By Daniel Fox
In the ending of “House of Cards” last season we saw an underappreciated and upset Claire packing up and leaving the White House, seemingly leaving her marriage with Frank in limbo. When she walked out it seemed as if the Underwood’s marriage had finally hit its lowest point, and the same could probably be said for the whole of Season Three for “House of Cards,” which was incredibly bogged down, slow moving, and lacking much of the drama that made the first two seasons a success. Once Frank had finally gained the Oval Office, Season Three had a Frank Underwood with few obstacles standing in between Him and ultimate power, and the writers failed to capture the “win at all cost” nature of Frank during the season. The result was a Frank Underwood (and thus an overall season), that I dare to say… was weak.
I’m happy to report that Season 4 is a return to form for the series. There are numerous twists and turns throughout, which gives it a great flow. The telling thing about binge watching is that if the pace and flow of the season is slow and dragging, then it’s very difficult to retain the attention of the viewer who could possibly either move on to another show, or simply just to forget about it all together. The very pace that we watch a show on a streaming service is a fair quantification of the shows overall quality… and I burned through Season 4.
This Season picks up immediately after the ending of Season 3, with Frank just (barely) winning the Iowa Caucus’ against main Democratic rival Heather Dunbar, and with Claire flying away from Washington for her Mother’s home in Dallas. Kevin Spacey has always been the star of the show, and he is still better than ever. It’s pretty incredible that a two-time Oscar winner will be mainly identified for his role on a TV show, but he is and always will be Frank Underwood for the rest of his career.
However, the star, and I would say primary focus, of the season is Claire Underwood played by Robin Wright in easily her best run of the entire series. The past few seasons Claire has been a spectator on the sidelines who desperately wants to get in the game. However when she does finally get to play in her partnership’s quest for power, it was often with mixed results. Coming off her failure as the US Ambassador to the UN, Claire is definitely seeking to prove herself and a majority of the season follows her desire to prove herself equal to anyone, especially Frank. It’s easy to see why many parallel Claire to current Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, as they share the same drive, and (probably) the same behind closed door’s political maneuvering that will get them to wherever they need to be, no matter the cost. When a major plot twist happens very early in the season, Claire gets her chance to shine and her chance to prove herself, and it’s really fun to watch.
Most familiar faces are back this season in some capacity. Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper who is finally back alongside the President after a wasted season for him last year. With the Rachel storyline finally concluded, it was nice to see Doug back doing what he does best, which is really no more than playing the muscle for a mob boss. Presidential Candidate Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), Minority Whip Jackie Sharp (the vastly underused Molly Parker), Frank’s former Chief of Staff Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), Press Secretary Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil), and Secret Service Agent Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) all have their parts to play throughout the season and do fine jobs.
But it’s the new faces this season that provide some freshness to the series. Coming on board this season is six-time Academy Award nominee, and one-time winner, Ellen Burstyn as Claire’s Mother, Elizabeth Hale. Burstyn plays Hale as the rich socialite of Highland Park, Texas who turns her nose up at anything, or anyone, she deems beneath the standards she sets for her family. The fact that her only daughter married a man who grew up poor in South Carolina still eats away at her pride, and she shows that disdain any time Frank is mentioned in conversation. Neve Campbell (Scream, Party of Five) plays a Dallas-based political advisor, who gets a chance to shine early in the season, but then fades in to the crowd as the season progresses. Finally, Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, Robocop) as New York Governor Will Conway, the Republican Presidential nominee. Kinnaman does his best work since Season 1 of “The Killing,” playing the young, competitive, but inexperienced candidate.
Many criticize “House of Cards” for being unrealistic, or over-the-top. To his credit, show runner Beau Willimon (in his final year on the show), seems to embrace the surreal this season, and not try to convince the public that what we are seeing could actually happen. The season definitely benefits from this because in the midst of the political drama, the show taps in to many parallels to current “real world” issues. Racism, gender equality, ISIS, data privacy, gun control, Russia (in a continuing storyline from Season 3, complete with a Putin stand-in), Social Media; all of these things have their fingerprints on the issues that Frank faces as President, just simply put in a different context and in a different universe. While viewers will always still crave the theme Frank’s pragmatism, and desire of absolute power, it’s different themes such as Feminism, fear, and narcissism that carry the season.
All of those themes lead to the shows best drop of episodes since Season One. However, as the stakes continue being raised it’s difficult to see how the show can continue on this path into Season Five. Everyone knows that a literal House of Cards can’t stand forever, eventually everything will fall to the ground. As the Underwood’s have been building their house higher and higher, we as the viewer know that at some point everything is going to come crashing down around them… maybe. And that’s what makes watching so much fun.