House of Cards (Season 4) takes on terrorism, domestic surveillance and the new marriage
Spoiler alert: you may wish to watch the show’s fourth season before reading the text below.
In light of the tumultuous revelations about the dirty dealings of the Brazilian government that have been surfacing since the third season of House of Cards opened at the beginning of 2015, the plot and subplots of the new episodes of the Netflix show – which began streaming on March 4th - have somewhat paled in comparison to reality for local viewers. Life, after all, copied and surpassed art.
We, as a country, have experienced firsthand the Underwood’s main tools and modus operandi: manipulation, deception and corruption. Both our Presidency and Congress have been operating along these guidelines for the past 14 years, under the Labor Party tutelage. Now – it’s been found out - corruption has become even more endemic and widespread. As a result, the Underwoods have lost much of their power to shock and astonish Brazilian audiences. Having said that, many aspects of the show still hold their spell.
The acting, for example, remains superb – especially with the addition of two iconic older-generation actresses in powerful cameos: Ellen Burstyn, as Claire’s dying Texan mother and Cecily Tyson, as the black congresswoman on whom Frank’s nominating campaign heavily rely to gain the Afro-American vote in the south.
A short verbal exchange between Claire and her mother’s nurse explains much of the success of the show. Responding to a compliment made by Claire on the arrangement of plants she has put together in the sick’s woman’s bedroom, the nurse says: "it's the little things…" The same goes for House of the Cards. The attention to detail is key: the nuanced powerhouse performances, the striking mise-en-scene and photography, and the precise montage (or editing) provide subtext, subtle clues and links indicating where the story is going. A lot is understated, which adds to the quality and refinement of the series.
In the fourth season, we witness the contrast between the lifestyles and political strategies of the Underwoods and the Conways, the Republican couple who became their main contenders in the electoral race for the White House. The comparison infuses fresh blood into the show. It’s sobering to see how younger people project themselves professionally and politically by overexposing themselves on social media, while carefully fabricating rather conservative and family-oriented avatars who don’t even remotely reflect their real selves; the Underwoods, on the other hand, rely on more traditional tactics, keeping their private lives invisible. Both couples accomplish the same objective – deception - through different means: the Conways, visually; while the Underwoods, verbally. However, the Underwoods are way more politically savvy and ruthless.
The new season also explores how the Underwoods are moving “beyond marriage” in their relationship, portraying an unconventional and sophisticated marital arrangement which has rarely been depicted so candidly on TV before. Rumor has it John Lennon and Yoko Ono had something similar going on, and even the Clintons for that matter, who, allegedly, are the models who inspire the Underwoods, as characters. But the Underwoods take it one step further but putting Claire in the position traditionally reserved for men: the freedom to exploit her sexuality with another person with the open approval of her husband. There’s a scene that shows Claire’s new lover actually joining the couple for breakfast after spending the night in the White House. It’s not a drunken threesome this time – as they had with Meetchum, Frank’s security guard, in a titillating episode of season two. Frank has no part in it.
Domestic surveillance issues, political manipulation of search engines’ data, and the rise of a new radical Islamic group in the Middle East – the Islamic Caliphate Organization (ICO)- also feature prominently in the current season, which seems to aim more and more at mirroring contemporary America. The risk is worth taking, for, although the show may feel dated very soon, younger viewers are much more interested in the here and now, so the likely increase in ratings might certainly pay off.
One of the high points of the season is the subplot involving the negotiation to free a family made hostage by ICO, whose members are operating from within the USA. The final sequences of the season depict haunting and brutal scenes, taking the show to a whole new level of violence.