The third season of House of Cards concluded with the series’ most intriguing prospect yet: the bitter demise of Frank and Claire’s marriage. Despite the occasional affair, the precariousness implied by the show’s title has rarely applied to the Underwoods’ union. Played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, the Underwoods have been as co-dependent as a glazed ham and a silver tray — the former gaining refinement it might otherwise lack, the latter a sense of purpose in its supportive role. Claire’s exit from the West Wing — during Frank’s troubled presidential reelection campaign, no less — exploded the only stable element in a world of frenetic instability.
Entropy is a positive, even necessary, force in serialized storytelling. And Claire’s willingness to square off against her husband — technically the most powerful man in the world and, as of last year’s finale, her abuser — promised to finally give Netflix’s political soap the antagonist it so deeply needs. At the top of the stack of reasons why House of Cards routinely fails as a believable portrait of D.C. insanity is the fact that nearly every other politico, especially at first, is as guileless and trusting as a puppy, and thus never stands a chance against the perpetually scheming POTUS. What more formidable foe, then, could there be for a man with as many secrets as Frank than the woman who knows (almost) all of them?
(Heavy spoilers ahead for the first three episodes of the fourth season.) Claire’s bid for independence (and long-shot congressional campaign in her hometown of Dallas) makes for a thrilling season premiere. The first lady’s rage at suppressing her own ambitions for a man who probably never deserved such sacrifice takes the form of her estranged mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who urges her daughter to “put [Frank] in his place.” While he battles the two-woman team of Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) in the primary states, Claire recruits another female ally, her new campaign manager Leann (Neve Campbell), in her fight for Texas’s 30th district.
Frank, meanwhile, begins to take after his obsessive chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), dreaming and fantasizing about roughing up his wife further. (Recall that we last saw Doug killing the woman he’d been stalking for three years.) Claire’s liberation from her wifely duties has been a long time coming, but what makes her flight from her self-imposed shackles compelling isn’t its feminist kick but its moral trade-offs. At the end of Episode 2, she threatens to sell the family home from under her terminally ill mother unless Elizabeth coughs up the money for her election fund. (In one of the show’s always-welcome detours into camp, Burstyn removes her wig and dashes it on the ground, powerlessly screaming, “I AM THE MOTHER!”) During the next installment, Claire aims for a juicy vein, if not exactly the jugular, by releasing an old photo of Frank’s (deceased) father embracing a Klan member to undermine her husband’s cross-racial support in his home state of South Carolina. Even as she’s trying to distance herself from Frank, though, Claire remains dependent on his public support of her campaign.
(Light spoilers ahead for the rest of the season.) A similar story line about a first lady’s midlife crisis and subsequent political bloom reenergized and restructured another ultracynical take on Washington, the far bolder and superior Scandal. With Claire’s revolt, House of Cards gave itself the opportunity to remake itself, but tosses it aside instead. A presidency-defining catastrophe — one that seems to happen to fictional presidents a lot more often than actual ones — leads to the Underwoods’ reconciliation, with an ailing Frank promising to make Claire his next VP should they win the election. Yes, that’s as ludicrous as it sounds. Remember when Claire made herself public enemy number one among conservatives just two years ago by admitting during a televised interview to having had an abortion? Well, neither does the show.
With Claire back at Frank’s side, the show’s missing-antagonist problem rears its head once more. Lars Mikkelsen’s Putin stand-in, the paranoid Russian leader Petrov, is largely sidelined this year. A contender for Claire’s affections merely echoes an already wan character from Season 1. When Zoe’s old boss Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) starts sniffing around the (literal and figurative) shallow graves of Frank’s enemies, I started fearing for the uncompromising journalist a lot more than I did for the president. (Showrunner Beau Willimon, in his last season at the helm, continues to let the cast bloat, even though a trimmer set of characters would tighten plotlines.)
A real challenger to Frank’s throne would have to be a self-admiring sociopath like him, and one arrives at the season’s halfway point in Republican candidate Will Conway (the distractingly miscast Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, from The Killing and Robocop). The picture of all-American youth and virility, Will’s superficial contrast with the now-ashen-haired Frank belies their similarities, including their willingness to exploit a hostage situation involving an ISIS-like group for an uptick in the polls. (As with previous seasons, the show's stabs at social relevance barely poke through the skin.)
As the plot machinery turns relentlessly and Frank bobs and weaves and lobs and cleaves, I asked myself the same question during this preening, exhausting, overpacked season as I have during every other one: Why in the world are we expected to root for Frank? (Despite his villainy, we’re supposed to take delight in his ability to think his way out of traps and knock out his adversaries, no matter the cost.) The fourth season ends with the proverbial nuclear option, and the show demands our respect for the Underwoods’ scheming.
But, coincidentally prescient KKK controversy aside, Frank’s still a Democrat Trump — a bullying, unprincipled anti-Midas who turns everything he touches into shit. In Season 1, he was revealed to be a murderer; in Season 3, a wife-beater. With each passing year, all I want is for someone to finally take him down. I wanted it to be Claire for its poetic justice, but at this point I’m taking a page out of Mitt Romney’s binder (politics, strange bedfellows, etc.) and declaring myself in the tank for Anyone But Underwood.