In the opening scene of the very first episode of House of Cards, Frank Underwood discovers a dog on his doorstep, in pain, the victim of a hit and run. He takes it upon himself to kill the dog. "Moments like this require someone who will do the unpleasant thing... the necessary thing."
On one level, it's an act of kindness. The dog wouldn't have made it. Frank doesn't enjoy canine strangulation. Above all, though, the scene highlights Frank's ruthlessness, the ruthlessness that will make him Vice President before the first season is out.
"There," he says to the dog once the last flickers of life have left its eyes. "No more pain." It's an excellent piece of writing.
House of Cards returns for Season 4 in March — check out the trailer below — and it's come a long way since the days of dead dogs, when Francis was an undervalued Senator fighting his way into an administration which didn't pay him his proper dues.
Over the course of three seasons, this show has contributed to pop culture big-time. By dropping all 13 episodes of each season in one go, Netflix created a binge-viewing culture that previously existed only with box sets. Nowadays, traditional TV is flagging because we need our fix of a series instantly.
It also paved the way for A-list Hollywood talent to do television — McConaughey in True Detective, for instance, John Travolta and his eyebrows in The People vs. OJ Simpson, or Jane Fonda in Netflix's own Grace & Frankie — where previously TV had been the poor relation of cinema. Nowadays pretty much everyone has a TV project on the go, regardless of how many Avengers movies they've been in.
Let's not forget, either, that Claire Underwood, played with exquisite iciness by Robin Wright, has dragged the Lady Macbeth trope kicking and screaming into the 21st century, giving Shakespeare's most memorable female character a renewed reach beyond theater and English lit classes.
The difficult truth of television is that, after three or four seasons, things start to become circular. House of Cards played a bold hand in the season 3 finale when Claire, humiliated by the man she'd sacrificed her own dreams to facilitate into office, walked out on Frank. Relive that powerful scene below.
With that, the show finds itself at a crossroads. Either it can bring Frank and Claire back together, as one shot in the trailer (a pair of legs glimpsed inside Frank's limo) seems to tease (surely a red herring?); it can remove Claire from the equation entirely; or it can become a tale of revenge.
The first option is not much fun. Breaking the President and the First Lady apart loses its impact if they're brought back together. People will stop caring. The second option is kind of a cop-out. Yes, Lady Macbeth dies in Shakespeare's play, but without Claire, Francis loses any trace of humanity, and she's been the very heart of this show since the very beginning.
Which brings us neatly to the third, best, and the one truly viable option: Claire Underwood must destroy her husband. This is what House of Cards has spent three years building up to. The twisted dynamic between one man and the wife he needs, but doesn't truly value has been stretched to breaking point.
Taking the Presidency away from Frank — or inflicting a bloodier kind of revenge — won't be pleasant. But moments like this require someone who will do the unpleasant thing. The necessary thing.
'House of Cards' Season 4 arrives on Netflix on Friday, March 18th.