Though the various machinations differ from season to season, a new batch of House Of Cards episodes generally promises a few things each time: Forces will conspire against Frank Underwood, Frank will conspire against those forces, and Claire will wear an exquisitely tailored white dress and smile a Mona Lisa smile. Season four offers all of those things once again, albeit with the pieces moved around and the tensions ratcheted up. And, naturally, Doug is very creepy.
Your enjoyment of House Of Cards should be roughly calibrated to match your patience with the concept that Frank is perpetually smarter than everyone else. He will always face worthy opponents who seem ready to take him down because they’ve finally uncovered the piece of evidence that exposes his wrongdoings, and he will always prevail at the last minute, often because of a third party’s unexpected actions. Thankfully, watching this happen is usually entertaining, both because the writers are awfully clever at dreaming up new ways for him to escape, and because watching Kevin Spacey tear off words in a hammy Southern rage is always fun.
But new challenges hang over season four. The blend of power, loyalty, and ambition twisted into the marriage of Frank and Claire remains the show’s most fascinating well of drama, and it gets a significant workout this year. Season three ended with them firmly at odds, and the new season does not tie a bow on that conflict. Is Claire Frank’s only true nemesis or his only true friend?
This means a lot of work for Robin Wright as the perpetually opaque Claire, a policy that both works and doesn’t. Claire is a fascinating character, but too much of what works in her character is wrapped up in how much of a mystery she remains, even four seasons in. Is there another series lead anywhere who is more of an enigma to viewers? The new season establishes some background on who Claire Underwood is, but somehow it doesn’t add up to a clearer sense of her. Fans of Wright’s steely intensity will have much to enjoy, but the central mystery of who she is remains frustratingly vague, even with a little more information.
At this point, we know who Frank is. But as the show has moved him into greater and greater positions of power, it’s had to invent challenges for him to struggle against, because the whole point of his character is endless ambition. To what end? What has Frank ever even wanted to do with the presidency? He’s there now, but there’s so little to be done with a Frank Underwood presidency that he spends the whole time drawn into petty conflicts, with old enemies nipping at his heels. The new season does little to fix this issue.
He’s also on the campaign trail this season, which could have allowed the show to try to reflect the real world, given that it premieres in the heart of the real-world primaries. But House Of Cards has so little connection to reality, and the writers choose not to say anything insightful about the actual 2016 presidential election. Its campaigns are old-fashioned races to battleground states and constant press conferences with each candidate criticizing the other, with no real reflection on what inspires people to vote for a candidate. The electorate is a faceless mass swayed only by whose scandal is currently getting more play in the press.
The question of how people make their election decisions has taken on unusual weight in this campaign season, given the unexpected ways in which both parties’ primaries are playing out. If you’re one of the people who is already tired of campaign season (so, basically everyone except the hopelessly wonkish), you can watch the latest round of House Of Cards without worry, because this show is not interested in saying much about real politics. But it’s hard not to wish that one of our most popular shows about politics cared more about the real world.
That said, there are some real risks taken this season, both stylistically, and in terms of plot. Did showrunner Beau Willimon decide to go out with a bang? Without getting into too much detail, a big event a few episodes in completely shifts the show on its axis in unprecedented fashion. Whether it ends up giving the series somewhere new to go isn’t clear in the six episodes screened for critics, but it’s nice to see House Of Cards showing some of the ambition Frank so admires.
Reviews by Scott Von Doviak will run twice weekly.