Much like Homeland, House of Cards taps into current events for both its plot and relevancy. But, while the War on Terror is never ending, American presidential politics ebbs and flows. Much like the cicadas that infest Washington, D.C. on a predictable schedule, the drama around the presidency is guaranteed to flare up every four years. Television shows operate on a similar, if more frequent, schedule, and this year, like planets aligning at the solstice, Netflix released the fourth season of House of Cards, which deals with the first instance of a full-on presidential campaign in the show’s history at a time when the real-world election is getting truly bizarre. For a show that went to Breaking Bad-esque levels of encouraging the audience to root for a despicable man, Frank Underwood now seems only slightly exaggerated when compared to Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. The RNC’s desperate scrambling beneath the looming shadow of a Trump candidacy resembles the machinations that take place at the highest levels of party politics on the show. Even Hillary Clinton’s party affiliation has raised concerns that she might have influenced officials to reduce the number and exposure of debates against surprise primary rival Bernie Sanders, a move that would doubtless endear her to President Underwood.
Though alike in egomania, there could be two no more different campaigners than Frank Underwood and Donald Trump. Each probes a different lobe of the American political brain, Underwood taking advantage of the public’s relative complacency and lack of agency (there’s a reason he went from being senator to president without anyone casting a single vote for him), Trump using the people’s seething hatred of both,(and contradictorily) change and establishment politicians. While Underwood operates unseen in boardrooms and stately offices, Trump whips an outraged public into a frenzy and then directs them towards the polls. When he is forced to campaign, Frank Underwood eschews public gatherings for high-level candidate to candidate debates and press conferences; Donald Trump’s campaigning is as famous for his press baiting as it is for his well-attended, racially-charged rallies.
What unites the two candidates is their cynicism, or rather, the cynical reality to which their existence speaks. In House of Cards, this is dismissible because the reality is constructed, heightened; fictional President Underwood reflects attitudes that the writers hold about real politicians. Trump, on the other hand, is a real politician, and his success among a particular subset of conservative Americans, including some outspoken racists, confirms the beliefs of many coastal liberals about the frothing ignorance that festers in the landlocked parts of our country. One of the hallmarks of this cynicism is the way in which both Underwood and Trump use violence to gain power. Underwood escalates the conflict with K-Pop sensation ICO in order to retain political momentum and stave off scandal, actions which reflect the language that Trump uses when speaking about ISIS between bouts of encouraging his supporters to beat and physically expel (largely non-white) protesters from his events. While we may be able to argue that House of Cards contains a cynical depiction of American politics, Donald Trump embodies that cynicism in a real, decidedly non-Hollywood way.
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A major criticism against Donald Trump is that he is a misogynist, although, given his seemingly pathological fear of Megyn Kelly, gynophobe might be more accurate. Despite being an unrepentant femicide, Frank Underwood is decidedly not a misogynist. Like many Presidents, his childhood was defined by strong female figures, and his marriage to Claire is his sole healthy adult relationship. She is the only other person we ever see Frank interact with who he treats, by and large, as an equal. Their marriage was, during the show’s first two seasons, Frank’s lone humanizing factor, and season three's dip in quality came partly because the writers decided to tamper with this crucial facet of Frank’s character without acknowledging how truly central Claire is to his identity. By reducing her to another in Frank’s never-ending succession of political enemies, the show lost part of what made its main character even the least bit sympathetic while simultaneously torpedoing its most unique and fruitful relationship.
Season four quickly returns the Underwoods to one another through a waved-hand of an assassination attempt by former Zoe Barns accomplice turned bug-eyed whack job Lucas Goodwin. Their reconciliation could not have come at a better time, as he and the office are being attacked from all sides. Frank’s brief vacation to Tony Soprano Coma Land gives Claire the opportunity to operate as a political agent without his meddling for the first time, and, unsurprisingly, she is able to rescue international negotiations from the brink of disaster, showing up her successor Secretary of State in the process. While the details of the Chinese/Russian/US trade deal are never made explicit to the audience, Claire is better-versed in its minutia than anyone else, and her combination of knowledge, confidence, and daring during tense confrontations is the very blend of qualities that makes Frank such a formidable politician. Poetically, this confidence blows up in her face during the tense hostage negotiations later in the seasonin the exact same way as Frank’s when he fails to bully Hammerschmidt out of publishing his exposé.
The Underwoods, when they work together, form a two-headed political beast. This alliance is each of their greatest strengths, and the decision to run together as President and Vice President is the final, natural state into which such a relationship could evolve. The explicitly non-sexual nature of their marriage offers the key to its success: for the Underwoods, marriage is an alliance born of mutual advantage, nothing more, and their symbiosis need not extend outside the arena of politics. Hence Claire leaves Frank when he is not providing for her politically, and Frank’s acceptance of, almost happiness for, Claire’s budding romance with Tom. The Underwoods are sharks who thirst for power and cannot stop running for office lest they choke to death on their own ambition.
The easiest parallel to draw between the Underwoods and specific real-life politicians would be the Clintons. Some of the similarities are surface level, like their Southern Democrat origins. Other parallels, while obtuse, are more revealing, such as the leapfrog nature of their acquisition of power. As with the Clintons, first Frank was elected to office, and then Claire used her husband’s influence and popularity to launch her own political career. Also, both marriages are built on sexual disconnection, with Bill’s infamous unfaithfulness reconfigured in the Underwoods as a mechanical separation of that part of each person’s life. One might argue that the Underwoods’ predilection for taking positions based on political expediency is similar to Hillary Clinton’s habit of changing long-held views in the interest of her current electoral bid. The overarching parallel is undeniable and clearly intentional, although the Clintons function more as a rough model against which the Underwoods can be contrasted rather than a one-to-one inspiration for the fictional Commander and Misses in Chief.
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Season four functions adequately as a contained arc, although the first act suffers from a severe case of season three hangover. Maneuvering Frank and Claire into a position from which they can be reconciled simply takes a lot of pages to accomplish, a process that the show livens up by introducing Claire’s fiery mother, who snipes at her daughter while Claire and Frank fight over a congressional seat like two dogs pulling at a ragged rope toy. The object of this conflict, the Joneses, are cast from the typically slight mold of political operators whose approval Frank must acquire by any means necessary, and the novelty of the fact that he’s fighting against his own wife quickly wanes. Part of the problem is that the audience wants both Frank and Claire to succeed, and when pitting them against one another the show does not take a clear side, making each battle an automatic loser for the audience.
While it may have been interesting to watch the Underwoods work themselves out of this conundrum organically, the writers wisely end act one with a Deus ex Oswalt that sets the stage for a reconciliation and readjustment of priorities during the middle of the season. Conway’s introduction as the new primary antagonist halfway through act two works as a shot of adrenaline to the show’s nervous system, and all systems come online around then. As the election gears up and alliances begin to form, the specter of the fourth estate begins creeping around the edges and international events start to gain increased importance, all of which sets the stage for the cataclysmic final act. I would be remiss if I did not mention Doug Stamper’s characteristically bizarre romance subplot; though they have little bearing on the rest of the season, his semi-connected adventures never disappoint.
House of Cards has always traded in rapid plot-shifts, and this season manages to streamline the series of increasingly-high stakes events into a narrative with something approaching a steady arc. Though somewhat broken up by the assassination attempt, season four builds steam and maintains momentum in all of its plots through the very end, which the previous season failed to accomplish. Additionally, season four features the first real instance of character growth for Frank Underwood, whose progress has thus far been measured in titles, not betterment. By the end of the season, Frank consciously values his marriage to Claire, and, more importantly, is actively working to maintain and improve it. Despite his objectively evil actions at the season’s conclusion, Frank has become a better person by embracing and cherishing Claire (in his own way). Their marriage is valuable and precious to both of them, and its offspring, the power it produces, is as important and special to them as Conway’s children are to him.
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Given what the writers got correct about the 2016 election cycle, the Republican presidential candidate in House of Cards could not be further from his real-world counterparts. Will Conway, the forty-something family man with male model looks who volunteered on September 12 and has a hidden Machiavellian streak, could not be further from any other American politician, real or imagined. He is Liberal America’s worst nightmare, a younger, better-looking, more qualified reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, a neocon who rides a wave of homespun nostalgia and sublimated fear mongering to the White House. Moreover, as governor of New York, Conway has appeal with conservative Democrats who might be tempted to break with a controversial and unelected President Underwood.
In short, Conway is nothing like the real crop of 2016’s Republican Presidential hopefuls, and would likely clean up could he enter the contest. Conway offers a saner outlet for the same nationalism that fuels much of Trump’s popularity, a more holistic version of Rubio’s strangely plastic All-American Family, and a faithful yet modern alternative to Ted Cruz’s Baptist fervor. Moreover, Conway represents a non-radicalized embodiment of what can still tentatively be called Republicans values, and a candidate with his qualities might be the only thing that could hold the crumbling RNC together. Of all of season four’s implicit prognostications, the unquestioned unity of the Republican Party against a controversial Democratic incumbent might be the furthest off-base, yet the show's depiction of a Republican presidential candidate is as optimistic as its version of a Democratic President is cynical.