Season four of 'House of Cards' mimics reality with one, Trump-sized exception


Beware: Spoilers for the fourth season of "House of Cards" are below. 

In this 2016 election year that would make great television, Netflix’s season four of "House of Cards" bared some stark similarities with the United States’ current political reality. 

In the season's 13 episodes, which began streaming on March 4, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are in the midst of a contentious election cycle. Underwood, battling to retain his seat against both Democratic and Republican rivals, must also mend his fractured relationship with Claire, who *SPOILER* eventually wins the Democratic nomination for vice president.

The season also features the threat of a non-state terrorist group similar to ISIS, called the Islamic Caliphate Organization, or ICO. The show’s terrorist organization engages in the same sort of activities as ISIS, from taking civilians hostage to merciless beheadings.

In the show, the United States’ tense relationship with Russia, who is headed by the Putin-esque Viktor Petrov, also resembles actual foreign negotiations. In the past months, the United States has had a complicated relationship with the Russians in dealing with the invasion of Ukraine, the destruction of ISIS and the civil war in Syria.

For certain television critics, one of the most interesting similarities between the political thriller and reality is the resemblance between the fictional Underwood power couple and the Clintons. Many believe that, to a certain extent, the Underwoods' relationship was modeled on that of former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state and current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Todd VanDerWerff, the culture editor at Vox and a guest speaker of the Kelly Writers House's "Writing About TV" program, noted how the Clintons have been a mold for fictional characters created by many writers of modern political television shows.

“Part of it is that the people we have creating most of our television and film right now are Generation X members, people who were 20-somethings primarily in the '90s during the Clinton era,” VanDerWerff said.

Throughout the show’s four seasons the Underwoods have consistently overcome any obstacles in their way of amassing political power and fulfilling their ambitions. This perseverance to overcome all odds, VanDerWerff said, is somewhat based on observable traits from the Clintons’ political careers.

“I think [the Clintons] are also fascinating figures in terms of there always being so much turmoil surrounding them, but it seems to not damage them specifically,” he said. “You look and they’ve overcome everything from poor approval ratings to a legitimate scandal that would have [affected] many other political figures and yet both of them keep on ticking. That is a fascinating thing for a writer. You know, why doesn’t this person fall?”

In a more extreme depiction, the Underwood couple has succeeded at getting their way with everything from murder and conspiracy to marriage scandals and even an assassination attempt on Spacey in the most recent season.

Many controversial policy issues that have arisen during President Barack Obama’s administration also make an appearance in the show, although they aren’t the main focus of the plot. Mass surveillance, internet privacy and the strengthening of gun laws are all taken up by the show, which was renewed for a fifth season due for release in 2017.

Although the show takes place during an election year, many aspects of the fictional electoral cycle don’t directly resemble the current state of 2016 political news.

In season four, skyrocketing oil prices in the United States, which have fueled much of the electorate’s anxiety and dissatisfaction much like in 1973, also sharply contrast with the current state of the worldwide oil market. U.S. gas prices have hit all-time lows in the actual market. One scene in the drama shows the price at $6 per gallon, while the prices were at $2.06 per gallon last week, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  

In another shift from reality, the show's Republican Party puts its weight behind an ambitious, young and charismatic candidate, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), who presents a serious challenge to Democrats. Meanwhile, the real Republican Party establishment is in disarray as political outsider and 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump is on track to win the nomination.

“What the show obviously didn’t foresee was the rise of a Donald Trump-style figure. Even the political parties in 'House of Cards' are a little strange as compared to our reality,” said VanDerWerff, who attributed this to the fact that the show was produced months before the current electoral field took form.

On the Democratic side, the show's politicians held an open convention which, after much tension and divisiveness, resulted in the nomination of the Underwood couple as running mates. The real-life Democratic Party has presented a united front behind a Clinton that holds a commanding lead in the primaries, despite the surprising challenge of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

In fact, the show’s Democratic open convention might end up resembling the potential brokered Republican convention that could take place in the coming months.

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