The water boiled; the Seamless order came; your mom called. You paused House of Cards for a few minutes, dealt with your obligation, and crawled back immediately afterwards. What is it about this dimly lit, cheaply made little show? Why was it the sparkplug to the revolution of streaming-service original programming? House of Cards is four seasons in and at least three past being good, but remains eminently, poisonously watchable. Its unique, opiatic power recalls the work of Christopher Nolan: Like his movies, House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon and his team throw as much intrigue in as fast as possible, before you have a moment a good hard look at how it fits together — or process how ludicrous the premises are. It’s a lot of kinetic motion, yet so often, it feels like it is just treading water to stay alive.
Fans of ‘90s thrillers starring the likes of Ashley Judd and Harrison Ford should appreciate Beau Willimon’s approach best. House of Cards continues to be essential politico-noir camp masquerading as, perhaps, something else: the Next Great and Important Television Show. We follow a supervillain around, or, depending on how you count, two of them. We watch their obscure machinations unfold, and sometimes, we get a little spiel recited into the camera about the whys and wherefores. Apparently, this terrible twosome is driven simply by an insatiable need for further power and control, and their schemes are pushed to the point of complete logical unfeasibility for the sake of showing how dastardly they can get. Only the truly dastardly can play the long game as well as the Underwoods.
A lot of the show’s psychological depth is meant to be provided by the other characters in the ever-winding ensemble. But like the Great and Influential Show Mad Men before it, all of the “characters” feel increasingly defined by the bullet-point actions they are assigned to carry out, not anything external. The shocks and twists become the characters, and just as you recover from one gasp, another intercedes; there are enough plot lines that Willimon can keep batting the viewer back and forth like worn shuttlecocks. Only you can decide, viewer: Is the tail wagging the dog?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter: In the era of too-much-TV-referring-to-much-other-previous-TV-to-keep-track-of, has the measure of a good TV show become simply whether you keep watching or not? Success is just success, right? It’s unclear what else could serve as a concrete marker in this sea of programming. How much revolution is possible in this medium? It’s a question that, of course, many of us have also asked about American politics.
For the first time in House of Cards’ tenure, the show seems delighted, rather than embarrassed, to recycle plot threads and pre-existing situations. Its fourth season is bifurcated, wrapping up and shortchanging a major, actually-interesting conflict in its sixth episode. If you thought the schism of Francis and Claire was going to be a lasting thing — how long would it take for one of them to kill the other one? — you were wrong. At the start of the season, Claire seems to be angling to enter the congressional race, or take whatever she can get politically, on her own terms. However, a deus ex assassination attempt on Frank mutes the conflict. Despite the fact that she claims to “feel nothing” when Frank is in a coma — lost in cop-out, budget Fight Club psychosexual hallucinations of Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo — his miraculous recovery by Stampfer-strong-armed liver transplant ends up patching over the conflict. The Underwoods end the first half ready to take on the world with an unlikely plan by any standards: going for the Democratic nomination as running mates.
Frank daydreamed of blood running from his faucet or killing Claire by smashing her in a campaign-trail-hotel-room mirror in the first few episodes. But, ultimately, he just gets Doug to fuck with her prospective campaign manager (Neve Campbell) for him. Campbell’s character is also, ultimately, a disappointment, going from someone willing to challenge Underwood to just a third leg in the self-sacrificing Doug and Seth team. Campbell’s most important role, ultimately, is ushering in one of the rare bits of the actual Modern Political Universe that manages to seep into the season: an online data analyst with the key to give the Underwoods an invasive amount of insight into what the world thinks of them and their political maneuvers.
The show persists in attempt to convince us that our main characters are something more compelling than comic-book evil — or, at least, logically justify its roots. With the character of Claire’s mother, played by Ellen Burstyn introduced, the issue of class becomes an issue on the show. Claire decamps for parts of this season to Texas, where we get an unexpected amount of Burstyn screen time — which doesn’t feel totally warranted or desired. An old-guard, multimillionaire Southerner, Burstyn —sick, undergoing chemo, and alone in her dusty mansion — reveals that she hates Frank, and never thought he was good enough for Claire. Though she and Claire are estranged, her mother encourages her movements against Frank. When he is shot, Burstyn says, in a totally unnecessary moment: “I hope he dies.” Frank’s up-by-the-bootstraps brand of ambition is placed in opposition to everything her character stands for. When Frank discovers Claire has betrayed him in an attempt to force him to make her his running mate, he snarls, in a custom-made trailer moment: “You don’t know what it means to have nothing.” If you recall, Frank built his evil empire up from abject poverty, just like Dick Whitman. He has a complicated hate/love relationship with his poor, misbegotten family. Even if amplified, this is stuff we’ve heard from this show before. And, ultimately, it affects the larger conflict almost not at all.
The above are just a couple of the many plot points that the first half of Season 4 sets up and then shies away from: Claire gets over all of this. The show also quickly dooms Heather Dunbar’s campaign, as if anticipating (somewhat incorrectly, I’d argue) that no one gave a shit about her character going into the season. Lucas, free from prison in witness protection, seems poised to be a major anti-Underwood force this season. However, he makes a decision no one anticipates, and at least part of his non-political case against Frank seems to die with him. Also, we’re meant to care about Claire negotiating — once again! — with the wily and overbooked Petrov, at a time when the viewer couldn’t care less. Doug has another obscure existential crisis, and couldn’t be more predictable in the way in which he deals with it, staring into mini fridges and replaying recordings of comforting female voices. It’s essentially the same thing we’ve seen from his character — for a while, the show’s best — over the last two seasons.
House of Cards continues to string us along on the overarching plot points we care about, and the small advancements often end up feeling like no advancement at all. Rarely has a show with some much local-level action stayed so static. Shoot Frank Underwood, or do any number of other things; there’s no wresting him from the throne yet. After all, if they did, they’d be no new season to look forward to.