Season three of House of Cards was a bit of a disappointment. Having finally ascended to power, Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) didn’t really know what to do with it. They were like dogs chasing cars, and having finally snagged an entire dealership, they were at a loss. Frank was reduced to crying on the floor, Claire couldn’t hold onto an ambassador position, and eventually Washington D.C.’s most powerful power couple was split in two. While there were still bright spots like Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) wrestling with the last shreds of his conscience, it was a fairly underwhelming season.
Thankfully, House of Cards has rebounded in a big way with season four.
[Major spoilers ahead]
While Season 4 still has the “Netflix Problem” of being a few episodes too long, it’s tough to say what should be cut this year. Almost every plotline serves a purpose, delivers some kind of rewarding payoff, and it further drags us down in the muck of Frank and Claire’s life. Additionally, the show relishes in the constant twists and turns, with the most notable coming in the middle of episode four when Frank is shot and Meechum (Nathan Darrow) and Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) are killed. It’s a season that provides the roller coaster we expect from House of Cards even if that means it also comes with the same frustrations.
Season four kicks off with terrific drama by wisely pitting Claire against Francis, and letting her reach new heights as a character. Wright has always been terrific, but this year lets us see that she’s probably the only person in the world who could take Francis down because she’s the only one who truly understands him. She knows how to hurt him the most, and she’s done with sitting on the sidelines. There’s no reason for her to be his handmaiden, and to see Claire come into her own with an absolutely commanding performance from Wright was one of the highlights of the season. Just when you think the character can’t get any better, she does, and she doesn’t need any sly one-liners to do it.
At the other end of the spectrum you have Spacey, who is both delectable, and yet his shtick is starting to get old. His fourth-wall-breaking bits of wisdom aren’t as memorable and his outward appearance has become so canned that it’s amazing anyone would buy the “Aw, shucks, I’m just folks!” routine. It’s a performance within a performance, and perhaps it’s because we know the “real” Frank Underwood we spot it so easily, but it’s so over the top that it becomes distracting. And yet when Underwood really gets to dig in and go for the jugular against his enemies, it’s absolutely riveting.
Season four solves Season Three’s problem, which is that you need to give the Underwoods enemies. It’s not enough to have the Russian President across the sea and while the supporting cast is nice, we’re not showing up to see how Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) is running her campaign or even Jackie (Molly Parker) and Remy (Mahershala Ali) be a ridiculously hot couple. We want to see the Underwoods as sharks—always thirsty for blood and willing to rip apart anyone who gets in their way.
The framework of a Presidential campaign goes a long way towards keeping the series focused, especially with the introduction of the cocky and venal Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), the Republican nominee. While Conway isn’t necessarily a match for the Underwoods (no one, with perhaps the exception of Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), is), he’s at least a worthy adversary and he helps keep Frank on his toes. His family life also provides a nice mirror to the show’s central theme, which is about partnership.
As my girlfriend pointed out to me while we were watching, the use of color in the show is constantly cluing us into alliances. It’s not as simple as “black and white”, but instead a matter of who’s wearing what, what the room looks like, etc. House of Cards is a show largely devoid of color and warmth (even the sunniest day looks ripe for a funeral mass), but it uses its limited color palette to take advantage of contrast to show conflict. The technical aspects of the show were absolutely outstanding this year (save for the campaign press conferences, which made it looks like the directors had never seen a TV news broadcast before), and it lets us soak into the conflict and reconciliation between Claire and Frank.
That key relationship came to the forefront in a new way this year. Partly because they started out broken, political maneuvering fell to the wayside. This time it wasn’t Frank moving around outsiders with Claire as his council. It was seeing them go from adversaries to allies to a new being altogether as we arrived on a closing shot that shows Claire is now aware of the audience. While I still think she should have gained this awareness at the end of season three, it’s still well earned at the end of season four, especially when you consider that she’s not only playing at Francis’ level, she also mercy-killed her mother (Ellen Burstyn, who absolutely deserves an Emmy nomination for her performance).
Politics is just the setting for House of Cards, and so while we can roll our eyes at the machinations, the reason the show has remained compelling and why it has stayed so captivating in its fourth season, is because it’s really about power dynamics, especially between Frank and Claire. It’s fine that Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) is a resourceful reporter finding the truth, but that’s ultimately just a plot point to add to the intrigue. There’s no emotional heft to it. Tom isn’t avenging Lucas or trying to get back into the Herald. He’s simply creating an obstacle that Frank and Claire will have to overcome.
One of the few problems Season 4 does have is that it builds up things that make you go, “Really?” Just like it was a stretch that President Walker (Michel Gill) would resign over a convoluted deal with China, it’s also a stretch to say that the speech Claire gives at the convention is the “speech to end all speeches” (although I credit the show for at least offering a speech rather than cutting away and letting the audience imagine what Claire said to win over the crowd). Similarly, Hammerschmidt’s article, while certainly major, isn’t quite the bombshell it’s made out to be, especially when you compare it to the season’s other major events like Underwood surviving an assassination (something that would likely make him a shoo-in to win based on sheer sympathy alone).
But no one should go looking for political reality in House of Cards at this point, and what the show is going for is still a rich experience. However, there’s reason to be cautious. Showrunner Beau Willimon isn’t returning for Season 5, and while Season 4 ends on a pitch perfect note with plenty of possibilities for new ways to tell this story story, I can’t help but wonder how much higher the writers can hope to build House of Cards before it all topples over.