[This is a review of House of Cards season 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
More and more, it feels as though the job of House of Cards isn’t to tell the story of Frank and Claire Underwood and the underhanded lengths they’ll go to obtain and hang on to power. Instead, Netflix’s flagship series has largely concerned itself with being a model case for the supposed benefits of the streaming giant’s preferred method of TV viewing – i.e., the binge-watch.
While the series has admirably shifted from puerile political thriller eager to convince the world of its prestige-worthiness to puerile political thriller that fully embraces its trashy cartoonishness, House of Cards has changed in other ways, too. Most notably, the show has seemingly thrown the idea of a typical season-long storyline out the window in favor of a series of sort-of cohesive rapid-fire moments – bumps in the road that threaten to undo everything Frank has worked so for over the last few years – that fail to bring with them any real sense of consequence or closure. These moments don’t offer much in the way of lasting significance because that’s not what the show’s interested having them do; it just wants these trifling problems or sordid instances to act as the vehicle that shuttles the viewer through one episode and on into the next.
Case in point: the final moments of season 4 are unconcerned with offering any sense of closure for the previous 13 hours of… stuff that happened. Instead, those closing moments put all their energy into the build-up to more; the question of what comes next firmly puts the notion of an ending in the backseat. There is no climax, no denouement; there is only a series of small anti-climaxes followed by more rising action. In this world of the on-demand, bingeable television season Netflix is determined to make the norm, the action in a series like House of Cards can never stop rising, lest the audience have a reason to stop watching.
Although season 4 was a marked improvement over the less successful season 3 experiment of letting the characters steer the ship, the search for a middle ground between character intimacy and the surface-level formality of the show’s depiction of politics makes for an uneven viewing experience. It’s as though House of Cards is unsure how to reconcile its desire to see the Underwood’s story play out on a national – if not global – stage, but also give it a “behind closed doors” level of confidence. That sense of indecision or ability to merge the two halves of its base self is made evident by the season’s muffled finale. It’s one thing to end on a cliffhanger or hint at a continuation, but those things generally work when the audience has some idea of an endpoint on the horizon. Season 4 has no desire to provide anything of the sort. And so, given the series’ continued interest in having its protagonist break the fourth wall for a little one-on-one convo with his audience, it would only seem natural that the viewer be afforded a chance to fire back, perhaps to ask the president: “What’s it all about, Frank?”
Only that might not be the best question to ask, since Frank’s direct address has, in recent seasons, become more an excuse to condense various plot points into a series of easily digestible bullet points and less an attempt to offer actual insight into the character’s frame of mind. Maybe that’s an extension of the show coming to terms with the fact that, Kevin Spacey’s ostentatious performance aside, Frank Underwood isn’t nearly as interesting or compelling as its writers would like to think he is. And as such, perhaps they can feel the audience wanting President Underwood to take a moment out of his busy days implausibly ducking scandal after scandal, surviving assassination attempts of the real and character variety, and doing battle with an unconvincingly formidable opponent, in the form of Joel Kinnaman‘s social media enthusiast Will Conway, to reassure them there is, in fact, a point to all of this.
Right now, though, the show is too diffuse for there to be an idea of what the its intentions are beyond, “Frank and Claire Underwood crave power and are willing to go to any length to sate their desire.” That core idea is what made the early part of the season feel fresh and exciting. The idea of Frank and Claire engaging in a marital Cold War had the allure of actual conflict and the distinct ring of unpredictability – finally, the series had found an opponent with the sort of unethical tenacity and endurance to not only go toe-to-toe with Francis, but also potentially make him hear the ten count. And yet, the season wasn’t half over before the president and the first lady were colluding with one another again and inviting book-stealing author-turned-speech-writer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) into their marriage.
Jerking the wheel back to the status quo like that undermines the series’ narrative in a significant way, as it suggests an aversion to the sort of storytelling that might carry with it actual consequences for these characters. But it also suggests creator Beau Willimon’s departure may have been a result of his seeing Frank V Claire: Twilight of the Underwoods as a fitting and natural endpoint to the series, whereas Netflix, perhaps only saw dwindling subscription rates in the show’s absence. That may or may not be the case, but whatever happened behind the scenes, it left the audience with a finale that was the antithesis of Frank resoundingly pounding his ring on the desk in the Oval Office; it was instead, a presidential shrug that said, “I guess I’ll be seeing you next year.”
A sense of greater consequence may be revealed in season 5, and perhaps that will have a payoff for the series’ more devoted fan base. But it won’t make up for the lack of a solid, compelling conclusion to the season as a whole or any of the many ancillary plot threads introduced during these last 13 episodes – retroactive storytelling rarely does. Season 4 ends with Frank and Claire creating chaos in an effort to once again dodge an opponent’s supposedly devastating blow – this time it was a journalistic haymaker from Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) that landed with all the force of a sparrow descending on a tree branch. As a result, even though the Underwoods’ turn to chaos has the distinct rattle of pending climax, House of Cards remains frustratingly heedless of such sounds.
House of Cards seasons 1-4 can be seen in their entirety on Netflix.
Photos: David Giesbrecht/Netflix