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17 March 2016

As House of Cards hits season four, the script has gone from unlikely to outright preposterous

Plus: why the ending of Happy Valley left me bereft.

By Rachel Cooke

Cluck, cluck, cluck. In House of Cards, now in its fourth season on Netflix, the chickens are coming home to roost, which would be perfect if I could remember the various strands of its labyrinthine plot thus far. Unfortunately, I can’t; for which reason the henhouse is mostly a place of confusion for me, every face glimpsed in fuzzy flashback a reminder of little more than the fact that this show began by being exotic and gripping, but then fell rapidly apart. Admittedly, I’m only just over halfway through the current series: slave to this column that I am, even I can’t spend every waking moment staring at my laptop, wondering where the first lady gets her togs (clue: not from the J C Penney sale). But after only six episodes, I do believe I am beginning to find its more arcane storylines almost as tedious as its ­interchangeable Pottery Barn interiors.

President Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), spend the first half of this series apart, and the second together, having realised – this is your first, and last, warning: what follows is positively throbbing with spoilers – that they’re better off as allies than enemies. Waiting for their reunion is boring, given its inevitability, though my obsession with Claire, a childless smoker who is about as far from the American ideal of womanhood as it’s possible to be, remains embarrassingly intact, even as her character tips into parody. Are the writers being facetious when they have her eat a bowl of salad at three o’clock in the morning after a day-long vigil at the bedside of her husband? (Frank has been shot by his old enemy, the journalist Lucas Goodwin.) Probably not. Doubtless they truly believe she’s the kind of woman who, for all her ­political bloodlust, can be satisfied with, even comforted by, a bowl of lightly dressed rucola. But still, her unnerving poise is now tinged with camp.

In Texas, on the run from Frank, she stays with her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who comes off like something out of a Bette Davis movie. “I’m the mother! I’m the mother!” she shrieks, ripping the turban from her bald head in distress at the thought that Claire is going to sell their grand family estate to fund her political ambitions. Most people in this situation would run to the bathroom, barricade the door and call security, pronto. Claire remains calmly stock-still, as if her Gothic mommy had merely asked whether she fancied a grape soda.

House of Cards has sailed beyond the land of the highly unlikely and into the realm of the unmitigatedly preposterous, a place where anything goes, with tinsel on it. The Underwoods’ opponents are now vanquished with such ease, we might as well be in Kazakhstan or some other godforsaken autocracy in which Tony Blair takes a keen interest. Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), the president’s murderous chief of staff, has, for instance, taken to waterboarding his disobedient press secretary, Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil), using only a handy tumbler – if not Pottery Barn then probably Crate & Barrel – and a firm hand. Following this unprecedented disciplinary measure, moreover, Seth does not resign, or even contact human resources, but merely casts nervous glances at Stamper every time they pass in the White House’s corridors. Pad, pad, pad. They’re so luxuriantly carpeted. Where do they film this show, the Waldorf Astoria?

In this world, the first lady can travel to Germany to negotiate an oil deal with the Russian president single-handedly while her husband undergoes a liver transplant in Washington, and, beyond some minor hand-wringing by the secretary of state, no one bats an eyelid. Next up: Claire will, following a usefully distracting war in the Middle East, end up in talks with the leader of a caliphate. (I wonder if her hijab will be by Céline or Jil Sander.)

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It’s all completely batty and, as a result, wants for jeopardy to an extraordinarily risky degree if you are the CEO of Netflix. Where is the press in this? Where are the attack dogs of Fox News? Where, for that matter, is the series show-runner? All I can think is that the dastardly Doug Stamper has sent him away. If you listen carefully, you may be able to hear him, above the House of Cards theme tune, battering away at the locked writers’ room door.

Happy Valley has ended (15 March, 9pm), and I am bereft. The resolution of the serial killer strand of Sally Wainwright’s tightly knotted plot was not entirely satisfying, even if Alison’s distress at her son’s confession was never anything less than convincing (Susan Lynch played her with such delicacy). But everything else clicked into place with all the rightness of a heavy old key fitting a lock. John Wadsworth, Frances Drummond, Tommy Lee Royce: how piteous their twisted, crumpled lives. And then, a last soaring scene. Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) was striding across tussocky fields with her family, her sister and son laughing and joking determinedly, jollying her along. Suddenly, she looked up. I half expected some kind of unfurling, an epiphany born of fresh Yorkshire air and post-traumatic stress. But, no. Her grandson, Ryan, dashing ahead, trailed his usual shadows, one of which now passed across her face. The poor kid’s future is booby-trapped, and not even she can do a thing to change it.

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue