As in previous years, I’m binge-reviewing the latest season of Netflix’s House of Cards, the TV show that helped popularize the idea of “binge watching” when it premiered in 2013. Don’t read farther than you’ve watched.
Episode 13 (Chapter 52)
For a while there, it looked like this House of Cards season might be headed toward a demented kind of happy ending. When Claire was negotiating with Yusuf Al Ahmadi to replace the caliphate with a secular government at the same time that Frank gave Tom Hammerschmidt his fiercest spin, it became possible to imagine that the show might choose to absolve the Underwoods. If it did, it would not only send a message about the invulnerability of true megalomaniacs, but also one about the idea that the world can only ever be changed—perhaps only ever be saved—through the self-interest of megalomaniacs.
Might it still end there, eventually? House of Cards, perhaps to its credit, doesn’t spend much time ever telling us how the Underwoods justify themselves to themselves. They want power because they want power and that’s it. But in his showdown with Hammerschmidt, Frank came as close as he’s ever come to revealing the defense he’d have given to St. Peter if that liver transplant hadn’t come through. “Name me a president you wouldn’t describe in exactly the same way,” he said. “We’re all ruthless. We all destroy. But corruption, that’s a matter of perspective.” In other words, this is the job. But Hammerschmidt had already given the alternate reading of that idea when Frank implored him to hold off his story because of the hostage crisis: “That’s the same reasoning dictators use.”
It’s tempting to say that Hammerschmidt is the unambiguous winner in that argument once you’ve seen the Underwoods decide to invade the Middle East to distract the public from their misdeeds. But the specter of war initiated for domestic political reasons is certainly not foreign to America. The obvious parallel suggested by the show is George W. Bush using the country’s post-9/11 anxiety to attack Iraq. But the book that inspired Wag the Dog—an obvious precedent of this plotline—was a satire of Bush Sr. and the first Gulf War. And with his national address referencing the nature of fear, Underwood was also channeling FDR; his declaration of war after Pearl Harbor has long been targeted by conspiracy theorists whose allegations, if nothing else, draw from the fact that even just wars must be waged with political calculation in a democracy.
As for season four as a whole, I’d grade it highly. The writing, acting, and direction on this show is always strong, but unlike with the past few seasons, there were very few stretches of these new episodes that could be classified as “boring.” That fact owes in large part to the writers refraining from overcrowding the story with subplots, instead maintaining momentum by keeping a central conflict in view: first, Claire’s ambitions; then the aftermath from Frank being shot; then the race against the Conways. To be sure, Doug’s infighting with Leann and Seth occasionally became tiresome, and I don’t think anyone was thrilled whenever the Underwoods’ new data scientist showed up blasting loud music. On the other side of the ledger: The journalistic storyline unfolded at a satisfyingly methodical pace, and in a rare sop to idealism, Cards gave two of the most likable characters, Remy and Jackie, a bit of redemption—not to mention a classic drive-into-the-sunset moment in the finale.
But the fact that the season culminated in live video of the execution of an American suggests that Cards is about to head to its darkest place yet, which is a considerable distinction. The Underwoods have murdered a politician and a journalist, and some innocents have also been collateral damage to their activities. Now, though, they’ve set out to maintain their power at the cost of mass casualties. Netflix hasn’t said how many seasons are to come, but it’s hard to imagine the show being watchable for all that much longer now that this rubicon of despicability has been crossed. Season five may finally depict the Underwoods’ downfall, but now there’s the grim possibility it could depict America’s, too.