Netflix's slick soap opera kicks off its fourth season with civil war between the President and First Lady
It was all the way back in 2013’s fifth episode of the landmark Netflix drama House of Cards that Frank Underwood, then but a lowly congressman pulling strings and pulling female journalists, purred in his thick southern drawl, “Friends make the worst enemies.” How foolish then, for a man who breaks the fourth wall to offer advice to the legions of acolyte viewers hanging on his arched eyebrow, to go to war with his best friend and wife, Claire.
That’s where the fourth season finds us, the Underwoods’ White House marriage on the rocks, Claire’s political ambitions have been awoken by the knowledge that people like her more than her husband. He needs her more than she needs him, and the erstwhile Lady Macbeth has graduated to a full-blown Thirst Lady, intent on running for congress in a Texan district where her cool demeanour, ivory skin, and pampered upbringing are unwelcome.
Robin Wright has long been the show’s greatest asset and Achilles’ heel; 39 chapters of piling diamonds and clubs onto this House of Cards, the show’s creator Beau Willimon still has no clue what to do with Claire Underwood. She’s been an adulterous wife, a clean-water charity wench, a failed ambassador, a conniving survivor of sexual assault, an unwitting aide to a suicidal gay-rights activist, and, lest we forget, a brunette. Tying all these together has been Wright’s royal slush of glacial otherworldliness. She’s a Hitchcock Blonde, shrouded in mystery and craving her piece of power. Where Willimon, in what is his swansong season, takes Claire’s ambitions in the first four episodes is risky, bordering on outright ridiculous. But with her cropped hair, cold demeanour, and dress suits barely containing her rage, it’s a pantomime you can’t take your eyes off.
Frank, on the other hand, has had a far less diverse path to the glory and position he’s always assumed would be handed to him. Perhaps this easy path, albeit with a few murders along the way, goes someway to explain why he’s struggling in the presidency; behind in the polls to Elizabeth Marvel’s Heather Dunbar, a candidate so virtuous she’s practically walking and talking through the halls of the West Wing, spouting Sorkin zingers, Frank’s presidency is in question. Then there is the international sparring with Viktor Petrov, the Russian Federation’s no-nonsense president, a lynchpin in the marital discord between his US counterpart and his wife.
A few episodes into the new season and the endemic problem of Netflix delivering all episodes in one glut and the difficulties that creates rear their head. We know, given the bizarre twists and turns the real election cycle going on across the pond has taken over the past few months, that when it comes to the US electorate and the characters courting votes, there’s no room left for surprises. It’s a little dull then that Underwood’s uphill struggle to get on the ticket seems so formulaic; on the campaign trail for the Democratic nomination, it’s a rather dull and repetitive ride, going through a tit-for-tat war of press conference, endorsement, scandal, rapprochement, angry Doug, bitter Claire, hammy Frank, repeat.
Robin Wright as the aloof First Lady, tired of living in her husband's shadow [Netflix]
Thank god in this universe there’s always some fixer, some campaign manager, some someone we’ve never met before, a Deus ex Filofax, to come swooping in to save the day and move the plot along. Put it this way, if the US President is going to go out of the race, he’s going to go out with a bang.
It’s a bizarre world, this hyper-stylish rendering of Washington DC, and perhaps the real trump in House of Cards is just how unbearably gorgeous it looks. Every space on screen looks like the last five minutes of Room to Improve, a coolly impersonal vision stripped of the touches of family and friendship. The entire production design seems to be inspired by a single Dulux paint card of taupes and beiges, with the civil war of words between Frank and Claire tossed across a no man’s land of soft furnishings and mahogany chairs. As soap operas go – and make no mistake, House of Cards is the most spectacular soap opera on TV right now – if the plot is going to be filled with many holes, you might as well paper it over with the thickest glossy wallpaper you can find.