“We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.” House of Cards is back, with a vengeance. Big budget, small-screen, this is by far the sleekest television show at the moment.
Frank Underwood, deliciously reprised by Kevin Spacey, is once more centre-stage. Underwood is the archetypal anti-hero, Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein writ-large over American politics. As with previous seasons, dramatic irony overhangs every episode. Only we, the viewer, truly know who Underwood is and what he’s done. As his enemies flounder around him, we’re enthralled by this Borgia in the White House. To the voter Underwood is the sincere South Carolinan, to his fellow Democrat the consummate dealmaker, to the Republicans the unworthy holder of power. Only the fearless journalist Tom Hammerschmidt, played by the redoubtable Boris McGiver, threatens to lift the lid on this devil incarnate.
The thirteen episodes are less a panorama than an almanac of American politics. If the series has one weakness it is this: that it engages with too many themes. Tonally it’s a bit all over the place, and the opening episodes jar uneasily between sweeping Texas vistas and august Capitol skylines. Plot lines come and go; gun reform, race relations, the Ku Klux clan, campaign finance. The plotting seems to pull in multiple directions at once, less Orwellian doublethink, more a cacophony of press releases, policy announcements and pundits. This series seems to make a lot of noise, only some of which resonates.
At its core House of Cards is a fantasy of surveillance on US politics. In part it confirms the verities we fear to be true. The season closes with Frank Underwood threatening to inflict terror on the United States, his iron grip on the presidency weakening as a journalistic exposé threatens to unmask him.
In the previous season Frank was vulnerable. He seemed to roll from self-inflicted crisis to crisis, a sort of George Osborne-Robert Mugabe synthesis on-steroids. Season Four drops the bizarre Pussy Riot cameo and we’re spared much facetime with the appalling Putin-look alike Russian premier. Mercifully we only have to attend one international conference. Instead the season sensationalises the politics we love to hate: muck-raking. Frank is back and he’s angry. In part he’s helped by the return of his soul-searching sidekick-come-chief of staff Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly. The President’s henchman is a Manichean allegory all to himself, the Jack Burden to Underwood’s Wille Stark. His uneasiness, oozing from every line, makes this a refreshingly uncomfortable show to watch.
Robin Wright is once more resplendent as Clare Underwood. The writers play-up her sexuality as the season progresses as she embroils herself with her speechwriter-aide. Caring, warm and aristocratic, she’s everything Frank cannot be, the old money to his new. Her evolving characterisation adds an ingredient the previous three seasons lacked, the exposition of her family shedding light on her own entitlement and privilege.
House of Cards enduring success is in itself testimony to the direction television is heading. This was Netflix’s first in-house drama, launched in February 2013, and it marked a breakthrough in small-screen entertainment. To the uninitiated every episode in the season is released at once on the Netflix site, allowing viewers to watch when they want, where they want. For the Oxford student this season’s chosen release date on the cusp of 8th week of Hilary really could not have been better.
We’ve lost the campness of Michael Dobbs’ 1990s original BBC adaptation. Where that promoted ruthless Tory patrician Realpolitik, the Stateside transposition marries pork barrel politics with the social media age. If Iago worked in D.C. with Kourtney Kardashian as his spin-doctor it would look something roughly like this.
Where Dobbs’ work is comic-farce however, Netflix’s reproduction seems like fractured reality. There’s a rich tradition of unsavoury politics in the States after all. This is the country of Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon and now Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It typifies a review of House of Cards to conclude by noting it depicts a sordid but quasi-accurate take on reality. And in the kaleidoscope of Capitol deal-making it is eerily effective. As Michael Corleone asks his fiancé in the first Godfather, “You think presidents don’t have men killed? Who’s being the fool now?”
The season succeeds because it reflects but does not mirror real life. There’s no rabble-rousing Trump, no sinister Clinton, no dynastic Bushes. It remains acutely referential; the enthralling season climax deals with a terrorist hostage situation. Sound familiar? Only this time we’re inside the Situation Room, with Frank’s finger poised over the nuclear button.
Reality and the small screen are divorced. This is a stellar season not because it plays on one’s fears about Washington gridlock and corrupt politics but because it’s a testimony to the banality of evil. Ideology and principles are pushed aside by a protagonist obsessed with self-promotion. Frank Underwood is a study in how fast you have to run, how fiercely you have to fight, how mendacious you have to be to make it to the top in politics. House of Cards is not an indictment on the status quo. It’s a ‘do-not-disturb’ sign for us mere mortals.