As Netflix renews "House of Cards," here are some ideas to make sure next season isn’t as terrible as the last
To the surprise of no one, Netflix announced today that it would renew its wildly popular series House of Cards for a fourth season in 2016. And why wouldn't it? Although Netflix doesn't reveal viewership numbers on individual shows, analysts found a substantial spike in site traffic the weekend Season 3 debuted. The show is also a key piece of the streaming company's international strategy. Of the ten cities that sent the largest number of show-related tweets during the premiere weekend, five were outside the US.
The inevitability of the renewal announcement dampens some of the excitement surrounding it. But so does the fact that House of Cards' most recent season was its least compelling yet -- and by a wide margin. As I wrote during my sleepless marathon viewing session of Season Three, the show's central character Frank Underwood underwent a major shift during the 13 episode arc. The Frank of Seasons 1 and 2 was an unabashed villain -- anti-heroes be damned -- who sought and achieved power with a purity of vision and a superhuman focus that was fascinating and often hilarious to behold.
But the new Frank of Season 3 began to elicit something resembling... sympathy. And while it's usually the mark of great television when writers can humanize an appallingly corrupt character, House of Cards isn't that kind of show. It lacks the subtlety and soulfulness of Mad Men or Sopranos -- which is fine. Instead House of Cards is a uniquely fantastical fever dream where our worst fears about politicians are pushed to the extreme. Or at least it was. A humanized Frank Underwood is not nearly as much fun to watch.
Some of this shift was an inevitable product of the plot, and some of it was not. President Underwood, with no higher ranks to which he can ascend, becomes almost earnest in carrying out his duties as Commander-in-Chief. And with the need for Reaganesque plausible deniability in play, his new job also isolates him and protects him more than ever from perpetrating the sort of absurdly evil deeds that made Frank so unpredictable and fun to watch. The President of the United States can't be shooting dogs in the middle of the street -- to say nothing of throwing journalists in front of moving trains.
Meanwhile, in Russian President Viktor Petrov the show found an antagonist with even fewer scruples than Frank. Next to this homophobic maniac who murders his own troops to gain political capital, President Underwood might as well be Abraham Lincoln.
Finally, it's hard not to feel for the Underwoods as their marriage dissolves. In one of the few Season 3 subplots that generated real pathos, Frank's wife Claire becomes dissatisfied beyond repair with the Faustian bargain she agreed to when she married a man whose loyalties lie solely with his own ambitions. Making matters worse, Frank is also gay. He never wanted children, views sex with women chiefly as a form of self-validation, and has little to offer Claire beyond fortune, prestige, and the illusion of influence -- Claire may look powerful, but it's always Frank who calls the shots. The Underwoods are wicked people, no doubt. But that doesn't make their breakup any less tragic.
So can House of Cards rediscover its mojo? I think so. To prove it, here are a few potential Season 4 plots that would serve as a shot in the arm following one of the most underwhelming seasons ever made of an otherwise good show. No need for credit or compensation, House of Cards writers -- unless you want to send me a pair of F-U cufflinks.
Frank assassinates the Republican presidential nominee
The end of Season 3 all but solidified Frank's position as the Democratic nominee. And in Season 4, after weeks of brilliant strategizing and deft execution of dirty political gamesmanship, Frank will look poised to win reelection until... his estranged wife Claire, who alone knows the depths of Frank's rotten soul, takes drastic measures to protect the country from four more years of President Underwood
She convinces one of Frank's male ex-lovers to join her for an hour-long television interview during which they reveal that the President of the United States is gay. In his response, Frank -- who is normally beyond reproach when it comes to controlling media narratives -- can't help but make a series of blunders just like he always does when his wife is positioned as an adversary instead of a partner in crime. Rather than own up to his sexuality -- and secure the vote of every gay man and woman in America -- Frank categorically denies the claims. Few believe him, which opens the door for his Republican opponent in the presidential race to frame the revelation as a scandal, playing it up to the ugliest factions of his "family values"-obsessed constituents and casting Frank as a liar, an adulterer, and a filthy beast who probably has sex with dogs, too -- so goes the horrific logic of bigots.
With only weeks before the election, and everyone from Gallup to Nate Silver predicting a landslide loss unlike any an incumbent's even seen, Frank has only one path forward if he wants to win -- and because he's Frank Underwood he takes it.
With the help of a byzantine network of close allies and perfect strangers, Frank orchestrates an assassination attempt against his Republican adversary -- and again, because he's Frank Underwood, the attempt is successful. To ensure that the world never discovers his involvement, he orders his most loyal emissary, Doug Stamper, to murder every last person who participated in the assassination, knowingly or not -- that means everyone from the triggerman to the guy who supplied the gun with the filed-off serial number.
Then in the last scene of the season, Frank perpetrates a crime that is at once unthinkable and inevitable. He kills Doug, smashing his head in with the Underwood typewriter that until recently was his family's greatest legacy. And with that, any ounce of goodness or fairness that had laid dormant in Frank is swept into the garbage, along with the bloody typewriter keys that had flown off onto the floor during the murderous act. With dustbin in hand, Frank looks up at the camera with that shit-eating grin of his and begins to speak to the audience in a charming Southern lilt:
"Now now, don't look at me like that. You see, power is like a house of cards -- the more of it you build up, the more fragile it becomes. And when it comes to my house of cards, Doug was like a hot gust of wind on a Georgia afternoon. I was not about to let him huff and puff and blow my house in. You can be certain of that."
And just before the screen goes black, the audience can see, against all odds and against all logic of how typewriters work, that the letters in the dustbin are arranged to spell out a message to the audience:
"GO FUCK YOURSELF."
Claire is elected to Congress
After an 80-year-old Senator from Virginia passes away, the state holds a special election for his replacement. I'm not really sure if that's how it works or if a federal election can be thrown together in a matter of weeks. But House of Cards never cared about realism in the past, and it's not about to start. Besides, it's important to have the election take place prior to the general election, which will no doubt serve as the climax for Season 4. Why? Because, improbably, Claire will win the special election and there needs to be as much time as possible for Congressional drama to stew between her and her husband, who split up at the end of last season.
From issues related to the environment to reproductive rights, foreign aid to sex trafficking, Senator Claire Underwood will fight Frank on everything, using her intelligence and charm to mobilize members of both parties against him. Now that she's out from under the oppressive shadow of her husband's ambitions, Claire can finally accomplish all those great initiatives that she was forced to abandon because they threatened to forestall or derail Frank's ascent. She also takes up a number of causes she couldn't care less about, simply because they will cause headaches for the President.
At first Frank is frustrated to no end, in part because he has an election to win and doesn't have time to battle Claire. But more than that, he simply can't handle seeing his ex-wife succeed, particularly when her success comes at his expense.
Eventually, Frank calms down and does what he always does when faced with an adversary: He destroys her. Frank accomplishes this by proposing a rider to an otherwise unremarkable spending bill that would allow companies to deny birth control to female employees for religious reasons. He claims to have done this in the spirit of compromise so Republicans will approve the bill and avoid a government shutdown. But Claire knows the truth and refuses to vote for a bill that places a woman's reproductive rights in jeopardy. She even goes so far as to stage a filibuster in protest. This alienates her from her party, destroys the unofficial caucus she'd built, and renders her voice in Congress meaningless.
As always, Frank wins -- not because he's smarter than Claire, but because unlike him she possesses some semblance of a moral code.
Frank starts World War III
At one point last season, as tensions mounted between the US and Russia, I thought House of Cards might be bold enough to take on this outrageous but irresistible subplot. Apparently, it proved more resistible to the writers than I'd hoped -- which is too bad because the season would have been ten times more interesting had Frank spent less time fighting bureaucrats over the allocation of disaster relief funds and more time stumbling into bloody global conflicts involving the US, Israel, Russia, North Korea, and Syria.
Oh well, there's always Season 4. I imagine the chain of events leading to nuclear holocaust getting started like this: The US sends humanitarian aid to the citizens of a region Russia has annexed. As is often the case, some of these citizens also belong to anti-Russia militias. So in response, Russia orchestrates an attack on a US convoy in the Middle East, killing a dozen American soldiers and 5 civilian aid workers and journalists, but stages it so it looks like the work of a radical Islamic militant group. Nevertheless, Russian President Petrov brags to Frank that it was Russia that perpetrated the attack. This gives Frank two options: Let the press continue to believe the attack was the work of radical Islamists, or reveal the truth to America, launch missiles on Moscow, and start World War III.
His advisors are torn, but Frank knows what he needs to do: attack Moscow... not because of any moral or tactical reasons, but because of that one time Petrov flirted with his wife, of course.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]