At his best, Kevin Spacey has always been a terrifying embodiment of all that is wrong with humanity. The actor's most iconic roles — Academy Award-winning turns as a slick criminal in The Usual Suspects and a pathetic shell of a man in American Beauty, and especially his chilling performance as a psychopathic serial killer in Se7en — revealed a rare talent for dredging up all kinds of darkness and depravity, all smoldering beneath a deadpan exterior. Spacey has portrayed his share of antiheroes and oddballs and even some fundamentally decent human beings over the years, but when House of Cards debuted three years ago, Frank Underwood felt like the culmination of two decades of Spacey scumbags.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for House of Cards seasons 1-3.
Here was another flavor of evil to add to his arsenal, a slithering, swaggering, fourth-wall-breaking Southern politician who would stop at nothing to move up the food chain. Spacey clearly relished the chance to ham it up as Underwood, infusing every bribe and blackmail with just the right balance of ruthless charm (and outright ruthlessness). There were some complex wrinkles to the character, particularly the mysterious sexual dynamic of his Machiavellian marriage to Robin Wright's Claire, but the real selling point of House of Cards was watching Spacey inhabit Underwood's bottomless bravado. The guy was compulsively watchable, magnetic even at his most repulsive, a confirmation of all our paranoid suspicions about elected officials. Although Underwood is technically a Democrat on the show — a twisted quasi-Bill Clinton archetype with a Hillary-level powerhouse at his side — he's enough of a political mercenary that Mother Jones readers can project their anxiety on him just as easily as National Review readers. And given the state of the 2016 election cycle, there's rarely been more anxiety to project.
Spacey's performance makes House of Cards escapist entertainment
Still, Spacey's blustery performance is just removed enough from reality to make the show feel like escapist entertainment. That his maneuvers to climb the political ranks became ever more implausible didn't much matter because the show was never about realism, it was about gleefully munching kettle corn while watching the House majority whip plot his way to the presidency. Even more fleshed-out, likable characters in his vicinity — Molly Parker's Jackie Sharp, Mahershala Ali's Remy Danton, and Corey Stoll's late, great Peter Russo — were less rewarding than watching Frank feed his appetite for power (and poor old Freddy Hayes' barbecue ribs.) Underwood's preposterous murder of spousally-sanctioned mistress and compromised press mouthpiece Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) in the season two premiere played less as a tragic end for an ambitious, naive reporter than a salacious "Oh no he didn't!"
That incident tipped us off early as to how easily Underwood could devolve into cartoon villainy if not properly humanized. And perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the over-the-top antics of its sophomore season, House of Cards year three swung hard in the opposite direction, trapping the newly minted president inside various dull Capitol Hill gridlocks and neutering his nefarious joie de vivre. Suddenly this murderous sociopath was being framed as something of a virtuous Commander in Chief. Even more confusingly, the man with a scheme for any situation suddenly seemed to be in way over his head. Among other missteps, the newly minted President Underwood illegally funded his DOA jobs program with FEMA money, repeatedly bumbled relations with Russia, and allowed his partnership with the First Lady to disintegrate. As it turned out, watching him desperately cling to power was a lot less rewarding than watching him connive to gain it in the first place.
Meanwhile, House of Cards was making enough of a cultural dent for Underwood to function as a meme outside the boundaries of the show. Spacey helped turn the character into a caricature via a silly bit at the 2014 Oscars plus a number of commercials that alluded to Underwood without actually naming him. He even recently took on a role as a real-life corrupt president in the upcoming comedy Elvis & Nixon, a casting choice that can only be interpreted as a feature-length wink. All this funny business underscores how harmless House of Cards has allowed Spacey's politician persona to become. On the eve of his fourth year in office at Netflix, Frank Underwood is at risk of becoming a Minion.
Thankfully, the fourth season of House of Cards doesn't waste any time getting back to business. Its first six episodes find both the show and its main character back to wickedly pirouet through the political landscape. Last year's limp wonkery and diplomatic crises have given way to rapid-fire storylines reminiscent of Homeland's adrenalized early seasons. The Dishonorable President Underwood is still backed into a corner on multiple fronts, but he seems rejuvenated and ready to fight his way out thanks to a nemesis that brings out the best of the worst in him: his own wife.
Our final image of season three was Claire walking out on Frank — ahem, Francis — having grown weary of her former equal disregarding her counsel and protecting his own ass at her expense. At the outset of season four, that conflict is very much unresolved. As the First Lady angles in pursuit of her own ambitions, back-stabbing (or front-stabbing) anyone who dares stand in her way, it generates the kind of electricity that's been missing on this show ever since Frank moved into the Oval Office. At one point a character utters, "The Underwoods never cease to amaze." That wasn't so true last year, but it definitely applies now.
But Frank is still a shadow of season one's devilish puppet master. The White House has worn on him. Even at his most entertainingly diabolical, he is no longer the most compelling figure on screen — that title would go to Claire, who may well be surpassing her husband as House of Cards' center of gravity. It's a storytelling move that seems deliberately planned to coincide with a 2016 presidential race in which Hillary Clinton figures to play a leading role, and in keeping with the timely theme of women in politics, Claire's not the only woman making moves. The two female presidential candidates from last year are still in play, as is Kim Dickens' fierce newspaper reporter. Plus we meet a new trio of nail-hard Texan women: Claire's ailing mother (Ellen Burstyn), an elderly congresswoman (Cicely Tyson), and a savvy political adviser (Neve Campbell).
House of Cards almost doesn't need Frank anymore
Throw in the ongoing power struggle between newly restored Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and opportunistic Press Secretary Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil), the reemergence of journalist-turned-convicted-felon Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), and the sensational machinations of an election year — including one plot development that eerily mirrors a recent real-life storyline involving the KKK — and House of Cards almost doesn't need Underwood anymore. Even during stretches when he's marginalized from the primary action, the pieces keep malevolently moving around the board, each character viciously pursuing his or her own self-interest. Like all of Spacey's greatest lowlifes, Underwood has managed to put a decidedly negative stamp on his environment, and in a sick sense, it's marvelous to behold. Maybe this, and not that godforsaken America Works program, will prove to be Frank Underwood's legacy: he brings out the crooked politician in everyone, including those of us who end up cheering him on from the other side of the screen.