That was never what it was about…
Two weeks after the third (and final?) season of House of Cards was tossed to the binge-starved masses the consensus reviews are pretty clear: we wish it were better. Well, no one hits a touchdown every time they step up to the line1 but what I find much more interesting in the reviews that range from mild disappointment to downright savaging of the Netflix series is the number of complaints about how bad House of Cards became in its depiction of American politics.
House of Cards isn’t and never was about politics any more than Breaking Bad was about drug dealing. Politics, at least as far as the average viewer conceives of them, is just the necessary, recognizable-enough space in which the characters do their terrible things to one another. It might make for a stronger story to have plausibility, if not reality, at the root of the various plotlines2 but this was never supposed to be The West Wing with threesomes and a bad attitude.3
Like all shows aspiring to be intensely dramatic, House of Cards is about power. We watch to see what happens with that power – power gained, power lost, power taken, wielded, and used vindictively. When House of Cards kept plot in service of power – as with Frank and Claire’s use of the pawn named Peter Russo in season 1 – there was the series at its sneaky best. Season 3 by contrast rarely stated the stakes of any policy decisions or plot machinations. The power was implied, mentioned, or too often forgotten, when it could have easily been brought to a boil. And then used to scald someone.