House of Cards fourth season review
Frank against the world
Minor spoilers (none if one caught the previous three seasons).
When Netflix’s tent-pole program “House of Cards” debuted its fourth season last Friday, many doubted the show’s ability to return to the intense masterpiece it displayed in its first season and flashed in its second after a somewhat down third season. Viewers last left the Underwoods in the middle of a most vicious marital spat that had built over the course of season three. Will they ever stop arguing and can they keep their hold on the American people? If “House of Cards” does one thing flawlessly in its newest campaign, it’s reminding the viewer just how terrifyingly real this story could be. In an election year, showrunner Beau Willimon asks viewers to look at presidential candidates with absolute scrutiny as the terror of a person like Frank Underwood taking the Oval Office would have dire consequences for human history.
Many (myself included) didn’t care for Underwood vs. Underwood, and unfortunately, that’s where the fourth season begins, as well. While the first half of season four (episodes 1-6) feels like a continuation of the mood established last year, the second half (episodes 7-13), however, picks up with the incredible, suspenseful momentum that made the first season a success. The large differences between the first and second half are: A) the Underwoods as a unit, B) the frequency at which Frank (two-time Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey) directly addresses the camera. Once we have more scenes with Frank and Claire (Robin Wright—Everest, A Most Wanted Man) working together, he addresses the audience more. Most would agree the show’s appeal (outside of the most compelling political drama) is the dynamic of the Underwoods’ marriage/ rise to power in addition to the precious moments when Frank Underwood looks at the camera and drops life lessons or amusing quips. Ever since Frank took office, he’s barely talked to us!
Spacey and Wright return to their (now signature?) roles and nail every line as the couple who control America. Spacey’s Frank desperately fights off attacks from all angles and can really only count Michael Kelly’s (Man of Steel, Chronicle) Stamper as his only true friend from start to finish. Frank faces problems concerning: his marriage, his running mate, covering up his murders, an ISIS-type terrorist organization called ICO, a Putin-type Russian president killing his wealthiest citizens, and much more. The biggest problem he runs into is what makes the fourth season perhaps the best since the first—journalism. Season one intricately weaved Frank’s political games with Zoe Barnes’ media rise; and this marriage of politics and media has fallen by the wayside ever since Frank became President with the series focused mainly on that. The fourth season returns to this balance by drawing Zoe’s boss, Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver—Lincoln, “Boardwalk Empire”), out of retirement on a hunch.
Wright’s Claire changes significantly over the course of season four, without spoiling too much. She begins the year with a growing contempt for Frank and burning desire to run for an elected office. She never really indicates what brings about these feelings of change and the show never really addresses why either—simply leading viewers to think her campaigning for office is based solely on a need to stick it to her husband. The amount of pettiness Claire displays in the first half of the fourth season casts doubt toward whether that was even the same character viewers have grown so attached to over the last three seasons. For a brilliant character celebrated for her iron will and intellect, the fictional First Lady’s deep knowledge and understanding of politics leaves for six episodes in favor of emotion and desire. Wright plays both Claires well, however, and makes the confusing writing decisions bearable with her transcendent performance.
In terms of supporting players, Stamper appears in Frank’s corner with the usual creepy rhythms that include disappearing for days on end or staying in Washington/ Atlanta to keep everyone under his thumb. Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil—“Banshee,” “Treme”) continues his job as White House Press Secretary. Viewers recall how Grayson earned his job in the second season, and look for him to return to the shadows on occasion. Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel—True Grit, “Fargo”) returns to challenge Frank in caucuses and primaries for the Democratic Party. Dunbar’s perpetual accusations of the President keep him in boiling water and potentially set him up to be the first incumbent president ever to lose his party’s nomination for the office. Meechum, Danton, and Senator Sharp show up in limited roles in addition to a few cameo spots from the previous few seasons featuring major players from the first, second, and third seasons that are sure to please fans of the show.
New additions to the cast in the second half of the season really spark the suspense and intrigue as the Underwoods meet their Republican rivals—the Conways. Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop, the upcoming Suicide Squad) plays Will Conway, the fictional governor of New York running for the Republican nominee on the presidential ticket. There’s a lot of Frank in Will, but that’s not always a good thing (in fact, it’s usually a vile, covered-up thing). Will is everything Frank isn’t: a military veteran with an adorable family and a foreign-born spouse. Neve Campbell (“Party of Five,” Scream) joins the party as a campaign advisor to Claire named Leann Harvey. Leann agrees to help Claire despite what she already knows about the President’s wishes. It’s surprising a character as strong and knowledgeable as Leann existed in this show’s universe and only just now appeared. Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Exorcist) also acts in several episodes as a Texas widow who happens to be Claire’s mother and can’t stand Frank.
It’s no mistake that 2016 was the election year for “House of Cards.” Willimon, Spacey, and company dig into some frightful themes that will certainly scare viewers/ voters as they contemplate which candidate to support in the coming election. The Underwoods will appear again, as Netflix already gave the series a green light on a fifth endeavor. The fourth season of “House of Cards” saw Frank with his back against the wall numerous times and he still manages to get a fifth season out of it. As the show returns to what made it so loved, expect huge consequences in 2017 for the Underwood administration.