J. Edward Hackett
As the editor of House of Cards and Philosophy, I feel a burden to review the fourth season. With that said, let me share with you what I take to be the central aesthetic feature that first fascinated me about the series. In my edited anthology, House of Cards and Philosophy, I wrote the following in the introduction:
Our Shakespearian antihero and his Lady Macbeth constantly undermine the narrative that truth, justice, and the American way prevail. House of Cards makes us worry, as it should. We should worry that we are not doing better economically than previous generations. We should worry that the promise of postracial America has never been delivered in full. We should worry that corporations have more influence in politics than individual voters. We should worry about the rising inequality that divides opportunity and privilege. We should worry that lesser Franks lurk in the corners of the real world. We should worry about many things, and that’s the point of the title’s imagery: The house of cards may come tumbling down.
House of Cards is entertaining precisely because it exaggerates the hyperbolic tensions and anxieties about real world politics. In this review, I’ll make good on connecting those hyperbolic anxieties and tensions of the season 4 with the real world, but first let’s discuss the previous seasons that set the stage. If anyone has reservations about philosophers writing about culture, I've already more than defended the need to do so elsewhere. (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW...last warning)
Unlike Season 1 and 2, season 4 concerns the rise and power not of Frank Underwood, but the rise of Claire Underwood. In Season 3, we saw that season end as she walks away from Francis. In Season 3, Frank seemed defeated by the repression of the drive for power. He ascended to the Presidency only to find rules and the Office constraining his will-to-power. Like a newly caged animal, he paced back and forth with so much energy that season 3 seemed anti-climactic to the rise of power in the previous seasons. In Season 3, we could not anticipate that Claire would leave him, although we somewhat expected that Frank’s use of people would eventually use Claire to his own purposes just like everyone else.
Claire’s departure signals the rise of her own agency. For too long, Claire has been in the background. Season 4 reveals that she is the only counter weight capable of opposing Francis, and to get his attention, she seeks to wound Francis. She arranges a picture of Francis’ father next to a KKK leader to be plastered on Gaffney’s water tower on the eve of the South Carolina primary—his home state. She leaves clues and confesses to Francis. From there, she threatens divorce. She will only come back to Francis if she can be the Vice President on the ticket. We see Claire arrive “fully into her own.” In previous seasons, we only saw glimpses of this woman, but told in a 21st century lens, not only does Lady Macbeth take the stage. She owns it. Claire threatens anyone that gets in her way, and this includes her own dying mother and Francis. After Francis is shot, she feels nothing and buddies up next to the acting President, Vice President Donald Blythe. She is everywhere, but the hospital while the weakened Frank now realizes that the only earthly power that he needs is his wife. Soon, they are united again, but not like before. They stand together in equal recognition of the fact that both are only made stronger by the other. Claire needs Frank just as much as he needs her as they seek the Presidential nomination together.
In this way, House of Cards is written and set during our real life election cycle, and consequently, has an anchor in our real world politics. The young accomplished Claire is poised as a first lady ready to make her entrance into presidential politics, the obvious reference being Hillary Clinton. However, the speed is much quicker. House of Cards raises questions about how many people fear Hillary is and was designed to be the presumptive nominee. The presumptive status is woven into the narrative as both Underwoods make it appear as if Claire wins the nomination beyond the theatrical stage and machinations that it takes to get her the nomination.
Unlike the real world case of Hillary, the theatricality cannot be denied in the show since we’re seeing the characters in real time before our eyes, the unlikely theatricality of the show teeming towards us, though the efforts of her nomination speak volumes. Claire’s acceptance speech is written by the return of Tom Yates, the snobbish novelist given unfettered access to the Underwoods from season 3 (and perhaps the only redeeming face of Season 3). Yates’s infatuation is a filter to heighten the pageantry of Claire’s elevation. Claire and him are now lovers, and his love blinds and binds him to her so much so that he went to Texas with her to write “the speech of all speeches” despite the pretense of Durant’s alleged nomination. The fiction writer writes a speech about how Claire was fictionally chosen by the delegates at the open convention. The show makes Yates out to be a great novelist, yet the writing for that climactic part in the show was itself mediocre at best, but the point of the speech is not that Claire is accepting, but the dowy eyes and sparkles around his head in the shot as he looks on. Even the novelist that knows her intimately is enamored with the fiction of Claire.
In the rise of Claire, the show brings to light the hyperbolic tension and anxiety reflected the role of political dynasties and how these dynasties bar access from everyone but those benefiting from them. In House of Cards we root for the Underwoods. Our rooting for them is because Claire and Frank are in the throws of forming a dynasty before our eyes. However, the dynasty is temporary and will no doubt come crashing down. There are no children to perpetuate this dynasty, so at best the Underwoods could do is a dictatorship softened by the hues of a constitutional Republic turned sour by its own elitism. The Clintons and the Bushes of the world are already established. They do not come out of the blue from nowhere. In the real world, the Clintons, Bushes, and Kennedys of the world maintain their influence with less drama and gusto, and we’re probably better off for it, but make no mistake, Claire’s orchestrated rise to power is the lens of suspicion many have of Hillary Clinton.
Adding to the show’s brilliance, this suspicion of power and its orchestration are not partisan. Ever. The Republicans and the Democrats are shown making deals with equal force, and while the real Republican and Democratic candidates would never have the other over for a sleep over, the tension raised between the Conways and Underwoods underscores the equal suspicion the writers have of all politicians—even though real world political scientists will constantly tell you that Cards gets politics wrong. Always. Accurate representation of our anxiety and worry is achieved only by an aesthetics of amplification that only fiction and unrealism about politics could achieve. The suspicion of power is a constant worry. In this series, both Democrats and Republicans leverage power over others and broker deals in bars, offices, and over the phone. Neve Campbell plays Leann Harvey, a Senior political consultant that gets Democrats elected to office. The Republican-nominee is in bed with a Google-like company Polly-Op. The search engines report on everyone’s fears and paints Conway in a favorable light given the searches reported about him. Frank spies on the people with the NSA to figure out what they want. Both parities want to manage people’s perceptions. In passing we hear Harvey confess that she can do old school just like anyone else. Neve Campbell’s character is also purposefully older than your typical 20-something that other producers in Hollywood would cast for such a role. In this way, House of Cards delights in how these older characters (which Campbell praised here), the ones willing to play like Frank, outlast the teary-eyed-idealistic-poli-sci-majors who thought that they could change the world.
This suspicion of power finds an anchor in the double-reality of the complicit corporate media. The corporate media perpetuates the theatre and drama of life itself that has the same negative effects it has in our real world. I believe the show’s writers are aware of this fact, collapsing fact-telling journalism into infotainment-for-entertainment (and why this contrast will make Tom Hammerschmidt glow in the paragraph to follow), a point probably lost on the real life correspondents from Fox and CNN. Both networks appear to legitimize the fictional world in House of Cards, but also appear indistinct from “real life” legitimization on how they frame their coverage of Hillary versus Bernie.
In Season 4, an earlier character from Season 1 comes into his own. Played by the stoic presence of Boris McGiver, the former Editor Tom Hammerschmidt of the Washington Herald starts uncovering the train wreck of people Frank has left in his wake. This is the rope fraying at the ends for the whole series. While Frank has killed and moved about in Season 1 and 2 as if he had worn the ring of Gyges himself, the unraveling of House of Cards has already started, and it couldn’t come from a better character. Hammerschmidt is the only character with moral integrity throughout the entire show, and this moral integrity seems almost superhuman in a field of morally compromised and unvirtuous powerbrokers. In Season 1, we first saw him try to restrain the yellow journalism of Zoe Barnes for a concern for the truth, and even when he was fired by his corporate media mogul boss, Hammerschmidt sat there principled and full of integrity. You might say that he’s a product of what we might call “legacy journalism,” the principled investigator that seeks truth for truth’s sake long forgotten, which would also put him at odds with how truth functions in politics if we were to bring in Arendt. Better yet, Hammerschmidt is the conscience of the real world anxiety that crashes against the hyperbolic world of the series itself, yet that’s what makes him a fascinating character. He is an old newshound, often portrayed alongside his houndish dog and the actor’s own houndish-looking face.
At first, his firing and rejection of Zoe Barnes’ yellow journalism looks like a weakness given that the world of Cards offers a gloomier world than the one we live in, but this transforms Hammerschmidt into the outsider status he needs to tell the truth about Frank with the same virtue as the Boston Globe’s Spotlight. Socrates acted under the Divine sign and mandate to test the character of Athens. He, too, had to be an outsider, and consequently resembles McGiver.
To provide the Socratic function, Hammerschmidt is elevated in the narrative to possess as much power and ability as both the spectator of the series and Frank combined precisely because he can see Frank as we see him in the Shakespearian asides. He sees Frank for the monster he is, and the series ends indicating the monstrosity to follow of Frank’s already risen status as President, and the portent of Claire.
Both Frank and Claire are in the last shot. Once again, Frank gives an aside to the camera, but unlike every other time, Frank’s utterance reveals the strength now of the Underwoods together. “That’s right. We don’t submit to terror.” Claire turns to listen to Frank’s words spoken to the camera. Then, both look at the viewers again while Frank says, “We make the terror.” Like Frank, her eyes gaze directly at you in sinister fashion and callous clarity. Claire is part of the we now, and for the first time another character has broken the fourth wall in the series. And I wonder if, now, Season 5 will reveal them giving an aside to the camera together—a point, I should add raised first by my wife. The chaos they want to generate is smoke screen and distraction just short enough that the Underwoods hope will ensure their election as the ropes are just now starting to fray from the multiple attacks on all sides: an NSA scandal about to pop, Hammerschmidt, Conway’s bid for the White House, and Douglas Stamper’s very unrealistic turnaround from putting President Underwood at the top of the donor list. Time will only tell.
I really feel like the cards are about to come tumbling down, and should culminate and cease in Season 5. I worry, however, about the departure of Beau Willimon’s writing for the fifth season if the show will suffer as the West Wing did when Aaron Sorkin left. Netflix executives might want to push the show past the limit Willimon’s writing started in this season. As long as the frayed ends of the rope continue to unwind, Season 5 will either be a great Shakespearian tragedy and meditation on the excesses of power and ego, or it will falter. Either way, season 4 is the crescendo, and much better than the slow anti-climactic pace of season 3.
 Hackett, J. Edward. “Editor’s Introduction,” House of Cards and Philosophy (New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), 1-2.