At least things happen in the fourth season of Netflix’s Emmy favorite starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and series newcomer Neve Campbell.
Frank Underwood isn’t talking to the camera so much these days.
The fourth wall breaking that was so central to both the development of Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) character and the uniqueness of the Netflix series when it debuted in 2013 has also been the focus of parodies and occasional mockery of House of Cards. So if you’re one of those people who hated the direct address to the viewers, who thought it was artificial and annoying, the upcoming fourth season is for you.
If, however, you think these narcissistic soliloquies were an important part of the pseudo-Shakespearean affectation of House of Cards, the thing that had it aspiring to be a sub-par modern take on Richard III, rather than just another West Wing knock-off, the lack of Frank-to-viewer conversation points to where the show has gone wrong for me over the past two seasons — and where it progresses in the new season.
At some point, Frank Underwood went from “entertainingly venal” to “ham-fistedly dreadful.” Depending on your perspective, that moment may have involved infidelity, either of the people he killed, pissing on a grave or whatever causes the needle in your moral compass to spin the wrong way. The conversations with the audience were about dramatic affect, but they were also about complicity. Unlike a Walter White or a Tony Soprano, Frank Underwood was never made likable or sympathetic in conventional ways as an unnerving counterpoint to his icky behavior. If you rooted for him, it was because he brought us in on his scheming and pragmatism and because House of Cards has only ever given Frank straw men as political foes.
Frank no longer cares about us in the same way. The only memorable to-the-camera conversation in the first six episodes of the fourth season comes while he’s making a sandwich, and it feels like it’s only there because Frank has nothing better to do. And if Frank doesn’t care about us, I find that I don’t care about him. Go ahead, Frank. Run roughshod over one-dimensional rivals with no interior lives. Just don’t expect me to invest in either success or failure.
The problem is compounded when Frank’s amoral behavior isn’t creative, ambitious or fun, as was the case through almost the entire third season. It was an entire season about Doug’s (Michael Kelly) rehab, a generic global political crisis, the introduction of a suitably dour political rival for Frank and making Frank so awful that the only suspense as the finale approached was whether Claire (Robin Wright) would kill him or leave him.
She threatened to leave him, and season four picks up soon enough afterwards that Frank and Doug and the White House gang are trying to figure out how either to lure Claire back or spin why Claire has gone off to Texas, rather than New Hampshire, for the next primary challenge against perpetually grumpy Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel).
Despite all of the show’s initial acclaim and its ongoing awards-show success, House of Cardshas never been big on stunt casting, perhaps because departing showrunner Beau Willimon and the other scribes write characters who are so darned dogged and determined that they can go 30+ episodes and never have cause to change their expressions. That — the stunt-casting, not the show’s dynamic range — changes in the fourth season, and House of Cards is the better for it. Ellen Burstyn pops up as Claire’s patrician, withholding mother, essentially guaranteeing herself an Emmy nomination, but also adding that bristling chill that Burstyn delivers so well. You can also expect Cicely Tyson to be in the Emmy conversation as a Texas politician who enters the Underwood sphere. Neve Campbell joins as one of those mono-expressive characters, a political operative who everybody describes as being brilliant, but does nothing brilliant through six episodes and despite her alleged brilliance is in the middle of an election year with enough free time to serve as a glorified postman for the Underwoods. Joel Kinnaman, playing an eventual presidential rival for Underwood, is spotted in the first episode and heard on the radio later, but doesn’t really become important factor from what I’ve seen.
There are also several returning figures from earlier in the series, but an embargo tells me I can’t mention them, even the character who appears in the opening shot of the season.
This, then, actually represents another point of improvement, because writing about last season, I couldn’t have spoiled anything if I’d tried. Significantly more happens this season, much of it absurd and contrived, but at least it’s better than a total absence of on-screen incident. Claire is especially active this season as she fulfills the Clintonian journey she’s been on. Her entire storyline is reflective of the series’ brazen ego, that nobody cares in the slightest that they’re doing an arc that’s virtually identical to what Mellie Grant has been doing onScandal for the past two years. House of Cards probably feels like it’s on a higher artistic plane than Scandal, when the reality is that it could almost always use a little more of Scandal‘s Motown-enhanced tawdriness in place of its own bloodless self-denying soapiness.
That House of Cards is sure to inflate because, using the primaries as a backdrop, it has anticipated a couple of key events that have been in the news recently, at least one with an accuracy that is uncanny. And the ridiculousness of Dunbar, with her lack of elected experience, rising to national prominence on a wave of voter outrage has significantly diminished in a world of Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Of course, House of Cards and Fuller House have equal numbers of viewers binging them for realism, so this will probably be less inducement than my “Things happen this season” promise.
What I still can’t promise is that you’ll care. Because of the Frank Underwood problem at the start of the review, I still don’t. Spacey’s performance, which at least had an appealingly theatrical extravagance when the series began, has grown less enjoyable. Having reached a pinnacle, there’s no way to root for Frank’s striving anymore, if you ever were, but House of Cardshas yet to commit to urging us to root for Frank’s downfall. Frank’s too big to go down this early in an election and Dunbar has been sketched out only in one-note sanctimony. Claire is as bad a person as Frank, but she’s not as good at the game, so there’s less pleasure in watching Wright, whose greatest achievement the past two seasons has been her admirable maturation as a director. Maybe that’s what Kinnaman’s character will eventually provide, either a worthy adversary or a rising protagonist? It doesn’t matter whether or not Frank returns to talking to viewers, but he badly needs something worth talking about.