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House of Cards, Season 4: Everyone Lies

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 9/03/2016 Lloyd I. Sederer, MD

House of Cards-Season 4: Everyone Lies
A Review by Lloyd I. Sederer, MD
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Kevin Spacey in a recent interview was asked about 'how far' the show would go this year? He had a sardonic grin when he said that after shooting a scene or an episode he would wonder 'Have we gone too far?' Then, he added, he would turn on the TV, the presidential race and debates, and conclude that 'We have not gone far enough.'
Phillip Roth famously wrote, "There is the Not So that is So, which is fiction..." In other words if you want truth read fiction. And this season's House of Cards, a fictional rendition of US politics at their most base, while also at the apogee of evil, is terrifyingly truthful in its implications. We see how all the main players lie, no surprise to fans of this show or to power politics. But the protagonists in this drama also seem to ascribe to the Hunter Thompson school of managing big trouble - when you're up against the wall that's the time to amplify your ruthlessness and audacity.
My previous two reviews of earlier seasons (here and here) took up the topic of evil. As if that were not enough, as Kevin Spacey alluded, we have a lot more than that this season. It is relationships that come center stage in Season 4 for they supply the grist and ground for evil.
The viewer is delivered a cornucopia of epic issues. Spoiler Alert! The centerpiece of the plot is President Underwood's campaign to win his first Presidential election, having acquired the office the old fashioned way namely by deposing his previous boss, the then incumbent president. Coming at a time when this country, most of the world, is transfixed by the US national election creates wonderful harmonics between House of Cards and The White House race. But what electrifies the story is an assassination attempt on Underwood, from which he barely survives and with consequences, physical and otherwise, and which evokes in us all some of this nation's most tragic moments. We also have a radical, though faux, Islamic hostage situation and a plot for a regime change that does not go well, trysts, triangles, the NRA and gun control, betrayals, blackmail, and the unfettered use of political power. Ghosts of murdered characters past emerge to darken the waters. And, as I said, everyone lies. What more could you ask for - if you are not watching Game of Thrones. Fortunately, the body count in miniscule in House of Cards, but wait until next year.
Kevin Spacey (President Francis Underwood) and Robin Wright (First Lady Claire Hale Underwood) are chilling, a feast to observe. Robin Wright, as well, directed a number of the episodes, which I found to have great pace and stagecraft. The show's writers are superb, including Beau Willimon (the series' creator), John Mankiewicz, Frank Pugliese and Bill Kennedy, though none are quite Aaron Sorkin. Michael Kelly (Chief of Staff Doug Stamper) is frighteningly able to charge a scene in measured and precise ways; he reminded me of Mark Rylance, who just won a supporting actor Oscar in Bridge of Spies. Other roles, Ellen Burstyn (as Claire's mother), Molly Parker (Congresswoman Jackie Sharp), Mahershala Ali (Remy Danton), Nathan Darrow (Secret Service Agent Meechum), Paul Sparks (writer and then some Tom Yates) and others too numerous to name here, form a terrific ensemble that plays like the New York Philharmonic. But the one casting I could not believe was that of the NYS Governor, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). Though he proves a dastardly character, over time, he was simply too young, too inexperienced, and too much an All American hero to be the governor of my native state. Maybe governor of a Midwestern or Southwestern state, even California, but not New York.
The show gets too cat and mouse cerebral towards the middle episodes but rescues itself with the hostage crisis, newspaper scandals that discredit both parties' presidential candidates and make the election anybody's prize, terror, and all-out war, in more ways than one. President Underwood, we are reminded, is fond of saying, "If you don't like how the table is set, then turn over the table." Claire reminds him that's the way to go and he adores advice that employs his brutal ethos of throw caution to the wind and winner take all. Underwood remarks, towards the end of this season, "All presidents are ruthless and destroy what's in their path. But corruption - it's a matter of perspective." There's no debate about ruthlessness and destruction, just semantics about corruption.
Whatever your perspective is on personal and political integrity you will have a field day sorting out your reactions to this TV series, which has mesmerized huge numbers of Americans (and many others) and prompted binge TV watching on an unprecedented scale. The show is a mirror with too few distortions about American politics and global unrest. We have reason to dread because House of Cards reveals the machinations that show why.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
My book for families who have a member with a mental illness is The Family Guide to Mental Health Care (Foreword by Glenn Close) -- is now available in paperback.
I am completing a book about some essential secrets of psychiatric practice.
My website is
Follow Lloyd I. Sederer, MD on Twitter: @askdrlloyd

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