Elizabeth Hale (Ellen Burstyn) has no patience for the politics of marriage. She despises the stagecraft of clasped hands and sweet kisses, the delicate calculus by which wives and widows navigate the corridors of power, preferring the clean lines of swift action, blunt talk. In the fourth season of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” as her son-in-law, President Francis J. Underwood (Kevin Spacey), campaigns for the Democratic nomination, Elizabeth advises her daughter, Claire (Robin Wright), to use her maiden name to run for higher office, and urges her affluent friends in Highland Park, Texas, to donate to Underwood’s challenger. “When he loses,” she says, “Claire can begin her own career.”
With this candid assessment, the series’ brooding fable of a Clinton-esque couple’s brutal ambition recaptures the lean, efficient complexion of the first — remembering, perhaps, that Frank’s closest allies are also his most formidable adversaries. Since the conniving South Carolina pol pushed journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) into the path of a moving train, “House of Cards” has often struggled against its most glaring weakness, which is the inexorable nature of the Underwoods’ rise; at a certain point, seeing the pair slip through the grasp of yet another scandal became predictable, even if the details of their machinations did not. By contrast, the most recent season revives the stakes, returning its attentions to the fraught terms of their political partnership. As we’ve known all along, the Underwoods are their own worst enemies.
As the Clintons’ own intrigues once again dominate the news, “House of Cards” becomes a funhouse mirror for our conspiratorial fantasies. After her husband is wounded in an assassination attempt, for instance, Claire manipulates his milquetoast vice president, Donald Blythe (Reed Birney), in order to protect her influence. Leading negotiations with the Russian president and dictating statements to the press, Claire gathers strength from Frank’s grave condition, and the eerie sangfroid of Wright’s performance, its near-perfect stillness, generates more tension than any action sequence. “House of Cards” is, at its most effective, more scalpel than cudgel, and Claire’s slightest movement still cuts to the quick.
When the Underwoods’ shifting allegiances are its central focus, “House of Cards” shines. Whether sabotaging each other or forging a common front, their negotiation of the public’s expectations is an astute reflection of the current political climate. The fourth season’s insight is to reframe the question of Claire’s experience, or lack thereof, as one inextricable from her relationship with her husband. “I’ve always been your running mate,” she says, demanding a spot on the ticket. “You just didn’t see it.” After Claire wins the vice-presidential nomination at an open convention—another of the Underwoods’ long cons—the core message of their campaign suggests a Rorschach test of the American political imagination: Are we capable of seeing “beyond marriage”?
The problem, for “House of Cards,” is that its interest in the realm of ruses and schemes is so total that the ripped-from-the-headlines background for the Underwoods’ subterfuge is almost embarrassingly thin. The amateurish effort to depict broadcast news coverage of the attempt on Underwood’s life, or to introduce an ISIS-like terrorist organization to the state of play, reveal the limits of the series’ structure: It relies on a constant flow of crises, foreign and domestic, to shape its protagonists’ decision-making, but none of these is compelling enough in its own right to appear much more than an afterthought. In “House of Cards,” politics becomes pure theatre, for better and (sometimes) for worse.
When it comes to the emptiness of the “process,” there’s no substitute for satire, and “Veep,” HBO’s comic disemboweling of a Byzantine system and its bumbling participants, in fact comes closer to the tenor of the real-life campaign: less tragedy, more farce. Its rat-a-tat dialogue, composed of profane one-liners and raunchy insults, suggests the cruelties of “House of Cards” — when President Selina Meyer (the peerless Julia Louis-Dreyfus) dresses down a folksy congresswoman, she’s as lacerating as Claire Underwood — but the target is, in the main, its characters’ own incompetence.
As Meyer and her team of vain, vulgar and backbiting rivals deal with the aftermath of an unprecedented electoral college tie, the series turns to the principles of modern politics more than the specifics of this year’s election—and manages, by extension, to confront the absurd absence of substance in much of our political wrangling. Where “House of Cards” proclaims that politics is “show business,” “Veep” invests in actually, well, showing it; the season’s funniest subplot features Meyer’s staffers trying to turn “human enema” Jonah Ryan into a palatable candidate for Congress, only to see him win by becoming a National Rifle Association-backed emblem of the electorate’s rage. In effect, the two series are fine complements: Where “House of Cards” exaggerates the (ostensible) dark arts of the Clinton machine, “Veep” approximates the buffoonish tendencies of Trumpism.
As the TV Academy strives to remain relevant, it’s possible that the timeliness of both series could further buoy their already strong Emmy hopes. Certainly, in the context of the past year, both series hit closer to bone than most of us, Democrat or Republican, might feel comfortable with—and as the campaign that has come to resemble reality TV continues, Emmy voters might well decide to honor the two TV series that dig into the relationship between politics and the media most aggressively. Given its ongoing relevance, “Veep,” for which Louis-Dreyfus has won four years running, and which supplanted “Modern Family” in the Comedy Series category in 2015, is in position to defend against sterling newcomers like “Master of None”; “House of Cards,” sharper this season than last, seems set to nab nominations once again for Drama Series and Lead Actor (Spacey), among others.
The biggest beneficiary, though, could be Wright, who blossoms, as Claire’s political influence grows, into the series’ cold, black heart. Nominated three times for “House of Cards” without a win, she crystallizes its cunning, quiet force, its subtle allure, even when the narrative begins to flag. As a pollster working for the Underwoods reminds us at one point, politics as politics is not inherently dramatic. “But anger? Seduction? Those are interesting.”