Like Punxsutawney Phil, I find myself emerging from my bunker to see a rainy, wintry landscape. Who and where am I? What was I doing? Oh, right, spending the weekend binge-viewing Season 4 of House of Cards. What the heck should I do now? Maybe get back in my hole and see what reviewers said about it? Nahhhhhhh…well, okay.
I see that the mainstream media is bending over backwards to compare House of Cards’ Season 4 to something neither the show creators nor its critics could have imagined when these episodes went into production…the Donald Trump Election. And I get it. Hey, they’re TV recappers, they watched their co-workers get paid to wrongly speculate about Trump for the last six months, they deserve a piece of that action. And…now that a powerful First Lady has just passed, Mrs. Nancy Davis Reagan, this week’s reviewers will probably work that into a lens on which to see Claire Underwood. Personally, I keep thinking about House of Cards’ new season not in the context of what U.S. News and World Report calls “our long national nightmare,” but instead our current national pride and joy, and by that, of course I mean Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton.”
Spoilers for “Hamilton” and House of Cards below.
At one point during House of Cards’ Season 4, a U.S. military plane carrying a key Russian asset is placed in a holding pattern until just before the moment when the plane runs out of fuel, and unfortunately that’s not a terrible metaphor for the entire season. Frank and Claire have already reached the top of the mountain; what’s to do besides take a few selfies and head back down? To its credit, the show seems to understand this about itself, and knowing our patience is limited, it breaks up this season into two half-seasons: the first half is about a Democratic primary battle, Claire’s mom who hates Frank, oil prices and the duh-named Russian President Petrov, and a reporter who tries to kill Frank; the second half is about a fight with the Republican opposition, Claire’s affair with the novelist Tom Yates, Doug’s stalking of Rachel 2.0, and a battle with ISIS (here named ICO).
Basically, the season is life, death – for Meechum, Claire’s Mom, and someone unlucky enough to be on the national liver donor list before Frank – and then Doug and Claire and Frank’s lives after his near-death. In bifurcating between death and resurrection, the season is not unlike a few great, seminal hip-hop albums, like Ice Cube’s “Death Certificate” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Life After Death,” which were clear influences on “Hamilton.”
More than most musicals, “Hamilton” rewards viewers for paying attention – the lyrics are a history book come to Sondheim-eque life – and more than in previous seasons, the new House of Cards rewards viewers for paying attention. The show brings back/follows up almost every character (in hallucinations, if nothing else) and major plotline from the first three seasons. There’s often a feeling that I recognized from the last half-hour of “Hamilton” – a post-binge what-was-this-all-for?
“Hamilton” examines the power of speechwriting and the moral exigencies of adultery, while this season of House of Cards condenses these themes into the Tom Yates character. “Hamilton” uses an overseas tyrant as an existential threat and a chance for our political heroes to prove their cunning; Season 4 of House of Cards does likewise. The second half of “Hamilton” suddenly centralizes our lead’s great rival, Thomas Jefferson, portrayed as young, over-confident, and just a bit reckless, not unlike Will Conway in the second half of House of Cards. Jefferson/Conway argue for us to go to war, and Hamilton/Underwood talk us off the precipice…well, until they don’t.
Frank is shot not by a stranger, but by someone who knows him well enough to hold a personal and professional grudge – not unlike what happened between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. But wait, you’re thinking, Hamilton died and Frank lived. Right, but…the cleverness of House of Cards is that Frank is much more Aaron Burr than Alexander Hamilton, much more someone who wants power for power’s sake than for the sake of idealistically changing the world. And the cleverness of “Hamilton” is that it centralizes Aaron Burr’s naked opportunism and moral inertia – far more than one might have expected from a mere musical.
We think of the period of the Founding Fathers, and we think of patriots, revolutionaries, and great men making proactive, country-forming decisions – men like Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. If they fought amongst each other, we think of conflicting visions of the nation – like Hamilton and Jefferson over Assumption. Prior to Miranda’s “Hamilton,” we weren’t really asked to understand a less proactive person like Aaron Burr, who in the show’s second song tells Hamilton to “talk less, smile more,” who later sings a long song with the chorus “I’m willing to wait for it,” even later sings “I’ll keep my cards close to my chest,” and during Act II brings down the rafters with backup singers/dancers singing the show-stopping, declarative “I want to be in the room where it happens.” Power for power’s sake, not for ideals. And today, who do we see more? The Washingtons, or the Burrs?
Particularly in this fourth season of House of Cards, Frank and Claire (and Doug) personify ambition without principle; heck, Fitz on Scandal has more things he wants to change. I’m not sure I heard “America Works” uttered from any mouth this season; Frank Underhandedwood seems a lot more interested in outplaying his peers than changing lives. Is Kevin Spacey on auto-pilot, or is that just the best way to make a statement about Frank? What I love about Robin Wright’s portrayal of Claire is that she’s identical to Frank in this regard, but she doesn’t know it; Claire tells herself that her mother’s opinion of Frank is right, as though Claire would somehow do more for the underprivileged with the opportunity. Instead, Claire and Frank are all about being “in the room where it happens,” and those stately, plush, velvet-bedecked rooms in Season 4 (e.g. where Claire negotiates with ICO’s lead terrorist) sure wouldn’t have looked unfamiliar to Aaron Burr.
Several times in “Hamilton,” Hamilton sings “I imagine death so much it feels like a memory,” and by the end of House of Cards’ Season 4, death is a memory of sorts for Frank, one that he and Claire seem ready to share with others. There’s a lot of ways you could read that finale – did Frank and Claire orchestrate the entire kidnapping? Should we have been told more clearly who won the election? (YES.) Are the Underwoods seizing the tech-friendly talk-to-instagram style from the Conways? (By the way, the Conways’ love of modern tech felt like the show’s response to critics who complained that since the death of Zoe, we haven’t really had the tech-versus-old-school that was fun in Season 1; good response, show, but it would have been better if the Conways’ oversharing videos more clearly upended them.)
If House of Cards isn’t quite “Hamilton,” maybe that’s because the Underwoods very intentionally aren’t quite Founding Fathers. “Hamilton” bears acute witness to the beginning of political “terror” – France in the 1790s – showing us how and why Hamilton can’t quite live up to his previous ideals. 220 years later, two kinds of terror – political and professional – successfully grind away whatever ideals Underwood had. In a Machiavellian flourish, “democracy and freedom” become fig leaves for total war, directly compared to the “Islamic state” as a fig leaf for the other side. Who dies, who lives, who tells the Underwoods’ story? Only they will decide. That and that alone will be their legacy, without leaving anything else for any descendants, literal or figurative. Seems like a fair summary of where we are in 2016.