“They say we get the leaders we deserve. I think America deserves Frank Underwood.”
This is the kicker line in the teaser for House of Cards Season 4. Unlike the official trailer for the new episodes from earlier this month, the faux-campaign ad doesn’t show footage from the new series, but flashes of Frank Underwood’s most dastardly past deeds. These are intercut with him delivering an inspirational speech at his desk in the Oval Office.
The official trailer clears up the question more explicitly: We are going to see a campaign unfold in House of Cards’ fourth season. In the earlier shots of the full clip, we see a crowd shaking “Underwood 2016” signs at a rally.
One wonders if the season will find any resonance with the current political climate, but our real-life situation at the moment seems too outlandish for the calmer, more traditionally bifurcated political landscape of the series. At a cultural moment when we are, in real life, running scared about the possibility of an openly prejudiced and unscrupulous shock jock becoming our president — a man who proudly operates outside of normal party lines and protocol — one imagines that House of Cards universe of clandestine smear tactics will seem tame and anachronistic. Trump has blown the Republican Party — and politics, in general, apart — and it’s unclear if House of Cards will focus on this, or tap into it at all. After all, Frank Underwood has always represented the political establishment, and the show has focused on it. Insurgency has largely been laughed off.
Underwood’s pragmatism, of course, might play out like some dystopian, political-cartoon-version of Hillary; perhaps Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) will become his Bernie. But the show’s bent, primarily, has always been to create a noir-ish, hardboiled fantasy view of the behind-closed-doors political landscape. More than the conflict between the parties, it explores the cutthroat struggle for dominance within the political leadership — within the Democratic Party. Underwood is the great compromiser — that is, he proposes elaborate raw deals and steps on anyone to get what he wants. In Season 3, we find him lagging in popularity, with everything falling apart around him — including, most notably, his marriage. It’s the personal trauma, and his fallouts with the individuals around them, that have become the focal point by this point in the show.
For a political show, House of Cards is, in many ways, pretty unpolitical. It dramatizes, generally, how difficult and quixotic the pursuit of making any real changes within the government system can be. Getting any bill through involves endless series of compromises, favors, and deceptions, but Beau Willimon’s show is primarily focused on highlighting what is revealed about the characters during these proceedings.
You can call House of Cards your favorite political drama, but at this point, it’s mostly a gritty soap opera. Chances are, you’re not even sure why you’re still watching; Beau Williamson isn’t sure why he’s still making it. Verisimilitude was thrown out the Underwood brownstone window two seasons ago. From the looks of the preview, the season will delve deeper into the troubled relationships between Claire and Frank, Remy and Jackie, and Doug and Rachel — in other words, further the storylines the show’s fan base is already invested in. If you’re expecting the show to provide wily and subtle political commentary, you’ve definitely forgotten what kind of a show House of Cards is: a silly, over-the-top thriller, about as penetrating in its contemporary insights as Olympus Has Fallen.
If anything, House of Cards will be a nice respite from the madness of a world in which Donald Trump is a real, sobering phenomenon. Sure, Frank Underwood is an evil supervillain, but he’s not an unabashed, loud-and-proud Batman villain.
Speaking of which, when are we getting some Bane on House of Cards? He’d be an excellent fit at this point.