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The fourth season of House Of Cards is the first to premiere during an election year, with the presidential campaigns in full swing. In the show’s universe, no time at all has passed since the end of season three (in which Frank prevailed in the Iowa caucus just as Claire decided she wanted out of the Underwood partnership). Frank is on his way to New Hampshire, where he trails his chief rival for the nomination, Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), by double digits in the polls. Here in the real world, however, a year has passed and the political landscape has changed to an almost unfathomable degree. House Of Cards has always been a cynical gloss on power and politics, but now that we’ve entered the Trump Zone, it looks almost aspirational. Mister, we could use a man like Frank Underwood again.

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You can see where Beau Willimon and his writers thought things might be going in the brief glimpses we get of the Republican front-runner, a fresh-faced governor whose youth and inexperience Frank is already targeting, if only he can get through the primary season unscathed. Of course, nothing is settled yet and such a candidate (*cough* Rubio *cough*) might still emerge, but imagine the fun House Of Cards could have had with a Trump-like figure as Frank’s foil. Can’t you picture Doug being tasked with finding the evidence that the Republican front-runner’s penis isn’t all he claims it is?

Instead, this season looks to derive most of its drama from mixing the personal with the political. Claire leaves the presidential campaign and goes to Texas, where a slew of guest stars are introduced. Neve Campbell is Leann Harvey, a political consultant Claire hopes will help her steer a campaign for an open congressional seat in Texas, setting the stage for a later gubernatorial run. (I fear Claire has been out of Texas too long if she thinks she has a shot at that job, but I guess anything could happen by 2020.) Cicely Tyson is Doris Jones, who currently holds that seat in a largely African-American district, but is planning to retire in hopes that her daughter will succeed her. Ellen Burstyn is Claire’s estranged mother Elizabeth Hale, who never had much use for Frank and isn’t particularly impressed with her daughter’s station in life.

Frank quickly figures out what Claire is up to, and it doesn’t take long for him to go into dirty-tricks mode. He sends Stamper down to Texas to intervene with Leann and give Jones and her daughter a heads-up on Claire’s arrival. Although Stamper tries to steer the resulting conversation toward the future governor’s race, Claire sticks by her guns, aiming to muscle the younger Jones out of the congressional contest. Her absence from the Underwood campaign trail is noticed (although it strikes me as a little extreme that one missed rally would create such a hubbub), and Dunbar’s team approaches the disgruntled Seth in hopes of getting some valuable intel on the state of the Underwoods.

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That’s the problem with Frank’s approach to team management: someone is always disgruntled, and his loose concept of loyalty is contagious. Here it is Seth, brushed aside for Stamper’s return last season, who has reason to flirt with the enemy, and it is presumably he who tips the Dunbar campaign (and, by extension, the press) to the discord in the Underwood marriage. Frank gets the situation under control for the moment by convincing Claire to reveal the “real” reason for her visit to Texas: her mother is battling cancer and has taken a turn for the worse. In return for her cooperation, Frank promises not to interfere with her congressional campaign. Well, we’ll see about that.

It’s a promising start to the season, with Claire positioned to be Frank’s most formidable foe yet (not a huge accomplishment, given the ease with which he has dispatched his previous enemies). Is there any way this series doesn’t end with Claire running against Frank for president? That would be a long way off (although a time-jump is always possible), but for now the campaign season has added juice to the drama that was sorely lacking much of last year. Hey, it’s less depressing than watching the real thing.

Stray observations:

  • Elsewhere in the Cards-iverse, disgraced journalist Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) makes his first appearance since the middle of season two. He is freed from prison after snitching on his cellmate for the FBI, and is now in witness protection as a rental car washer named John Carlyle. Having now made an enemy of the Armenian mafia as well as Frank Underwood, I think we can safely assume he won’t be in hiding for long.
  • Watching Spacey and Burstyn go toe-to-toe in an insult contest is pure gold. More of that, please.
  • “Is that how you say hello in Texas?” Leann may be a Democrat, but she’s also a Texan, so of course she’s packing heat.
  • “You’re speaking to the president.” “Yes, I recognize his voice.”
  • Our regular schedule going forward will be Mondays and Fridays, with each review covering two episodes.

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