|'At heart this is liberal-leaning critique of anyone in office, a curtain peeler that shows us not only our ruler's ruthless natures, but that their chaste outward appearances hide infidelities and outre sexualities just like those they lord it over'|
With this fourth season of one of Netflix's flagships, House Of Cards creeps ever closer to being something of great promise that never quite delivers. Continuing a trend started with the death of Peter Russo and flowing through the same fate of Zoe Barnes onwards into sundry other misdeeds of now-President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), Cards continues to set up cracking plot lines only to masochistically avoid concluding them in a satisfactory manner.
Season Four's failed attempts to end plot lines begun as long ago as Season One include the criminally wasted Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), whose end is brought about during S4E5, at the hands of Meechum (Nathan Darrow). Goodwin's end and the way in which it is conceived is criminal enough, but spare a thought for poor Meechum, whose simultaneous passing signifies a large part of House Of Cards' failings.
This is a series with ideas and promise, prepared to go further than others (the finale, for example, is brave and shattering). At heart this is liberal-leaning critique of anyone in office, a curtain peeler that shows us not only our ruler's ruthless natures, but that their chaste outward appearances hide infidelities and outre sexualities just like those they lord it over. The show is occasionally at its uncomfortable best when it lifts Frank's and other's skirts up. In Meechum (and Barnes, and others) the show had a character destined to take this story to the wider world, but showrunner Beau Willimon seems to always burn the house he has built down just before the investigators can arrive to collect the evidence. Meechum departs with not a whiff towards his sexual fling with Frank and Claire (Robin Wright), so what exactly was the point of setting it up? Titillation? It was hardly presented that way. By S4E11 we're back in this sort of good territory, exploring diverse, hidden sexualities. By this point I've given up expecting that the plot involving Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) and the Underwoods will have any level of satisfying conclusion.
To return to Lucas Goodwin, Cards problem beyond these almost throwaway moments that could be more is that it gives the same treatment to definitively more substantial plot threads. Goodwin's thread had essentially personified the state vs media battle and, by the time that battle makes it to public eyes at the end of this season, several of its participants have been dispatched in some way or another; Goodwin and Barnes amongst them, Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) in a very odd rewrite which takes her right to the fringe of this season. The payoff of the media v president battle, which has seen huge screentime and asked much of the audience's attention, is one face-off between Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) and Underwood, leading to something of a damp squib of a story publication. House Of Cards showrunner has not seen Spotlight or All The President's Men.
This sort of thing keeps happening during the show. Characters and plot threads set off down one arc, only to pivot screaming and unheeded down another. During Season 4, two new potential skeletons in the closet are setup for Underwood, in the form of a mad data guy and the manipulation involved in getting Underwood a new liver. Neither are paid off by the season finale.
The show also seems to hit the reset button following the events of Episode 5. Having spent the first few episodes focusing on the politics surrounding oil supply and demand - that most zeitgeist of topics - the writers pivot to give greater focus to new Underwood antagonist Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). But why wasn't he the focus from the start and, even given the fact that Conway and his selfie-snapping wife make for perfect Underwood targets, he's not exactly a particular standout from a real-life US political rat race which features Donald Trump vs the Clinton empire.
And that, really, is one of the show's new main problems. It is competing against real life which is, to an extent, even more 'out there' than any fiction House Of Cards can create, certainly in this muddled, unfocused, unfinished form. In seeking to show the unseen, Willimon's efforts are too often drawing veils over unexciting narratives, where they should be providing a microscopic look at some of the world's more important people and events.
House Of Cards was streaming on Netflix.