Hail to the Chief
At a time when our nation is deciding what it wants in its next leader, Frank and Claire Underwood remind us that it’s the image that matters.
Netflix has given us a season of television that is as timely as it brilliant. Without missing a beat, the Underwoods continue to tell a story that is the perfect visualization of a broken democracy and a ruthless, dishonest, manipulative power couple. Told in, essentially, two halves, this season doubles down on the Underwoods and the theatrics that comprise their public image.
Season three ended with Claire leaving Frank. What would be a very public embarrassment for anyone else, Claire and Frank play the chess game perfectly, acting in ways that fool the public into thinking they are working together when, in reality, nothing is further from the truth. It’s an intricate look at how perception and personas are for more important in Washington than substantive issues.
This portion of the season is fascinating until it becomes frustrating, not because the storytelling is bad, but because at the end of the day, Frank and Claire work best when they work together. Throughout this first portion of the season, we see old wounds re-opened and old friendships torn apart. It’s not until midway into the season when something happens and the story takes a dramatic, and improved, turn. I won’t say what it is, but when you see it…you’ll know.
From that point on, the season fires on all cylinders. The pacing, the acting, and the intricate web of lies wonderfully reminds us why we first fell in love with this show way back in season one, when Frank strangled a dog to death before our very eyes. The cinematography is of particular note this season, as it takes the show to new levels. Beautiful, symmetrical shots (indicative of order and control) are almost always undercut by sidelong or unsteady shots, reminding us that Frank truly is building a fragile house of cards.
The skeletons in Frank’s closet to come back to haunt him; sometimes through the traditional means of nosy journalists and other times through pure, emotional guilt. The former works far better than the latter, particularly because the latter relies on elaborate dream sequences, something I particularly dislike in film. These dream sequences are pretty on the nose, and they distract from the more subtle reminders of guilt that the show has given us in the past. It’s also worth pointing out that Zoe Barnes shows up in one of these dreams, and I’m glad that the showrunners decided to allow the actress’s short hair to be part of the dream. Remember what happened last time they put Kate Mara in a wig?
The second half the season runs by with an electric intensity that will draw you in more than any stretch of episodes in the show to date. With Frank on the campaign trail, threats are coming in the form of the usual foreign entanglements, disloyal members of Congress, investigative reporters, and rising star in the Republican Party. The Underwoods have conflict coming at them from all angles, giving the show a gravity that has never been seen before.
I’ve used the term WHNF before…the “What Happens Next? Factor.” This season does an incredible job in making us ask that question over and over. I had planned on watching this over the course of four days, but I ended up doing it in one simply because the drama was so enticing.
Much like last season, there are many parallels to real-life events. Victor Petrov, the Vladimir Putin analog, returns as well as a proxy for ISIS. The NRA makes an appearance when gun control is brought up, and a few other hot topic issues are mentioned in passing as well. Despite Frank’s membership in the Democratic party, the show does maintain a fairly neutral standing throughout most of the season.
Focusing on the election cycle was certainly not a coincidence, but the story was executed perfectly. With strong ties to past seasons, multiple sources of conflict, and heavy thematic weight that was reinforced by the cinematography and acting, this is the most entertaining politics has ever been.
Alex Russo might write in Frank’s name this November. You can remind him to take democracy more seriously on Twitter.