A spoiler-free review of House of Cards Season 4: Episodes 1-3

I’ll begin this review of the new season of House of Cards by telling you some things you won’t find in episodes one through three: any reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, any debates over immigration policy or any nod to the populist frustration that has served as the catalyst for Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution.” For a show that purports to be a dramatization of contemporary American politics, in an election year, these omissions seem like massive missed opportunities.

Replacing current themes in these early noir-ish episodes is a different kind of politics, one that elevates the memories of past decades and centuries to the first importance. It’s as if the show’s writers decided that continuing a contemporary political drama was just too hard, and embarked on a slick update of The Day of the Jackal, with frequent allusions to an oil shortage as the worst problem afflicting the American people. Indeed, one of President Underwood’s key campaign speeches pivots on the phrase “do you remember 1973?” Most of us don’t.

I happen to enjoy the classic film dramas of the 70s that House of Cards is evoking, and I give its team credit for holding my interest. The cinematography is carefully considered, with a strong eye for visual framing and character development, and reminds me of critically lauded movies like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

House of Cards flag, via Wikimedia Commons

House of Cards flag, via Wikimedia Commons

Still, it troubles me that the show avoids current issues so assiduously, and that it treats political life as little different from a Real Housewives-type reality show. It contains many scenes of politicos scheming in limousines (and notably almost none sitting in party meetings, working in legislative committees, making fundraising calls or drafting emails to supporters). The idea that politicians might have to respond to demands from activist groups or change their positions on hot-button questions (it’s happened frequently in this election cycle) is strikingly absent from this story.

The show, I think, wants to resuscitate the lost glory of the Democratic Party circa 1964, when social mores were very different and leaders like Lyndon Johnson could win massive — if fleeting — popularity just by championing the extension of civil rights to disenfranchised groups. It seems to go without saying that all the major power players in this world will be sleeping with each other in various “swinging” arrangements, a Washington Camelot that includes lobbyists and journalists. The other side of this coin appears when the show continually hypes the “danger” of the Underwoods getting divorced, which just falls flat in our time, when (for example) Russ Feingold is very likely to win back his Senate seat in Wisconsin, his divorce in 2005 notwithstanding.

On balance, I am underwhelmed by the beginning of this House of Cards season. In chaotic political times like the present, the show gives us a picture of American politics which is eye-catching but fundamentally fake. It may take a long time for dramatists to catch up with what’s going on in the world today; until then, going far back into history is an alternative. Danton, a tense 1983 political drama about the French Revolution, is a film I recommend to fill this gap. It deals with fear and the volatility of popular opinion in a way that American TV writers haven’t really mastered.

Skye Winspur is a 33 year old Wisconsinite who spends his days working with his hands and volunteering for causes he believe in. He writes on civil rights issues; gay history and culture; political campaigns of all kinds; Christian theology; and movies.

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4 Responses to “A spoiler-free review of House of Cards Season 4: Episodes 1-3”

  1. I will say that I’ve found this season less weird, less uncredible, as the other seasons. Yes, House of Cards is more Washington than Scandal, which is just a soap opera. But only just barely. We really don’t kill people nearly as much in DC for real as they do on that show :) But, having said that, and having watched the entire season, I enjoyed this season more. It felt more “real,” other than Claire’s bizarre request.

  2. Houndentenor says:

    Somewhere in the first couple of episodes I thought Clair had completely lost her mind. No spoiler but when you get there you will see it. She was demanding something that couldn’t possibly happen and only a complete idiot would even request much less demand. And then the show seemed to get back on track. (I’m only halfway through season 4 so maybe not.) It’s interesting, no doubt, but people who have actually worked on the Hill tell me that Veep is much closer to reality than HoC.

  3. Jimmy says:

    I quite enjoyed season 4, especially considering how much I disliked season 3, but you have to take into account how farcical the politics of this series are. If you’ve only made it through the first three episodes there is a plot turn coming up that will have you rolling your eyes, but I still loved it because it was SO House of Cards. The show certainly peaked in Season 2 and it would have been better served if they followed the format of the British version and ended it after season 3.

  4. djthefreethinker says:

    I completely disagree. I found myself torn between loving and hating Claire, rooting for Francis, hoping for their reconciliation as a power couple, and taken aback at the continued depths of deception and manipulation all of these power-hungry players are willing to go for sex, money and influence. The show eidn’t need any of today’s hot topics to make their reflection of today’s current batch of politics relevant. Kudos to the writers, directors, actors and production teams of Season 4. (I binged-watched the whole season on Friday and Saturday of last week.)

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