Kevin Spacey enjoys chewing up scenery. He’s good at it. House of Cards is ideal for his snarling portrayal of once-Senator, now-President Frank Underwood. Over the last three seasons he’s blackmailed Congressmen, bullied reporters, disseminated lies in every possible way. His wife Claire, played with stunning and near-seamless ferocity by Robin Wright, is equally devoted to ascending the heights of power.
So I found it interesting when, during season four, an attempt is made on Frank’s life, thereby causing the entire endeavor to slam the brakes with shattering force. Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), now out on parole, is unable to obtain Heather Dunbar’s (Elizabeth Marvel) help in exposing the Underwoods. He shoots Frank at a campaign stop. It’s the first time scenery literally chewed up Kevin Spacey. Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow), Frank’s Secret Service agent and the couple’s playmate, takes a couple bullets and dies on the spot. For the next two episodes Frank is comatose.
From a storytelling point-of-view this makes sense: Claire, who will never stop, quietly takes over the country while poor Donald Blythe (Reed Birney) play-acts at being President. She grounds Vladimir Putin—I mean, Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen)—into fine powder under her pump-shod heel. It’s a testament to Wright’s skill that at no point does Claire betray positive or negative emotions about Frank’s condition. Her presence in the hospital room is powerful, certainly, and she is deeply invested in the situation’s outcome, but she never breaks down into a melodramatic soliloquy about her love for her husband, nor does she smile to revel in the power she’ll accrue while Frank is in medical purgatory.
Frank’s medical condition elicits severe hallucinations, which creates a black comedy vibe of “the gang’s all here”: his Confederate ancestor shooting him; following Claire, ducking through crowds and shadows, unable to keep up with her, right to the Oval Office. Once inside, Frank is unable to prevent the deceased Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) from pressurizing every inch of his immediate physical surroundings. Heads pressed together, in what could, from a distance be labeled a sexual frenzy, but is really the deepest, darkest stain on Frank’s hands. Russo and Barnes won’t let go. They clench their fists, gnash their teeth angrily but silently pawing Frank’s face into the windows, the agony of their pace on par with Kabuki theater. (Meanwhile, during negotiations about oil fields with Russia and China, Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) and Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) put in an appearance.)
I enjoyed the entire sequence because of how the show chose to end it: Frank, able to stumble only with Claire’s help, out of his bedroom and into a chair, his arm still dangling with hospital accessories—IV bag, various pipes and tubes—and says, with full humility, “I said you were nothing, without me. It’s the other way around.”
Claire is surprised. She’d spend the first third of this season exploring various means of separation—running for Congress in Texas, sabotaging Frank’s primary voter turnout in South Carolina. When she’d named the vice presidency as the price of her return, Frank had been insulting: “I worry about you, Claire.” Now, she is firm. “It would have to be different.”
Frank nods. There is something very like tenderness in Spacey’s eyes. “I know. That’s what I’m saying.” In response, Claire simply gets up and says, “Come on. Let’s see if you can make it to the end of the hall.” If you want absolute power, you need the absolute backing of your partner in power.
House of Cards, has, in my mind, ranged from decent to excellent because the Underwoods stumbled into betrayal, began navigating turmoil, worked against each other, then together. But a house divided is a house that cannot stand. To depict the chasm between Frank and Claire during season three, the show accidentally separated itself from its viewers too. A cliffhanger ending, showing Claire walking out on Frank, did nothing to soothe my nerves. I wondered if I’d watch again.
Season four is flawed. Season four has plot holes that you can see a mile away. Season four makes decisions about characters that seem at best half-boiled. Season four is also among the show’s best work.
It’s episode 7 (“Chapter 46”) that turns it all around. Its editing weaves Frank and Claire, prepping each other for various debates, with their actual sit-downs with lawmakers and reporters. The show is truly a treat to watch when it doubles up, providing two points of view, two people working in concert. When the episode opens Claire, dressed, watches Frank in the bathroom, not entirely hidden by shadow, as he downs his daily medication. He notices. “We can’t afford to be weird with each other, Claire,” he tells her in the kitchen, the reproach in his tone slight and gentle. It’s a nice change. Later, Frank offers to help her practice for a meeting with the NRA rep. I swooned at the care, affection, and delicate surprise in Wright’s body: “Alright”, she says, a faint smile of relish hovering in her cheeks. Your favorite fictional corrupt Washington couple is back.
What comes next is so entertaining that I’m entirely happy to root against Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), who has continued Lucas’s work and now has the backing of his old newspaper, the Washington Herald. The Underwoods deploy a plan that publicly shows their support for a party VP nominee, while all the time increasing Claire’s profile and likability. An open DNC convention allows her to get on the ballot. I’m also willing to forgive some fairly silly subplots—writer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) becoming Claire’s lover and live-in partner (with Frank’s approval and encouragement!), the odd avant garde jazz fan who creates a phone-tapping program for the Underwoods, the obvious ISIS-ICO parallel, an ICO-derived hostage situation that felt abrupt at best—because it’s so damn fun to watch Claire and Frank wreak havoc together.
This season is also the funniest House of Cards has been since its freshman year. Frank refers to the NSA as a “perk of being President” and informs the audience that conscience has an unmistakable stink, “sort of like raw onions and morning breath.” A hapless pro-NRA Congressman and his wife serve as the visual and philosophical antithesis to the Underwoods: the wife cheerily informs the NRA rep that she’s in DC to see her husband because “I miss his face sometimes, but don’t tell him I said that.” Claire isn’t in that scene but I swear I could feel her mental waves of revulsion. “This is what we wanted. What we worked for!” The wife’s bleating made me laugh and laugh.
The writers’ room at House of Cards probably got a case of champagne from Netflix after everyone discovered the prescience of their writing. Frank is pushing to nominate a Supreme Court justice—à la Scalia and President Obama—and another famous political couple, the Clintons, are vying for the White House. The wiretapping is a reference to the apparently smart Bush sibling—and I mentioned the ISIS-ICO mirror—but the show’s most interesting reference to real events is its depiction of the Republican candidate for President. Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) is the governor of New York, tall, Air Force hero, husband to a gorgeous Englishwoman (Dominique McElligott), father to two adorable kids, social media-savvy and not above using national tragedy for personal gain.
President Obama is approaching the end of eight years in office, with no signs of stopping his impact on American culture. Just yesterday a live-stream of the hit musical Hamilton was broadcast by and from the White House. House of Cards combines the Obamas’ sociocultural appeal and the Kennedys’ air of hallowed mystique to create context for the Conways. They’re a bit like the Obamas, minus the good intentions, but certainly with Joe Kennedy’s zeal. Frank and Claire can’t top that. They’re by comparison old. But they are veterans, and they’re smart. And, as Claire tells Frank, they’re willing to do what no one else will.
I want to mention two more things that I think are crucial for the show’s success this season. The first is a flashback, all the way to 2013, to newly elected President Garrett Walker’s (Michel Gill) New Year’s Eve party. In a weird social media move the Conways decide to make public everything they do on their phones, including old videos and photos. The party is where the new governor of New York State first met Frank. Hannah Conway is pregnant with the couple’s second child; both she and her husband look apple-cheeked with promise. Frank and Will trade sly barbs about ambition and the executive branch. It was strange to see that Frank: he hadn’t yet been betrayed by the new administration, so here he’s brimming with enthusiasm and, I daresay, has a spring in his step. Claire alerts Frank to this video off Will Conway’s website. I thought it rather charming that despite their reconciliation, they sleep in separate bedrooms and ring each other on the phone.
But Frank’s not on the phone. He stands in Claire’s doorway, and says, “We’re going to destroy them, aren’t we?” She smiles thinly, confident. “Yes we are.”
The second: Hammerschmidt—aided by Danton, Walker, and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker)—breaks a massive story about the Underwoods’ corruption. Pressure mounts to a degree that, to anyone else, would feel unstoppable. Frank is pessimistic, and there’s a Lion in Winter atmosphere to things. Claire, once again proving the catalyst, tells Frank that they should create time. And “more than chaos.” Frank is quizzical, leans forward, then understands. “War.” “Fear,” says Claire. It will be swift, brutal, total. “I’m done trying to win over people’s hearts.”
It’s possible that this story development will be an intense, non-comedic version of the diversionary tactics in Wag the Dog. But at the end of the last episode, Claire and Frank are the only people who don’t look away from the gruesome beheading of an ICO hostage. As the Situation Room recoils, the Underwoods are pure steel—the steel that, as Frank reminds Claire earlier in the season, they’d created so successfully when Walker betrayed them—unmoving, unflinching. The camera zooms in, till it’s just the pair in the frame. Equals, sitting evenly next to one another, absolute partners in absolute power. “That’s right,” says Frank, “we don’t submit to the terror.” He looks at Claire, who joins him in breaking the fourth wall. “We create the terror.”
Does this mean Claire will regularly take breaks to narrate the couple’s villainy? Or was this a one-off? Creator Beau Willimon departed at the end of season four, so who will handle this narrative transition? What I do know is that I do not want season five of House of Cards to be less terrifying than reality. I’m delighted to root for a fictional couple on TV if the couple in the actual White House are not Donald and Melania Trump. If there is a god, or even a patron saint of television, please: give us another great season, and be kind on the first Tuesday in November.