“One of they key problems today is that politics is such a disgrace. Good people don’t go into government.”
- Donald Trump
“I cannot force you to see reason but I will not allow you to become dangerous,” seethes Frank Underwood to his estranged wife Claire. It’s just what we wanted after season 3 ended, and House of Cards, in its unabashedly uneven fourth season, grants us just that - and then some.
Deep down, the show has always been a romantic drama. Yes, they’re all trying really hard to convince us that it’s a prestige programme with serious actors doing serious acting about serious things like politics and stuff - but come on. Frank and Claire are the soul of the show. It soars when their ruthlessness teams up, and on paper, it has no right to be as good as it is when they’re pulled apart.
Season 4 begins right where season 3 left off. Claire, unable to keep up with Frank’s insatiable thirst for power, has gone, leaving him alone for the first time since they got together. It seemed unthinkable before this – they were like Bonnie and Clyde, like Clarence and Alabama from True Romance, they were like Joker and Harley Quinn! Separating them was - and I hope you appreciate just how bold a step it was - a complete shock.
Now House of Cards had been toying with our expectations right from the first time Frank rapped his ring on wooden furniture. It would’ve been only logical for Frank to become President at the very end of the series, maybe in the finale, but no, they sat him in the Oval Office in season 2. And now, Claire’s gone. And there’s a Presidential campaign to run. And Frank, for the first time, is crumbling.
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A smart thing season 4 does is to frame the entire story within the months it takes to run a Presidential campaign. Frank Underwood is President, yes, but there will always be that grating voice in his head reminding him how he came to power. Despite his lawless ways, it seems to annoy him enormously that he couldn’t take charge legitimately. It is out of this insecurity and doubt that he does the despicable things that he does. Another natural side effect of a Presidential campaign being the spine of the season is that obvious real world parallels can be made. And since we find ourselves in the middle of a particularly exciting one out here, it works in the show’s favour.
Most of the debauchery of this season, like previous seasons, takes place behind close doors. In public, Frank Underwood is an opinionated, moderately liberal Democrat. Privately, he’s the ungodly lovechild of Donald Trump and Scarface. How many lives has he destroyed in his rise to the top? How many enemies has his ambition cursed him with? And what will he do when they all come for him, especially since it could only be a matter of time before they do.
Being alone changes Frank. He just isn’t capable of scheming all by himself. And it makes the usually pragmatic Claire a spoilt woman born into money. They’d promised to be there for each other till the end. They were going to grow old together, they said. But they were young and foolish in love. Granted, it was twisted too, with all the spontaneous threesomes and the casual adultery, and the even more casual murder. But despite everything, House of Cards was, in its icy heart of hearts, a love story. And then Claire went and turned into Skyler White from Breaking Bad.
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Which brings me to my biggest gripe of the season: It’s uneven. In fact, it’s two separate seasons glued together. For six episodes it’s fantastic. There is a new dynamic between the characters – one that we haven’t seen before. Frank is becoming volatile and Claire, under the pretence of visiting her ailing mother (played fantastically by the way, by Ellen Burstyn), is carrying out her own, consistently misguided plans for absolute power. She has even gone and hired herself her own personal Doug (played by Scream queen Neve Campbell). The interplay between the two in the opening half of this season is brilliant.
Maybe because Batman v Superman is still fresh in my mind that I compare House of Cards’ rumble in Washington with that disappointing film, but that’s exactly how the conflict is resolved here. An arbitrary event happens that inspires sudden emotion in both Frank and Claire, and somehow convinces them to completely discard the resentment in a bathtub with a slit down its wrist, resentment they so passionately shared for each other not two minutes ago.
And so begins part 2: The decidedly weaker half of the season. Without revealing any spoilers, Claire informs Frank of a plan so poorly conceived, both on the part of Claire and the show, that it takes a while for either to recover. What makes matters worse is the unfortunate casting of Joel Kinnaman as Frank’s Republican counterpart Will Conway, a man who single handedly gives narcissistic yuppies a bad name. Maybe it’s just because he’s thinly written, but there is a lack of charisma and charm to his character, and it’s made quite clear that he’s supposed to be both those things.
Perhaps if they’d stuck to one of these stories, the season would’ve made for a better binge, because God knows, that’s how I watched it – in three days. And on top of everything, they decided to bring back their version of Putin for more passive aggressive conversations, two plot elements from the good old days of season 1, another couple from season 3, vague ramblings on gun control and greatness, and – get this - they even found time to kill a major character. And then, as if only to make sure that we couldn’t possibly be able to keep with the sheer number of separate plots – enough to make Game of Thrones paranoid - they threw in their version of ISIS as well.
But then, Frank Underwood looked in to the camera and delivered a line so chilling that suddenly, all was forgiven. Suddenly, I appreciated the fact that I was witnessing two actors give the most iconic performances of their careers. Suddenly, it was clear that while House of Cards doesn’t think much of politicians, it does, shamelessly, love politics. Suddenly, I wanted to watch a whole new show, one about Frank and Claire’s youth, one that takes us back when the monsters were created. Back when they were like Carl and Ellie from Up, like Jesse and Céline from the Before series, sitting on a balcony somewhere, sharing a cigarette, having made a mutual pact to not tell on each other, looking at the stars, wondering who to destroy next, perhaps with a sheepish smile on their face, watching us watch them.
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The author tweets @NaaharRohan