House of Cards was at its best when it embraced the fact that it’s an excessively theatrical, larger-than-life drama (i.e. Season 1), and at its weakest when it strayed away from that in favour of a more restrained, realistic approach (i.e. Season 3). Much of what makes the show so enjoyable to watch, and its flaws so easy to overlook, is the diabolical scheming and Machiavellian machinations of Frank Underwood, played by a delightfully scenery-chewing Kevin Spacey, and aided by Robin Wright’s fantastic and equally ruthless Claire.
The show was always imperfect. It took itself far too seriously, and it behaved like a show that was better than it actually was. But that was part of its charm. Much like the version of Washington it was trying to portray, the theatricality trumped the minutiae, and we ate it up. Season 3, while solid, saw the show tone it down and attempt to play it straight—less wannabe-Shakespearean, more serious political drama. And that was its weakness. Without the bells and whistles that made House of Cards unique, its flaws became more visible.
Luckily, Season 4 put House of Cards back on track. After the initial first few episodes, which served as a great showcase for Claire but saw Frank still dusting off the leftover hindrances of Season 3, the show went back to Underwood mode. Selfish manipulation. Talking to the audience. Nefarious discussions of “the plan”. Was it as good as Season 1? No. But it was better than the show has been since.
One of the elements that made Season 4 resonate was the sense of consequence. After Season 2 ended with Frank becoming president, I thought, “Where do you go from there?” My preferred option was having the third season be the one where the sins of the past catch up to Frank and his empire comes crumbling down. But it’s clear that Netflix did not want it to end so soon. So Season 3 became a bit of a placeholder, “a year in the life of President Frank Underwood”. Sure, there were interesting bits, like the struggle to get reelected, the dealings with Petrov, and Claire’s development, but there wasn’t a sense of purpose. Worse, there were no consequences to Frank’s evil deeds, and hardly any mention of them.
Season 4 rectified that. The murder of Russo and Zoe Barnes came back to haunt Frank. Lucas Goodwin and Tom Hammerschmidt reentered the picture in a big way. This gave Season 4 a feeling of continuity, a sense that the past truly mattered. It made it feel more satisfying to watch it all unfold. More than that, it brought back Frank’s ruthless and demonic nature, which was kept low-key last year in favour of showcasing Frank’s struggles as president.
Will everything come crashing down eventually? Honestly, I don’t know. I would like to see these consequences pay off. I would like to see the devil get his due. But House of Cards is a show that relishes how evil it is. It does unspeakable things to good people and rewards its darkest characters. It aims to make us feel sad, hopeless, and even disgusted. Perhaps to make a point about real-life politics, or perhaps just to service its Machiavellian lead. But that’s the way it is, and we may never get a happy ending. But we’ll keep watching anyway.
Season 4 was a standout season for Claire as well. Though the show benefited when she and Frank were a united front, the storyline of her leaving Frank was handled well, despite being a remnant of Season 3. Watching her prove to be as effective when working alone as Frank was was very satisfying, and propelled her successful story arc throughout the season. And Robin Wright continued to play her incredibly well, presenting a calm and mysterious facade that rarely betrayed what she was truly feeling (unlike Frank, who wasted no opportunity to outright tell us).
Other returning characters like Doug Stamper, Edward Meechum, Seth Grayson, Jackie Sharp, Remy Danton, Cathy Durant, and Heather Dunbar, as well as characters introduced in Season 3 like Tom Yates and President Petrov, were solid. In fact, House of Cards has done a great job of populating the world in which the show takes place, and I liked seeing returning faces, major and minor, from as far back as Season 1. Of those, Stamper was the standout. I was of the opinion that Stamper probably should have stayed dead at the end of Season 2, despite being a strong and well-acted character, but Season 4 made great use of him, showcasing his dedication to Frank, as well as how dark and twisted he could be.
The biggest new character this year was Joel Kinnaman as Will Conway. One of the things that made Season 4 work was giving Frank an actual, competent opponent. Someone for him to face off against, and to try to take down. As Frank’s chief opponent in the presidential race, Conway was a perfect and highly capable fit, pushing Frank to newer and darker limits. Other new characters included Neve Campbell as LeAnn Harvey (which brought a smile to this Scream fan’s face) and Ellen Burstyn in a strong performance as Claire’s mother.
House of Cards still isn’t a perfect show. It thinks a bit too highly of itself to truly notice its flaws. Some shoddy writing here and there. Occasional storytelling shortcuts, either to make Frank look strong, or to heighten the drama. Characters acting inconsistently, sometimes even naively. And then those moments when it tries to be a “serious political drama” and fails. But when it plays to its strengths, it makes for highly enjoyable television.
The only thing that was missing this season was some sort of commentary on Donald Trump. I suppose it was filmed too early for that, and how would House of Cards even go about introducing such a cartoonish character anyway? But when real life politics become more of a caricature than this self-professed over-the-top theatrical TV show, you have to wonder what on Earth is going on.
Rating: 4/5 (Great)
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