This review contains mild spoilers for only the first six episodes in House of Cards’ fourth season.
The Only Thing That Would Make Francis Underwood Happy
by DICK CHENEY
House of Cards
creator Beau Willimon
Ronald Reagan’s first wife was Jane Wyman. She was a better actor than he was by leaps and bounds; she was a more natural Republican, too. She starred in this one Douglas Sirk movie I can never forget. She wanted to be with her gardener. I mean, he wasn’t just a gardener, he had like a degree in horticulture. Also he looked like Rock Hudson.
Her family really pressured her that this man wasn’t good enough for her. (The same thing happened to Claire Underwood on House of Cards, which is why I’m explaining this Douglas Sirk yarn to you now.) So she breaks it off with Rock, and she is real sad about how things went down. Her kids want to cheer her up, so they wheel this television into her room. And she says, “I had Rock Hudson, and you made me send him away. Now you’re giving me an RCA?”
Fortunately it is not too late: she can always go back to him. House of Cards would have been a great project for Douglas Sirk. It is so obvious that the fourth season of this Netflix series is being masterminded by a scriptwriter, because this show would be no different in its substance if it were staged as a radio play. Budgets have clearly been scaled back; even the cast seems incredibly small. Most scenes are rendered in an utterly drab fashion, shot in low light in order to accentuate the clandestine nature of events.
Once again Robin Wright herself directs quite a few episodes. She has a great eye for the pulse of a crowd, the way that individuals form groups. She works to contrast that with the private exchanges involved in the feud between herself and domineering husband Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) that came to a breaking point at the end of the last season. The Underwood character has been pushed to its limits and there is really no hope of redemption at this point without making him seem weak, so House of Cards focuses on Wright’s First Lady+ character almost exclusively.
Accompanying these two mainstays is one debut of any significance, which makes the show feel a little repetitive of past seasons at times. The inclusion of Neve Campbell in House of Cards as the Underwoods’ campaign manager LeAnn is a welcome sight on its own. Campbell is a reserved performer who can play several emotions required of this role quite easily: secrecy, confusion, and an understated sex appeal that could explode at any moment. She introduces the Underwoods to a data scientist named Aidan (Damian Young) in the most underwhelming subplot of its time.
Claire uses LeAnn as a tool to further her own ends, and this season of House of Cards is mostly about how she makes everyone else do her bidding. Dressed in a vanilla blouse for a good 96% of her scenes , Claire is not given the chance to prove she is a human being, which is just as well. Her relationship with her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) the only attempt to make her slightly more sympathetic, but we are not really fooled – their debates are something like witnessing a fight between two kaijus.
The first half of this season concerns how the Underwoods dispose of their chief rival to the Democratic nomination, Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel). Last season Dunbar was the principled opposition with a commanding lead. Watching Francis and Claire transform her from political Supreme Court justice to convention afterthought is as satisfying as it is unlikely, and Beau Willimon imbues her with none of the charisma or craftiness she had when she debuted on the scene. She sort of fades away here for no real reason.
In her place is Underwood’s opponent in the general election, the Republican governor of New York (?) Rob Conway (Joel Kinnaman) and his wife Hannah (Dominique McEligott). I will have more to say about them at a later date, but I am not happy.
House of Cards has already had so many eventful moments that it would not even shock us now to watch President Underwood commit mass murder. He cannot feasibly silence his enemies that way now – they have grown too numerous, and in the case of Claire she knows him too completely for that. The show tries to make Francis as canny as he was in the past, but it is much less interesting watching Underwood try to be a good president, since we could not believe that he did all these awful things to fail at his job.
In order to prove that he needs her on board, Claire leaks a photo of Francis’ father posing next to the leader of the KKK, and the next day he addresses a black church on the subject. Thereafter it is painful to watch the producers position young black men and women in the audience of Francis’ rallies and speeches. Francis Underwood’s relationship with actual African-Americans is confined to a throwaway scene between Francis and a member of the White House staff.
Frank’s relationship with a Texas congresswoman Doris Jones (Cicely Tyson) from Claire’s district and her daughter never really gets more in depth than a minute-long meal. Claire plans to supplant Jones’ daughter as her successor, and the congresswoman agrees to the insult in order to fund an abortion clinic in her area. The latter comes to pass but not the former, although we never see Tyson or her daughter again. House of Cards‘ African-American characters are alternately humbled, angry or reduced. They never get any kind of satisfying revenge or action — instead they recede into the flow of events with a frown on their faces.
House of Cards‘ major black protagonist throughout has been Remy Danton. He is maybe the best performer on the entire show, but he does not get more than a few token scenes here — in one, all that happens is that he cannot find any gas for his car. “You don’t care about money,” someone says to him at one point, an allegation that seems hollow given Danton’s background on the series. Danton tries to protect his girlfriend Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) from Francis but he never gets a scene with either of the Underwoods – he has to deal exclusively with the woman who replaced him.
Beau Willimon is fantastic when it comes to pushing the breakneck speed and chaos of a presidential election forward, and that momentum sustains House of Cards even when its developments appear asinine or unlikely. There is no great showpiece episode or storyline, nothing that will make anyone’s jaw drop ensconsced in this set of scripts, but Willimon is a good enough writer to pull off the demands of a serial with smoke and mirrors.
After completing this iteration of House of Cards there is an empty feeling. The world of politics, Mr. Willimon suggests, is an empty, turgid place with no consequences for the citizens or the people perpetuating the crimes. I do not believe that this is really how things are in Washington, but Willimon’s exaggeration of the malicious tendencies of certain elements in our political class remains instructive. The tone in this House of Cards marks a more serious shift; there is a lessening of the vicarious thrill we might have shared in the Underwoods’ tactics, which seamlessly blend into the general malaise. There is no such thing as too many cautionary tales.
Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. He would like to dedicate this essay and all further essais to the memory of Nancy Reagan.
“All the Ways” – Wet (mp3)
“Small and Silver” – Wet (mp3)