The fourth season of House of Cards is now available on Netflix – and the backdrop of an increasingly surreal and divisive American presidential election year means that levels of anticipation have been unusually high.
Despite last season’s cliffhanger finale, speculation has focused on whether the show’s trademark dramatic twists would trump (sorry) those taking place in real world politics. Numerous comparisons between House of Cards’ duplicitous Democratic president Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and the current Republican frontrunner Donald Trump have emerged already. But while this is mostly the stuff of water cooler conversation, it isn’t impossible that House of Cards could impact the way people vote.
There are also questions about where House of Cards fits in this new era of American television. This season will determine whether it takes a place alongside lauded programmes such as The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and, of course, The West Wing. While House of Cards is really the anti-West Wing, doubts about whether it belongs in such hallowed company may fade as rapidly as the recently held consensus that Donald Trump is not a serious candidate.
The seven seasons of The West Wing mostly were broadcast during the George W Bush administration. Liberal fans and pundits often longed for fictional president, Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen), to take his place. The same might not be true of Frank Underwood but other comparisons with real-world politics are no doubt frequently drawn.
TV is consumed in very different ways now and it is likely that many House of Cards fans will have watched the new season in its entirety already – it consumed my weekend, at least. And it’s difficult not to watch it with Trump in mind.
On the surface, Trump is antithetical to the fictional Underwood, but there are striking similarities, too. They are both unafraid of offending, driven by ego and a sense of entitlement, and are defined by their defiance. There are also comparisons to be made with Joel Kinnaman’s Will Conway, House of Cards’ 2016 Republican candidate. As a young, charismatic family man and military hero, Conway is the kind of Republican candidate the GOP has lacked for years. But as Underwood says, Conway also “aches for the spotlight”, and his obsessions with image and performance are distinctly Trump-like.
Speculation suggested that season four would focus on Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright. While it isn’t necessarily “Claire’s season” (it’s still Frank who breaks down the “fourth wall“, those somewhat eerie moments when he speaks to the camera), her strong-arm approach to Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelson), and main-stage speech in episode ten are particularly memorable.
In fact, the new series features lots of strong women throughout. In addition to Claire and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), a war veteran turned House Majority Whip, there’s also Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell), a strategist and ally of Claire’s, and Claire’s mother, Elizabeth Hale (Ellen Burstyn). This means that it is tempting to make TV/real world links to the former first lady, now Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Whatever character links we might make in this volatile election year, it is likely that audiences will reflect on the power wielded by the executive branch. Perhaps the most dangerous scenario, given the drama’s substantial audience, is that its depiction of unremitting corruption and malaise at the top might lead to complacency in would-be voters.
Rooting for the Villain
Yet despite all the back-channelling, manipulation and amorality, millions of people are riveted by House of Cards. Some are even rooting for the Underwoods. Jason Mittell has outlined how audiences identify with characters within the “ethical universe” of a programme, “even if all of the characters would be reprehensible in real life”. He also suggests that there can be a kind of “fictionalized Stockholm Syndrome”, triggered by the amount of time the audience spends with the main characters.
But if celebrated programmes such as Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy feature murderous protagonists that have pushed the limits of empathy, then surely President Underwood reaches the ceiling. This is, after all, a US president who has pushed a young woman in front of train.
And yet the performances and characters are deeply compelling. Underwood even shows an unusual capacity for masculine intimacy and has real connections with characters such as Meechum (Nathan Darrow) and Tom Yates (Paul Sparks). He also has a curious, ambiguous sexuality and one perennial question is whether his sexual episodes with other men will lead to scandal.
The complexity of Frank as an anti-hero (or outright villain) continues to develop in season four as he experiences traumatic dreams of brutal violence between him and Claire and the people he has killed. If the programme is canonised like some of those TV classics I have mentioned (personally, I’m unconvinced), it will likely be on the strength of its performances and characterisation.
At its best, House of Cards can be read as a trenchant political critique and these performances and characters give this depth. The Underwoods represent those who have submitted to careerism, the pursuit of status and, of course, power – and the poignant depictions of their sincere and humane moments illustrate vividly what has been sacrificed to this. We can only hope that whoever wins this year in the real-world US election does so with their moral compass intact.