Does House of Cards Pull Back the Curtain on American Politics?

No ‘Polite’ in ‘Politics’

Glad-handing and backstabbing with President Francis Underwood
Glad-handing and backstabbing with President Francis Underwood

Without as much as a please or thank you, the fourth season of House of Cards is underway. Along with its sensational storylines, complete with homicidal politicians and incestuous ulterior motives that would make the oft-quoted Shakespeare proud, the first Netflix series to receive an Emmy is a candid look into the backroom wheeling and dealing of the political elite.

Season four picks up with former Vice President Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Once his only desire, the end all be all of the Machiavellian democrat from South Carolina, Underwood now finds himself without his greatest ally, wife Claire (Robin Wright). The couple's separation comes just as Francis is gearing up for primary season and faces the very-real possibility of becoming a lame duck president, his greatest fear after having tasted the insatiable cornucopia of absolute submission as the most powerful human on Earth.

Ex-journalist, current convict Lucas Goodwin, around which the show's sparse morality orbits, is stuck in prison, doing time for a failed attempt at gaining info on the whereabouts of Rachel Posner, one of the few witnesses to the Underwoods' by-any-means-necessary approach to ladder climbing. I won't spoil it for you, but Goodwin's appeals for humanity, in a world where the most ethical thing to do is often tantamount to career suicide, reach into the deepest crimson of Homeland Security's color-coded terror index.

What's most compelling about the show — murderous manipulation and sexual escapades aside — is the evolving sociopathic tendencies of Underwood and his excruciatingly loyal aids, particularly ring-felching White House Chief of Staff Doug Stamper. The ability to demand and instruct without the pesky pangs of mannered mores and social norms becomes the preferred mode of communication for Underwood, wasting no time in commanding exactly what he wants with a demonstrative click of the secured-line from the Oval Office.

Generally avoiding obvious parallels with any of the candidates in our current electoral shit show, House of Cards is most enjoyable (to this viewer) as a character study in the effects of power upon the morality and ego of the individuals embroiled in the business of Politic.

Although most politicians can seem like blundering hatemongers or out of touch one-percenters, what House of Cards makes perfectly clear is that, if anything like the Underwoods, those in the political limelight are absolutely aware of the public's perception of them, and pay handily for the privilege. The elite's access to our perceptions of their personas — particularly those that fall in the hefty middle of the voting bell curve — rarely seem to phase them. They are not checking the political pulse to alter their lives of shameful discrepancies, the landfill of human ethics that they have become, but to further manipulate us into thinking that they truly care about anything other than control and advantage; that they care about us. Sure, they believe they are doing "what's best" for America, but they will do just about anything for that egomaniacal privilege.

Executive producers Spacey, Wright and David Fincher offer a glimpse into the baby kissing and backstabbing that every candidate must employ to bang their wife (or intern) in the same room as JFK and Jackie O. (and Marilyn) and, basically, decide the fate of modern civilization. House of Cards functions as a sensational damnation of the entire system of unchecked egos and bullshit balancing that goes on in the nation's Capitol (note the upside down American flag logo).

Whether a drama that incriminates the American political process will have any effect on the polls this November is yet to be measured, particularly as our options are boiling down to a choice between furthering a nepotistic political dynasty, a rampant, racist salesman, a creepy bible camp counselor and a politically Euro-centric do-gooder from Ben & Jerry's territory. If Francis Underwood is any indication of the kind of gruesome grit it takes to be sworn in January 20, 2017, may they all lose, so that we may win.