This fourth season of “House of Cards,” which debuted in its entirety on Netflix this Friday, surprised me after two lukewarm seasons by being its best yet. What sets it ahead of the others is its exploration of Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) as a power broker in her own right—first positioning her against Frank (Kevin Spacey) before pivoting, midseason, to let the Underwoods take on the world. The table that “House of Cards” set in season 1 was a pathway to reckless abuse of power and unavoidable, tragic consequences. But — probably because the show kept getting renewed by Netflix, which made it hard to try to end the first season’s narrative — it was difficult for the show to follow through and really make a meal of it. Instead, seasons 2 and 3 of “House of Cards” have had minimal to no narrative stakes, because the house of Underwood always wins. It didn’t matter how bad it got, Frank and Claire would always find a way to come out on top.
Season 4 isn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination; it goes through its own repetitions of the formula. It would not be a season of “House of Cards” without some bizarre sexual politics, or a mortally imperiled journalist, or chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) flirting with addiction/a woman/disloyalty to Frank and, ultimately, and ruthlessly, finding his way back to the Underwoods.
But season 4 is showrunner Beau Willimon’s last season on the show, and in the grand tradition of quitting flight attendants everywhere, he metaphorically curses everyone out and pulls the escape hatch. Adapting this show, Netflix’s first and flagship scripted drama, must have been a thankless task of competing visions and algorithmic demands; it feels like Willimon’s cutting loose in season 4 after at least two long seasons of hewing to the company line. The result is a season that sidelines some of the show’s most salacious plotlines to focus on the chilling realities of long-term abuse of power and the futility of running from unavoidable consequences. There’s only one ridiculous murder all season—a plot arc that is trying to tie up a loose end from last season—and much time spent on processing the emotional weight of past ridiculous murders, like those of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and Peter Russo (Corey Stoll).
But the craziest coup of season 4, as Slate’s Willa Paskin also discusses, is that this season hits much closer to home, politically, than most of “House of Cards’" Machiavellian politics ever have. Paskin writes, “For its first three seasons, House of Cards’ version of realpolitik was so purple, it even appealed to people who spend their days politicking,” adding, “Its politics are scoffable, but its entertainment value unlimited.” But this season—its first major election season, since its debut in 2013—the televisual “House of Cards” has found surprising relevance in an election landscape that feels like a plot from a season of reality television. Here are five plot threads from season 4 that have alarmingly similar parallels in real life. And just in case this wasn’t obvious already, plot details from the entirety of season 4 follow!
1. The KKK haunts a presidential candidate.
Early in the season, when Claire and Frank are still working against each other, Claire sends her new campaign manager into a safe deposit box to uncover a photograph of Frank’s father with a hooded and costumed member of the Ku Klux Klan. Her campaign manager, Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell), arranges to have the photograph blown up and put on billboards all over South Carolina, the day before the state’s crucial primary.
Frank spends the entirety of “Chapter 42” scrambling to stay ahead of it—losing endorsements from Texas congresswoman Doris Jones (Cicely Tyson) before standing up in front of a black congregation in his hometown of Gaffney to apologize, explain and eat humble pie. On one hand, “House of Cards” stretches the audience’s imagination by suggesting that Frank Underwood is so folksy and charming that he would somehow win over even a historically black, historically marginalized community with the pure power of speech.
On the other hand, at least he apologized! Because in real life, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump was endorsed by self-identified white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke, and Trump took far, far too long to disavow that endorsement. Following the public outcry on the topic, there is still continued speculation on whether he actually did disavow either Duke, the KKK or white supremacists. The topic has become a major talking point for establishment Republicans who are trying to make the case against Trump for the nomination.
Plus, as Boing Boing reports, Donald Trump’s father was arrested in 1927 in the aftermath of a Klan “brawl”; from the available information, it’s difficult to say if Fred Trump was part of the Klan’s activities or just a bystander drawn into the conflict. Which is very similar to the story that Frank Underwood tells about his dad—he says his father went to the KKK in order to borrow money for their failing family farm. Of course, Trump has denied his father was even arrested, and Fred Trump was sued by the Justice Department for allegedly instructing one of his rental agents to not rent to black people — meaning that “House of Cards” story about the KKK is, astonishingly, less ridiculous and manipulative than Trump’s real-life one.
2. A brokered convention.
One of the season’s craziest twists is that Claire and Frank hatch a plan to make her not just his first lady but also his running mate—an unprecedented and almost monarchial bid for power that proves to be a commentary on marriage, gender and politics. But, besides all of that, what makes it actually happen is the chaos of the show’s Democratic National Convention, in which the Underwoods plant votes throughout the states and then create a narrative around the death of Claire’s mother that sweeps her to success. There’s a lot of backstage strong-arming of Secretary of State Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson), who is leading the votes from the delegates for vice president until she throws her support behind Claire.
In-party politics and onstage convention drama are the source of conflict for any number of fictional takes on the American presidency, including “Veep” and “The West Wing.” But it is sort of crazy to watch “House of Cards” present what is in some ways a rough draft for what might be a very contentious Republican National Convention this summer in Cleveland. A brokered convention has not happened in real life since 1952 — largely because televising them showed the American people just how horrible party politics were — but fractured support for Trump in the Republican Party, as well as the death throes of establishment GOP candidates with nothing to lose, makes a brokered convention look more possible than ever.
3. Cybersecurity meets domestic terrorism; both make a mess of the national conversation.
The last half of the season, more of less, follows the Underwood administration’s increasing focus on the “Islamic Caliphate Organization,” or “ICO,” which is the show’s clear stand-in for the Islamic State (which is variously abbreviated as ISIS, ISIL or just IS). The plotline moves from discussion to reality in the last two episodes of the season, when a collection of white terrorists who have declared allegiance to ICO take hostage a family from Knoxville and use them as bait to attempt to force a prisoner exchange. The show is only able to convey the horror of this experience for the average American through a few quick scenes with people who aren’t hardboiled and heartless politicians, which means that like a lot of the drama on “House of Cards,” it doesn’t entirely feel real.
But with the real-life election right now dominated by a squabble over unlocking an iPhone — which is really a major discussion about the San Bernardino killers’ motives and the FBI’s intrusion into civilians’ privacy — what does ring true about “House of Cards’" domestic terrorism is how phone surveillance and phone security become so intimately entangled in the show’s investigation. The legally questionable hacker who was working on securing the election for the Underwoods turns his attention to finding the terrorists based on their phones; he starts tracking them down via the clue of ambient background birdsong. “House of Cards” has had trouble telling its cybersecurity stories, too — season 3's was a disaster — but what’s particularly startling here is how neatly they intersect, in what is already a charged political minefield of national security, Edward Snowden, Islamist terrorism and digital privacy rights.
To my mind, what’s really uncanny about “House of Cards’" depiction is the ill-informed or ill-understood technobabble that starts taking over the show. It bears a great deal of unsettling resemblance to the mainstream media conversation trying to break down the significance of a private email server, or encrypted text messages, or a backdoor into a phone’s security system. The show plays into some really tired hacker tropes—like green lines snaking across a black screen, à la “The Matrix”—which reinforces just how ludicrously abstract the discussions of these technologies are to the average citizen.
4. Hand-wringing and criticism about a certain kind of couple.
I covered this much more exhaustively yesterday, but the driving force of “House of Cards” for the last few seasons has been creating the Underwoods as a parallel to President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—primarily by investigating, analyzing and speculating on the relationship between the two, given everything we know from the outside world. With Claire’s push for public office, the Underwoods’ marriage is under more scrutiny than ever in the public world of “House of Cards,” as the media picks up first on tension between the two and then on their particularly cold and codependent functionality.
The “House of Cards” universe, of course, displays the Underwoods in all kinds of polyamorous, incestuous and destructive sexual relations, including one at the end of this season where Claire brings the speechwriter she’s sleeping with straight from the bedroom to the kitchen table, for breakfast with Frank. Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) is younger than the Underwoods, so the effect is less of a sexy threesome and more of the Underwoods at breakfast with their grown-up son. (It’s a lot. Given that Tom is the character who is most like showrunner Willimon—in that he fictionalizes a version of this powerful political couple, both because he is repulsed by them and obsessed with them—it’s even more of a lot.)
In real life, writers like Meghan Daum and Rebecca Traister have tried to crack the mysterious efficacy of the Clinton marriage, which has been a political burden for Hillary as much as it has been an advantage. Deep-seated suspicion of the Clintons seems to stem from the secrecy and power that dominates their relationship. Daum even uses the phrase “true partnership,” which is repeated over and over again in the latter half of “House of Cards” season 4, when the Underwoods are running as not just husband and wife but also as presumptive president and VP.
And to add an Obama analogy to the Underwoods’ Clintons — which is to say, to add insult to injury — “House of Cards” introduces the Conways this season, played by Joel Kinnaman and Dominique McElligott. Will and Hannah Conway are the Republican power couple opposing the Underwoods, and they are the diametric opposite of the chilly, austere Underwoods, with two kids, a loving marriage, some sort of sex life, and, as the Underwoods see it, far too many glaring weaknesses. What they do provide their voters is authenticity, which is, of course, just another twist of the knife.
5. Institutional racism is offered some lip service early on and then completely ignored.
The first few episodes of “House of Cards” focus on a particular open seat in Texas and then, shortly thereafter, Frank’s attempts to get ahead of the KKK scandal. In those scenes, first Claire and then Frank spar with Doris and Celia Jones (Tyson and Lisa Gay Hamilton), a mother-daughter pair of black politicians who are representing a historically black district. Initially, Doris and Celia throw their weight behind Frank, but when the KKK photo emerges, both pull their support. Celia says, in “Chapter 42”: “My mother was beaten and hosed down in marches. You want us to vouch for a man whose father was in the KKK? … This is the state where the Civil War started, where you can still see the rebel flag on bumper stickers. There is a history of racist brutality here, Mr. President! Those sort of symbols matter.” Frank gives up talking to her, and appeals instead to her mother, pleads with Doris for some goodwill. She responds curtly: “When we stop getting getting beaten and shot, you’ll have my goodwill, Mr. President.”
And then, aside from a brief moment at the convention, the Joneses disappear, and along with them, the discussion of the “history of racist brutality.” Maybe I'm being very pessimistic, but this sidelining felt awfully familiar to me. In the real world, the Black Lives Matter movement was a major force late last year in terms of changing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ narrative around police brutality and shaping Hillary Clinton’s policy package. But aside from one or two debate questions, the question of police brutality toward black Americans has been sidelined, as has discussion of the institutional racism that permits such brutality. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has become the go-to “race issue” de rigueur — but the dialogue around that often focuses more on malpractice by one person, or one administration, than institutional discrimination. Frank and Claire Underwood pivot from racism to war; Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton pivot to their upcoming debate in Florida. Both in the real world and in the world of “House of Cards,” the band plays on, enjoying its own momentum.