I’ve been very vocal about my disappointment in season 3 of “House of Cards.” [I said the entire season was tied for a specific episode of “The Strain” for the most disappointing TV moment of 2015.] Boring characters took center stage, interesting ones were completely marginalized (Doug was off angrily staring at his kitchen for much of the season), new subplots were aimless, old ones grew repetitive, Claire Underwood went from partner-in-crime to conscience in a way that never felt like more than a far-fetched plot device, and the fundamental premise of the series was subverted. The third season cheated us out of the climax the first two seasons built into: Frank Underwood taking over the Oval Office. The entire first two seasons were built on the promise of what would happen when somebody that ruthless actually used his manipulations inside The White House and the third season result was “not much.” Frank got outwitted and beaten at every turn, and it felt like the writers no longer really knew who the Underwoods were–perhaps the same way so many real-life candidate’s handlers change messaging so often that a candidate becomes an abstract, cough, Romney/Rubio, cough.
Anyway, all of that is taking the long way around to say that I’m ready to issue a full, unequivocal endorsement to this season of “House of Cards” which is hands-down the best season since the first one, and in my opinion even better. There’s a shooting subplot in the middle of the season that feels like the ultimate in Deux Ex Machina plot manipulations, but you almost don’t care because the last third of the season is so good.
Plus, it’s that second half of the season that really hones in on the best antagonist Frank has ever had: Joel Kinnamen’s faux sincere, oily smooth Republican challenger Will Conway. All of last season—and too much of this season—has Frank battling righteous but boring Democratic primary crusader Heather Dunbar (the naive yin to Frank’s Machivellian yang) and a journalist character that’s about as compelling as watching paint dry. And even though the forces of good vs. Frank reaches an extremely satisfying conclusion in the fourth season finale, it’s not really interesting enough to build an entire season around.
Now Conway on the other hand, is the Republican flip-side of Frank. It reminds you that “House of Cards” has actually been very reluctant to criticize or sometimes even show Republicans. It’s made the show feel like it exists in a weird, parallel D.C. universe where the Democrats primarily battle each other, and the Tea Party is but a dot on the I or a cross on the T. Conway is the Republican’s answer to Kennedy: a smooth, good looking rock star with a beautiful wife and kids, but it’s all an act. He’s really as big a fake as Frank is, and actually even bigger because he doesn’t know himself nearly as well. Kinnamen and Spacey’s face-offs are electric, and it’s just a shame the show didn’t give us a proper one-on-one election debate—I mention it only to prepare you, since I know I was waiting for it—perhaps to avoid that typical election show cliche.
Anyway, themes about government surveillance, private meta-data, and politicians who “open” their lives up only to better obscure who they really are will fascinate and prove timely. And of course the overlap between the real-life election (which, if anything, is more ridiculous or far-fetched than anything on “HoC”) and this season adds it a timely urgency that previous seasons didn’t have. It’ll make you rocket through those episodes even more than in season’s past, and it’s a good thing too because this year’s season finale is actually worth getting to as soon as possible. The final few scenes operate with an amoral clarity that is chilling, gripping, exciting, and even weirdly aspirational. Not every show can make political nihilism look transcendant. Not sure I would want every show to either. That “HoC” can get you psyched to watch something close to “Democratic Fascism” only shows how fully you can be absorbed into the Underwoods’ Underworld, and even kind-of like it.