This is that time of year again, and a full season – the fourth, all 13 episodes of it – of “House of Cards” has landed on our slate, courtesy of Netflix. Which means that in order to be “in the loop” one has to (or had to, in my case) to spend more than 12 hours of bingeing on it.
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True, there is the possibility to watch one episode at a time, and be one’s own “programmer,” free of constraints imposed by networks who release one episode per week, at a scheduled time in the day, as Netflix is releasing the season “in toto” at a certain date, (on March 4th; HOT had released all of it on March 5th on HOT VOD) leaving the schedule at the viewer's discretion. But that amounts to dangling too much enticing bait before the gullible viewer's eyes: show me a viewer who has just seen an episode that ends with a cliff-hanger, who resists immediately watching the next one, in which whoever was hanging from wherever, crashes down or is somehow miraculously saved.
For those of you who had just landed from Mars, “House of Cards” is an American remake of a British TV series about the abuse of power. Based on a series of novels by Michael Dobbs and a TV series written by Andrew Davies, with a corrupt and lethally charming prime minister, “House of Cards”( created by Beau Willimon) has at its center a power couple – Claire and Francis Underwood – who climb together to the very top (in Season Four he is still the US president, facing reelection to a second term, having entered the White House unelected – as a stand in VP who replaces an impeached president).
The main charm of the series (both the British one and the American remake) lie in their adaptation of Shakespearean motifs and techniques to modern day TV. At the core is a very free adaptation of “Macbeth” as a much longer and intricate plot, with many side plots and ensuing tangles: a man and a woman, with an unquenchable hunger for power, a lack of any moral compunction and an unexplainable bond between them who climb up the greased pole of (American) politics and strive hard to remain there.
The “gimmick” that forges a special sort of bond with the viewer (and in that regard follows the British origin) is the fact that you once in a while – twice or thrice in an episode – Francis Underwood (played exquisitely by Kevin Spacey, an American actor who has won accolades as a stage actor and director in London) turns to the camera – that is you, the viewer – and takes you into his confidence, sharing an outrageous observation or thought most of us would prefer remain unuttered, for instance that “democracy is overrated.”
In Season Four – and here comes a very minor spoiler – some of those soliloquies are replaced with hallucinations of sorts, or “daymares” (a companion to “nightmares”) where scenes from the past, or fears of the future, haunt President Underwood’s tormented mind, in keeping with the plot of “Macbeth” (whose psyche is visited by the souls and ghosts of his victims) but also fits the plot of the season, in which Underwood is incapacitated for an episode or two. In that respect, one of the reviewers in the U.S. has remarked that in a way the invincible and unfazed Underwood becomes a sort of Tony Soprano.
The other main new strand of Season Four has Francis and Claire (the ice-queen of the series, with her short blond hair and inscrutable eyes, played by Robin Wright, who has also directed several past episodes) pitted against each other. It is an interesting development of the Macbeth motif: whereas in the Shakespearean play the Lady is the instigator of events where the couple climbs, then falls apart and dies after reaching the top, in “House of Cards” she has her own agenda, and is very much willing to serve her own ambition, and not only his. The bond between them, strained to its limits sees them each willing to fight to the bitter end, both of them achieving an uneasy balance of power, without either conceding too much.
The added charm of the latest season is that its release that coincides with the drama of presidential primaries under way across the United States, similar to the arc of the season, with Underwood an opportunist without any moral or other scruples, and Claire setting her eyes on the seat of power as well, with a clear view of one day achieving it herself, and not as part of a married team.
Which would have been a novel idea indeed, but for the fact that since the first season of “House of Cards”, with its portrait of a naked lust for power at any price, the viewers have also seen “Scandal”, where President Grant deals with his ex-wife Mallie running against him, alongside newscasts of Hillary Clinton, a former first lady and Secretary of State running for the White House in real life.
The fourth season has a couple of new characters, and a long line of recurring characters from past seasons, resurfacing after we – the viewers – have sort of assumed that they had finished their duty to the series. Without giving away too much, let me say that old sins (and crimes) continue to haunt President Underwood, who becomes, over time, much more vulnerable. Doug Stamper, his chief of staff and henchman (played by Michael Kelly) is still his master’s whip, if not voice, but at the same time he exhibits – to the viewer, if not to other characters – clear signs of a very troubled conscience, which makes him a lot less effective a prop in Underwood’s tool-box.
I tried very hard not to give away details of the plot, and these are various and many, for fear of spoiling your viewing pleasure. However, there is one thing above and beyond spoiler status: the series has already been renewed for a fifth season, which means that whatever may have happened in the fourth, the major characters will still be alive next year. And in a world where so many things are uncertain, this is a major consolation indeed.