Laws actually get passed? Diplomacy works? No bragging onstage about dick size? This really is fiction.
When Netflix's House of Cards debuted a few months after the 2012 election, its cold cynicism was perfect for the time. The optimism of Obama's 2008 election had been buried under years of Republican obstructionism, and the 2012 election pitted a sitting president with approval ratings under 50 percent against Mitt Romney, who was basically a bundle of conservative talking points stuffed into a tailored suit. People felt cynical about American politics, and House of Cards's dark vision of ruthless Machiavellian power players forming elaborate schemes between joyless sexual affairs comforted us by saying, "Hey, at least things aren't this crazy."
Four years and one Trump later, House of Cards feels positively optimistic. Laws actually get passed? Diplomacy works? Politicians respect the seriousness of office instead of bragging onstage about how big their respective dicks are? This really is fiction.
It's not that House of Cards has changed. The Netflix flagship's fourth season—which was released all at once last Friday—still offers up its pretty-but-humorless world of ruthless realpolitik, scheming politicians, and intermittent dalliances. It's more of the same, and it even features the welcome return of several characters from seasons past. (What's a guy got to do to get a Freddy Hayes spin-off?) But while House of Cards tells us that politics is run by corrupt yet effective politicians—whose policy disagreements are settled by a measure of wits—our own political system makes dumpster fires look put together.
The contrast between House of Cards's America and actual America is especially prominent this season as the main storyline is the 2016 Democratic primary and the general election. [Warning: beyond here be spoilers] The first two seasons saw Frank Underwood worm his way to the vice presidency, then engineer the resignation of the sitting president. Because he was never elected, he faces a primary challenge by one of his own former pawns, ex-attorney general Heather Dunbar. After securing the nomination, he moves on to face his Republican rival, Will Conway, in the general. It's a clever way to get people interested in the new season, but for a TV show that has an appeal driven by escalating absurdity and increasing shock, it seems awfully tame compared to the actual election unfolding right now.
In the 2016 of House of Cards, President Underwood's primary campaign almost implodes when a photo is leaked of his father standing with a KKK member. In the 2016 of the real world, the leading GOP candidate, whose own father may or may not have been involved with the KKK, has a regular habit of retweeting white supremacists, and he can't be bothered to unequivocally disown an endorsement by infamous racist David Duke on CNN (he later backtracked, saying he hadn't understood the question due to a problem with his earpiece). In House of Cards, national outcry over gun violence—and some clever Underwood scheming—gets a bipartisan gun control bill moving through Congress. In the real world, despite a never-ending series of mass shootings, Jeb Bush resorts to tweeting a picture of an engraved gun with the caption "America" to get attention. In House of Cards, the Republican candidate campaigns on tough yet smart foreign policy. In real America, Ted Cruz vows to "carpet-bomb" ISIS and see if "sand can glow in the dark," and Donald Trump calls for inventing new super-torture techniques while promising he'll force the US military to commit war crimes (another statement that he later took back).
Could you imagine such a fictional creature on stage next to the current frontrunners, a reality TV star who talks about how he'd date his own daughter and a possible Zodiac killer whose own colleagues hate him so much they fantasize publicly about killing him?
In a show that's featured the Underwoods having a threesome with their Secret Service guard and Frank shoving a reporter/lover in front of a train, season 4 ratchets up the absurdity with the introduction of Will Conway, a moderate, handsome GOP candidate who brags about his humble home and works with his Democratic rival to thwart a terrorist situation. Could you imagine such a fictional creature on stage next to the current frontrunners, a reality TV star who jokes about dating his own daughter and a possible Zodiac killer whose colleagues hate him so much they fantasize publicly about killing him? You might as well put a unicorn on stage, so Trump can say he's "weak on goblins" and Rubio can chime in with "you know what they say about unicorns with small horns!"
"Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing," Marco Rubio sputtered, again and again and again, during his infamous Mr. Roboto meltdown. Rubio's line was meant to imply that Obama is not actually a bumbling fool who can't speak without a teleprompter—as conservatives have often portrayed him—but rather a Lex Luthor–level supervillain quickly destroying the country with his 20th-dimensional chess skills. (By contrast, Rubio, a politician so devoid of accomplishment that his own surrogates can't name a reason to vote for him, is apparently the Superman who can reverse his evil schemes.) Rubio's talking point is essentially how House of Cards views its own president and first lady. The Underwoods are cutthroat masterminds who form plans of Doctor Doom–like complexity. Their rivals are likewise intelligent and rational players who can only be beaten by moving quicker and thinking smarter.
This politics as battle of will and brains seems a far cry from 2016 America, where the Establishments of both parties seem to have no clue what their own bases want. The Democratic Party is still functional for now. But the GOP, which for years has promoted the likes of Sarah Palin, Tea Party buffoons, and the complete breakdown of government norms, seems shocked to the point of paralysis to learn that their voters actually took their messages to heart.
In the world of House of Cards, politics is nasty, Machiavellian, and corrupt, sure. But at the end of the day, it's still serious. The various players will wheel and deal behind each other's backs, but in public, they always put on their somber faces and address the American public with gravitas and poise. This seriousness is conveyed by the dark color palate, sweeping shots, and the gloomy orchestral music. While our own political process devolves into a mix of racist demagoguery and open-mic comedy routines, no one can be blamed for finding a little comfort in this fantasy.
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House of Cards season 4 is available now on Netflix.