House of Cards season 4 operates in a weird, counter-intuitive style that was well-needed after the past three seasons. We’ve all been given this keen look into the meteoric rise of Frank Underwood alongside his equally calculative but somehow supportive wife. And despite her strength and resolve through basically three seasons of repeated emotional abuse, season 4 tests everything that we’ve come to know about both Frank and the First Lady.
I don’t think that there’s any scene that encapsulates the oddity of House of Cards season 4 quite like the image of Claire crying in front of her mother out of shame and pain in the first episode. And after her mother, struggling through chemotherapy and bald, bites back with “Is that for you or for me?” (referring to tears), the audience is given a glance into an Underwood family that is finally shedding the emotional barriers that held them back.
I came into this season, alongside a lot of other avid viewers, expecting that some sort of trauma or disruption within the Underwood orbit would be the only thing capable of recalibrating the struggling power couple. Keep in mind that we enter the season with Frank trailing in the New Hampshire primary and his loose grip on the Presidency challenged mightily in its infancy. Claire’s early ambitions to run for Congress in Texas seem dead on arrival and the President, struggling against Heather Dunbar, seems to subconsciously know that his time is up.
Remember that first scene on Air Force One, where the President flips his shit over the phonetics of a particular passage in his written speech? That’s exactly the stress-inducing stuff that the uber-ambitious former House Whip never expected when he rose to the highest office. He simply seems as if he wasn’t ready for it, and most of the audience was left holding that view.
However, it’s the first major tragedy of the Underwood era that, as predicted, sets the couple and their Administration back on the right track. The former news reporter turned prison-snitch turned protected witness is back in the real world, and in a brilliant moment of cinematography we see the disillusioned reporter come up to the President at a crowded campaign stop and deposit a bullet in his liver. Meachum, seemingly the only likable character within the Underwood orbit and the love interest of both the President and First Lady, is left bleeding out on the floor, his dead eyes gazing past the camera. It’s a powerful scene and the earliest consequential moment for getting the political dynasty back on the winning side.
An early takeaway and lesson for viewers of the show is this: power is only so powerful. Frank Underwood, a possible meglomaniac and psychopath who dreams of nothing but the accumulation of power, is simultaneously stymied by it: his stranglehold on power distances himself from the variables that have actually made him successful, most notably Claire. It’s his post-liver transplant weakness, frail and beaten in front of a growing Clarie Underwood, that reunites the couple in the most meaningful way.
The plot of the 13 chapters navigate within the obsessive and the obscene, moving back and forth from the emotional separation of Claire and Frank and into the budding romance manifesting at Claire’s Texas home (I’m talking of course about the writer dude).
And then we’ve got the character arc of former chief of the Washington Herald Tom Hammerschmidt, arguably the most interesting subplot of the entire season. Yes, it’s easy to see where the cookie crumbs lead as Hammerschmidt weaves his way through the corrupt and bloody history of the Underwood clan. But that doesn’t take away at all from the schadenfreude that many of us felt as we watched Tom Hammerschmidt, that intrepid defender of the truth, battling mano-y-mano rhetorically with the President in the Roosevelt room. It was a powerful scene that uplifted truth for one of the first times in the entire series.
Then there’s Tom Yates, the seemingly brilliant novelist who’s found a fascinating role in the Underwood world. From novelist to campaign speechwriter to Claire Underwood’s sexual and emotional outlet, Tom’s evolved from a side character into a very crucial one, a figure that is slowly but surely adding much needed emotional depth to the team. If there’s a moralistic take away from both Hammerschmidt and Yates, it’s that somehow, in a far off universe where news reporters break relevant stories and authors publish influential novels, writers still can move mountains in the world. That’s a theme I was always dreaming of, and I bet the writers of House of Cards were willing to oblige.
Season 4 begins to unravel near the end as both Frank’s and Claire’s careers simultaneously rise and begin to falter. Nevermind the fact that the First Lady of the United States became the Democratic nominee for Vice President (the absurdity of this within the current political system is breathtaking). We’re left at the end of the 13th chapter of this season with a White House that is in disarray, a nation left stunned by the growing threat of ICO (the ISIS of the House of Cards universe), and a dynasty that is seemingly on the verge of collapse.
And the collapse is beautiful to watch for those of us who haven’t quite pledged our hearts to the Underwood’s. It’s karma at its finest: the dying President dreaming of revenge at the hand of those that he has murdered, the intrepid news reporter blowing the cover on the mounting scandals, and the nation spiraling into collapse.
But if we’ve learned anything about the Underwood’s, it’s that they can only operate in total chaos.
The primaries, the election, the whole Democratic system? That was never for them. Frank Underwood isn’t a player within the traditional institutions of the American political system. Sure, he was Majority Whip and navigated his way to VP and then eventually President of the United States, but none of those promotions came through conventional means. But, interestingly enough, none of them discarded with the system entirely either.
There are a lot of ways in which the end of this season, meshed together with the themes constructed through the 13 chapters, fit into the ‘real world’ implications of our current Presidential race and overall political institutions. We’re a strong country, that’s for sure, and we assume that our institutions are also strong as well.
But what House of Cards shows us repeatedly is that our institutions, from the laws that we abide by to the Constitution that we swear to protect, are as easily revisable and open to manipulation as any other nation, state, or empire in history. We’re ‘exceptional’, according to our politicians and leaders, but the power players in House of Cards go out of their way to show that we’re exceptionally liable to be led astray, to be manipulated and controlled by people who have no business running the state. And as we stand in a maelstrom of an election cycle that tests the collective strength of our governing norms, alongside candidates and supporters who actively endorse violence as a means of achieving the political results that they desire, we’re left to wonder: is what we’re going through any better than House of Cards?
‘It’s just a show’, and I agree with that. But even art, in its most obscene and reckless ways, has a power of representing reality better than we give it credit for. We may not have President’s who personally murder and maim to solidify their stranglehold on power, but we’ve certainly had administrations in the past who’ve done so on a very macro level scale (Trail of Tears and Japanese Internment ring a bell?).
And maybe the real power of House of Cards season 4 comes in its ability to transport us to a political system that, as corrupt and bloody as it is, still seems to work. Laws pass and ruthless politicians such as Frank Underwood still seem devoted to real action over gravitas. But as President Underwood sends the nation to war on purpose in the final episode, opening a pandora’s box of violence and hatred that is destined to spread through the world, the future doesn’t seem as certain. And maybe the political realities of Underwood’s Washington, touted by some real-world analysts as ruthless but efficient, maybe isn’t all that different from our own: vicious, tumultuous, and inherently broken.