Friday, March 25, 2016

Beyond Marriage: House of Cards Season 4

Underwood and Underwood for the win. Season 4 sees Frank and Claire maneuver to become running mates on the eve of a U.S. Presidential election.

"Beyond Marriage" 

House of Cards stormed back into our imaginations with the launch of a fourth season on March 4. It's no coincidence that four years marks the series length so far because it's also the span of a single Presidential term in office. For those who felt Season 3 ended with a whimper instead of a bang, you won't be disappointed with the new episodes. Season 4 of Netflix's political drama has more twists and turns than a rollercoaster at Canada's Wonderland.

The drama begins where we left off — with our protagonists (antiheroes?) squaring off against each other. Frank (Kevin Spacey) is in the midst of a tightly contested re-election campaign. His wife, the formidable Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), has left Frank to jumpstart her own political career, away from her powerful spouse's shadow.

Seeing them crisscross the United States while trying to out-network and outsmart each other is great fun to watch. As is the return of Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) Frank's conflicted, emotionally troubled Chief of Staff. His character walks a fine balancing line — though he has done horrible things, you can't bring yourself to hate him. As the season progresses we see the effect of some of Stamper's decisions on his moral and spiritual well-being (or lack thereof).

Then, just when you think you can see around the next curve on the track, the tone of Season 4 changes dramatically after Frank is shot at a political rally by Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus). Goodwin, formerly an Editor at The Washington Herald was sent to jail by Frank and his associates in Season 2 for trying to uncover the crooked politician's trail of murder and lies. During the gunfire Frank takes a bullet in his liver and is left clinging to life on a Hospital bed. His bodyguard Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) is killed by Goodwin, though not before taking down the would be assassin.

While waiting for a liver transplant Frank enters a dream state where he is haunted by the ghosts of Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). One moment he is in a crowded train car that's rattling along toward some unknown destination. Then he sees Zoe, her hair cut short. Perhaps the train is a reference to the subway car that Frank pushed Zoe under at the beginning of Season 2. The next moment he is together with Peter and Zoe inside the Oval Office. Claire is only just visible outside the window. Inside the dead are more real than the living, inviting the corrupt President to enter their world.

It's nail biting stuff to watch, and one of Season 4's best episodes.

Frank survives his near death experience by receiving a last minute liver transplant. Unsurprisingly, people die for Frank to get back into the game. One of those deaths weighs heavily on Doug Stamper, and is a thread that follows through the rest of this season.

To heal a rift with Claire, Frank agrees to maneuver her into place as his running mate on the Democratic ticket. This plot arc provides even more tension and genuine surprises. The Underwoods decide on an open convention to play up the theater of politics, only to have Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson) their Secretary of State, make a play for the Presidential nomination herself when she discovers the Underwoods have betrayed her.

In my favourite scene from Season 4, Frank uses intimidation and fear to force Durant to abandon her challenge. One-on-one he drops his southern gentleman mask to show her what lies below the pleasant surface. From there, the Underwoods' path to secure the nomination is guaranteed.

From personal terror to fear on a large scale, the Islamic Caliphate Organization (ICO) enters the picture in the last third of the season. A stand-in for ISIS, the terrorist organization is spreading fear in the Middle East and provides a means for Republican Governor and Presidential hopeful Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) to portray Frank as a weak and indecisive leader.

So it goes through to Season 4's logical conclusion - a hostage situation. A situation the Underwoods take advantage of to horrifying effect in the last episode. Season 4's ending feels like a punch to the gut. Frank and Claire anticipate and allow the execution of an ICO hostage to take control of the situation when Tom Hammerschmidt and The Washington Herald publish an
exposé on Underwood's path to the White House.

The ending hits uncomfortably close to some of our biggest fears in the western world. The fear that tomorrow we could be next.

Frank concludes: "That's right. We don't submit to Terror; we make the Terror."


A small digression to end this blog. This time about two real life politicians:

Rob Ford, former Mayor of Toronto and longtime city councillor, died of a rare form of Cancer on March 22. His death is tragic, and I feel sorry for the Ford family. However, as Mayor, Rob Ford's politics held the city back. Simple slogans like: "Subways, subways, subways" and the former Mayor's view that Toronto should be run like a business didn't just miss the mark. They stopped us from evolving and moving forward. Complex problems cannot be solved by sloganeering and refusing to read briefing binders.

Which brings me to Donald Trump. The billionaire's rhetoric on the campaign trail makes all of Ford's shenanigans pale by comparison. Promises to build a wall along the U.S. / Mexico border, to deport Muslims, singling out certain ethnic groups, and the list goes on. Not only does spouting this kind of hate not solve anything, it turns people against each other.

When Marco Rubio failed to win his home state of Florida, he pulled out of the race for his party's nomination. What he said that night should be a wake up call for all American voters, regardless of who they intend to vote for.

"The politics of resentment against other people will not just leave us a fractured party. They're going to leave us a fractured nation. They're going to leave us as a nation where people literally hate each other because they have different political opinions."

Food for thought.

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