House Of Cards season 4 spoiler-filled review

The Underwoods' single-minded pursuit of power is the story of House Of Cards season 4, which paves the way for a truly exciting season 5...

This review contains spoilers.

There was a very telling moment towards the end of this season of House Of Cards. It involved Claire Underwood and a question that, were this real life, would have dogged her campaign to join her husband’s presidential ticket. It came from Hannah Conway who, as the wife of Republican challenger William, might have been better prepared to withstand pointed comparisons with the First Lady. “Do you regret not having children?”, asked the younger woman. Claire’s response was politely acid. “Do you regret having yours?”. It was a line that was meant to shock, which it did, but only because it broke one of our society’s mild taboos, in which procreation is seen as a universal good and choosing not to, particularly for women, is considered odd. Frank, who still has to pretend otherwise in public, can be even more direct. ‘I don’t like children’, he spits in an acrid drawl.

A hatred of children is a rather different thing to choosing not to have any yourself. In much fiction, particularly children’s fiction, it’s the hallmark of a villain, a de Vil, a Trunchbull or a Child Catcher. While the Underwoods are certainly villainous (and increasingly so), their disdain for children is a symptom of something deeper and more significant; it’s a component of their utter emptiness as human beings.

In previewing this season, I noted that the Underwood marriage was under strain and that the project of the narrative was to document its destruction. It actually ended the season stronger than ever with Frank and Claire able to rely only on each other, with them seated together like a royal couple and with your reviewer feeling like a cock-eyed Cassandra. The relationship was certainly in trouble at the beginning and it looked for several episodes as though they were going end as rivals. Then something happened. Something clicked back into place and they found reconciliation.

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What’s curious is just how relatable the Underwoods’ marriage really is. The difficulties that they encountered are familiar to most people, pressures of work, difficulty with family (particularly ancient in-laws) and a natural fading of the original spark. Their solution was just as familiar. Marriage counsellors often recommend that couples seek the things that first brought them together, a shared interest, familiar places and so on. The trouble for Frank and Claire is that they don’t have anything, either as individuals or as a couple. No hobbies, no interests, no circle of mutual friends, no desires. They are unpeople, drones orbiting a vacuum.  And we all know about nature and a vacuum. The Underwoods have only one thing with which to fill their hollow core. Power. It is power that brought them together, power that continues to bind them and power that saved their marriage. The turning point was the realisation that they could still pursue it together. It is their shared project, their legacy and their life. The problem is that’s all they have.

The political roughhousing of four seasons of drama have stripped Frank and Claire of support beyond a very tiny immediate circle, which is itself frayed almost to destruction. Every temporary ally, confidante and confederate has been mistreated, compromised or otherwise jeopardised that the First Couple genuinely have no one but each other. Catherine Durant, Jackie Sharp and Remy Danton are all but confirmed enemies of the Underwoods, Ed Meechum is dead and Doug Stamper, having thrown bagfuls of doubt over Seth Grayson and LeAnn Harvey, now teetering on the brink of another one of his unfortunate episodes. 

What does it mean to have no hinterland? It was expressed one way in that awkward breakfast scene with Tom, in which Frank and Claire acted as though this was an entirely natural set-up and that it hadn’t even occurred to them that it would be strange for Tom. That said, even Claire’s relationship with Tom is absent of emotion; no intimacy (save that which he has elicited in his role as Boswell), no longing, no joy. Just cold, functional process like scratching an itch you’d rather wasn’t there in the first place. Frank is drawn to Ed Meechum, perhaps because the Secret Serviceman was himself oddly robotic and formal, but even after Meechum is killed protecting the President, Frank cannot quite experience grief in the way that, say, a human being might. He notices it. Observes it and reflects that Meechum’s hand tracing has been painted over, but he doesn’t feel it. Frank and Claire approach grief in the manner of bored anthropologists cataloguing a behaviour they have seen countless times without ever experiencing it at first hand.

The bigger question is what this strange emptiness means for the world and the remaining narrative. Having secured power and with a fair chance of maintaining it, what comes next? I was reminded of a line in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which explains the rationale for the system. Winston Smith is told, “the Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power”. As the Party, so Frank and Claire. They never appear to want to do anything with the power they gain, all of it, Amworks, the Russia deal, the capture of Ahmadi, exists only as a tool to preserve their power. Did Frank ever care about unemployment in his district? Was Claire ever really interested in her clean water initiative? No. There’s nothing here but power for power’s sake.

The most significant development of this season is that they now admit it and it is here that House Of Cards can become very interesting indeed. We now have the prospect of unrestrained Underwood and a story arc that has shifted from the pursuit of power to the establishment of unrivalled dominance. A dystopia, in other words. A world in which the First Couple don’t fight terror, but make it. This makes for a truly exciting Season 5, in which we get to explore what pure power might look like in practice. As poor old Winston Smith is assured, what pure power means, you will understand presently.