House of Cards is an interesting beast. Ever since the show has been airing (or streaming) on Netflix, I’ve always put up a review of the recent season since it gets clicks/coverage, and also because I’m a fan of the show. I thought the first two seasons of the show were brilliant and twisty, and the third season was underwhelming but still very entertaining. No matter the quality of the show each season, there are two aspects that remain intact, and that’s the performances by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as the Underwood’s, the President and First Lady of the United States in this fictional universe. The underwhelming last season involved Frank Underwood (Spacey) finally getting to the highest office in the land, and the baggage that comes with being President, and for Claire (Wright), having to handle being First Lady. What didn’t make the last season as compelling as others was that Frank had gotten to the presidency, and there was no stopping him, even after the murders of Peter Russo (Corey Stroll) and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). I felt that Frank couldn’t get any more powerful, so the stakes didn’t seem as high or consequential as they were in Seasons One and Two.
Beau Willimon, the showrunner who left the series after this most recent season, decided to go in a different route with the show, focusing on the relationship between Frank and Claire, and how they attempted to manage their marriage that was built on a lust for power. Claire wanted to be more than just First Lady, and Frank didn’t really seem to care for that. After a failed bid to become Ambassador, their marriage became more and more strained, with Claire declaring that she was leaving Frank in the Season Three finale. We begin Season Four with Frank continuing to run for re-election against a formidable opponent in his own party (Elizabeth Marvel), and a young up-and-coming Republican Governor from New York (Joel Kinnaman) who is gaining traction from the GOP. While all of this is happening, Claire and Frank are still estranged, and Frank does his best to control his wife, who now looks to potentially run for office in her home state of Texas.
This is where the spoilers of this review begin. I suggest you quit reading this review if you haven’t gotten through the whole season. There’s a lot to cover as to what I liked and didn’t like about this new season, so I felt it was necessary to make my review mostly spoilers. You’ve been warned beyond this point…
The first three episodes are underwhelming because it’s mostly the stuff that I didn’t like about the last season, the marital woes between Frank and Claire. Luckily, the show is smart enough for that to not be the primary focus for the season. Let me explain. The first scene of the new season is Lucas Goodwin, the former reporter for the Washington Herald who went to jail for trying to tie Underwood to the murder of both Peter Russo and his former lover Zoe Barnes, is seen rotting in jail. A few scenes later, it’s revealed that he’s been apart of a sting with the government, and is let out early on bail for participating. Once he gets out, he begins to try to tell the world about Frank Underwood, and his corrupt nature. After Heather Dunbar, the other Democratic candidate for President, turns him away, Lucas is desperate and decides to take matters into his own hands and attempts to assassinate Frank Underwood at a campaign rally. It was a genuinely shocking and unpredictable moment for the show, one that gave the show a shot (no pun intended) of life once again.
After this unexpected event, Frank is in the hospital, fighting for his life as he awaits a kidney transplant. The middle portion of the season practically saves the show from being completely lost, and gives the show a new focus and feel. After two-three episodes, Frank survives and gets his kidney transplant, but he’s notably weaker than he was before. During his time in the hospital, Frank’s vice-president took over his duties and made some key calls thanks to Claire pulling a Dick Chaney and pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Frank notices this as he gets out of the hospital, and begins to work with Claire to get her to be on his ticket for re-election as his Vice President. This is great stuff, as the show that was once great has the potential to get great again.
But, I might have spoken too soon. There’s a lot to really like about this new season of House of Cards, but there’s also a lot that isn’t all that impressive. Paul Sparks returns as Tom Yates, the novelist who attempted to write a book about Underwood’s failed AmericaWorks program but instead nearly turned it into a fictional smear piece on the Underwood’s. His character returns to the fray as a speech writer, with Yates and Claire beginning a sexual fling in the middle of it. Sparks is a good actor, and he’s good in the role, but I felt the character overstayed his welcome last time, and he does so in this season. It would’ve been nice to see him for an episode or two, but he’s here for the final half in the season, and it gets a bit old after a while.
I really liked Joel Kinnaman as the young Republican nominee for President. He’s a hard-headed and often very stubborn adversary to Frank, and its great to see the two go at it with each other, either behind the scenes or in front of one another. I also really liked how the season ended, with a domestic terrorist threat with an Islamic terrorist group (similar to I.S.I.S.) having a family of three held hostage in the States, and Frank has to deal with the negotiation of it all. What’s interesting is that at the very end of this episode, a story comes out exposing Frank’s corruption, as well as his links to Zoe and Peter’s deaths back in Seasons One and Two. And that’s how the season ends, with Frank and Claire Underwood deciding that they’ve had enough with having to please people, and striking fear into the hearts of the American people in order to succeed.
It’s a curious ending, curious for how the show will proceed with the departure of Willimon after this season, and what happens to the Underwood’s. Will they win the election, or will they lose? The great thing about House of Cards is that no matter the quality of the season, it’s always making you want just a little bit more. Sure, the writing and storylines can get pretty clunky and uneven, but the terrific acting by its two leads, as well as the incredibly visual look of the show that’s inspired by Executive Producer David Fincher is spot on as always. If you can live with those pros and cons with Season Four of House of Cards, I think you’ll be as entertained as I was this year.