those who wish to have an idea as to how the American version of House of Cards might end, the British series is available on Netflix- it’s significantly shorter and a great deal more fun than the US installment- mostly because it embraces its soapy nature from the get-go), and I’m an avid Shakespeare fan, so I’m pretty well-versed in Macbeth (the Shakespeare play that the series borrows most of its arc from- as I laid out last year). But after a fairly solid first season, the show has been getting more and more ridiculous with each passing season. I cannot, in good conscience, treat it as if it were The Americans or The Leftovers– serious dramas that are aspiring to say something interesting and complex about our world. But the show’s treatment in the pop culture landscape seems to demand it receive that treatment.
So, I’ve decided to just go with my gut and accept House of Cards is a prime time soap opera. And I’ll look at it from that perspective. I’ll give it points when it succeeds at rising above that level, and dock it when it falls below it. But that still means the show needs to deliver a story with clarity and intrigue, something that was missing once again in season four. And with that, onto the season review- if you haven’t watched the entire fourth season of House of Cards, turn back now, for there be spoilers ahead!
After the complete debacle that was season three, I enjoyed portions of this season. I truly did. However, the show is still trying to do far too many things at once, routinely throwing numerous storylines at the wall and seeing which ones stick. I felt a great deal of whiplash when I finished watching the season, and even now, a week later, it’s hard for me to recall details of certain storylines. I can, however, remember which elements of the season I loved, and which made me more than a little happy to recall that showrunner Beau Willimon will be stepping away for season five.
As for what worked well, Robin Wright absolutely killed it as Claire this season. As anyone who has ever read or seen Macbeth can tell you, the play is only as strong as it’s Lady Macbeth. The same can be said for House of Cards. The show needs Claire to rise to a position of power and begin taking the reins from Francis. Wright’s performance as Claire has been strong throughout the series, but the character has always been a bit of a cypher on the show- almost as if the writers knew that Claire was going to be the ultimate star of the piece, but they were afraid to let her shine too soon for fear she might eclipse Kevin Spacey’s Francis (which, considering how much scenery Spacey chews in every scene, is a ridiculous fear to have). But until the second half of this season, I always saw Wright’s Claire as someone to admire, but not as a character with much bite.
Elevating Claire to prominence during Frank’s coma and recovery (the fastest darn recovery from a transplant in history) was a stroke of brilliance for the writers. It gave us insight into what Claire wants, how she can command those around her, along with giving the first major hints that Claire will become even more formidable than Frank could ever imagine. Laying this groundwork is crucial to the future of the show, but it was also important to finally show Claire as someone fully distinct from Frank. We need to know that these are two different people, and that Claire isn’t simply following in Frank’s footsteps and cowing to his orders. She must be a fully complete person, and she must have the ability to command a room. This new Claire is impressive. She’s capable and smart. And she’s become a much more nuanced character than the show’s de facto lead, Francis Underwood.
And this is where the show has a problem- Claire needs to get the upper hand from Frank and take control, as she does in the season’s final scenes to great effect (having Claire break the fourth wall with Francis was chilling). But the show doesn’t seem enthused at the idea of Frank losing his mojo any time soon. Now, to be fair, I suppose season five could start with Frank faltering and Claire taking up the mantle in a more clear manner, but it certainly looked that Frank was back in the driver’s seat after his crisis of faith- only this time, Claire is a fully involved passenger. If the series doesn’t want to squander the great strides it made in crafting a new and complex characterization for Claire, it must tread very lightly moving forward.
I also really enjoyed having the press plot from season one emerge fully again. I enjoyed all of those characters in their initial run in season one, and it was great to have them return. The journalistic plot line was one of the strongest arcs on the show, so it only makes sense to dip back into that well- particularly since it is also the only thing that can legitimately bring down Frank’s rise to power. It also doesn’t hurt that only Frank is tied up in that particular scandal. My memory may be failing me, but Claire should be able to ride out whatever fallout occurs without much danger of getting mixed up in it. Which would serve the overall narrative of Claire becoming the one in charge a great deal in the next season.
But while there were some things that really worked well this season, there were just as many that didn’t. First up, the decision to bring back the dullest character from season three, Tom Yates the writer, was just plain stupid. From the brief glimpses of personality we were given in the scenes between Tom and Elizabeth (Claire’s mother), it’s clear Paul Sparks could imbue the character with some charisma, but man, does the show have an aversion to giving us any reason to root for him. Tom has zero personality, there is absolutely no reason I can fathom Claire wants to be with him (outside of his looks), and his addition to the story added absolutely nothing. I’m absolutely fine with Frank and Claire working out a deal where Claire gets a live-in lover, but I would expect him to have some positive qualities. Tom Yates is just a complete wet blanket.
Also in the column of a major misstep, what is the show doing with Doug? I could accept his out-of-character nature- the active physical threats against Seth to the guilt over the liver transplant turning into Doug seeing (dating?) the widow of the guy who got bumped from number one on the list- if we were given reasons beyond Doug is losing control, but the show seemed to be intentionally obtuse on this. The relationship with the widow is particularly icky, and really serves no real purpose unless it somehow leads to Doug’s guilt impacting his work for Frank and Claire. However, that doesn’t mesh with what we know about Doug. This is a man who hunted down a woman and killed her to tie up a loose end. Without any clear guidance from the writers beyond what we saw, I ended the season really confused about where Doug was, mentally, emotionally, and within the Underwood White House.
However, none of those issues was as glaring to me as the case of Joel Kinnaman’s Will Conway. Now, I enjoyed Kinnaman’s work on the first season of AMC’s The Killing back in the day (I was one of the people who watched the first season and never came back after the debacle of the finale), and I believe he’s a good actor. However, he was not the right actor for this part. His stilted American accent was jarring (Kinnaman is Swedish), and his screen presence was lacking. Yes, some of this comes down to the writers not really knowing how to portray him- is he a devious candidate like Francis, or is his he a boy scout who plays to win? But every time he appeared on screen, I groaned. Conway wasn’t as awful of a strawman candidate as say, The West Wing‘s Robert Richie (who was there only as a punching bag to the hero, Josiah Bartlett), but it was pretty clear from the word go that the Underwoods were going to beat him up and take the crown. And, as it has played out so far, the only thing that can take them down at this point is a scandal that has nothing to do with Conway’s campaign.
For every step forward House of Cards takes, it always seems to take two back. I’m encouraged that season five might start putting the show on the path to its inevitable end (and there is an inevitable end, as Francis cannot escape from his own past forever), but I also worry that Netflix and the show’s production team will want to drag the series out for as long as possible. My hope moving forward is that House of Cards recognizes that its end is rapidly approaching, and all involved push with great zeal to make the coming explosion the best it can possibly be.
— While I’m fairly certain any hope of realism in the political campaigns on the series went by the wayside a few years ago, there was what appeared to be one glaring error in the season’s arc: Claire cannot legally run for Vice President. Now, I missed this one, because I’m not nearly as tuned into these things as my friend, author Jeff Fleischer (whose book on the American electoral system, Votes of Confidence, comes out on May 3), who helpfully told me that there are, in fact, requirements to become Vice President. The first two are in-line with the Presidential rules- you must be 35 and a natural born American. But the third is where things get dicey for Claire: You cannot reside in the same state as the Presidential nominee. And, while Claire may be from Texas originally, she is almost certainly a resident of South Carolina now. So, this is something that needs to be addressed next season.
— Shout out to Neve Campbell, who did some excellent work this season. It was great to see her in a season-long arc that didn’t involve her crying over a guy or getting chased by a serial killer.
— This season did suffer from a lack of Cashew, the guinea pig.
— I was really sad to see Meechum go. He was such an interesting character I would have loved to know more about.
— I find the timeline on the series to be pretty confusing. As I mentioned, it seems like Frank’s recovery from his injuries/transplant was pretty fast. The show does a very poor job of laying out where we are in the election cycle and how much time has actually passed.