House of Cards Season 4 Review: Political Insanity From Start to Finish

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Funny what can change in a year. As House of Cards‘ second and third season devolved into more unrealistic, Shakespearean melodrama, American politics has seemed to catch up. The man leading the polls on the Republican side is far more ridiculous than Frank Underwood. So what’s the show’s response? For his last season, showrunner Beau Willimon turns it up a notch. Okay, maybe five.

The first three episodes will look familiar to anyone who’s gotten this far in the series. Picking up the threads from last season, Claire is still on track to divorce Frank at a time in which it would do the most damage to his presidential campaign. Season four as whole could be seen simply as “The Rise of Claire Underwood,” and these first three put everything in motion for the madness that follows. We meet her ailing mother (a cold but outstanding Ellen Burstyn) and she hires her own version of Doug, LeAnn (Neve Campbell).

But then, a trigger goes off in episode four and the game changes. Here through episode 10, House of Cards‘ political fantasy plays like the insane narrative of Scandal paired with the intricate nuance of Mad Men. It makes for spellbinding TV to have jaw-dropping plot twists supporting by the strong performances and smart writing. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are still at the top of their game four seasons in, delivering powerful moments and dialogue with all the layers the show has tacked onto their relationship over the first three seasons.

Meanwhile, the writers continue to find ways to have the ridiculous events happening on the show feel real. Let’s be real, the events of House of Cards would likely never actually play out as they do in the real Washington, but the writers give a voice to their characters that makes their response feel authentic. It’s a somewhat awkward marriage of pulp and realism that usually works in the show’s favor.

Still, there’s a lingering sense that the show has only gone further from its premise. Introduced as a “real take” on Washington in its first season, the delightfully soapy nature of the narrative occasionally works against it when you take a second to remember that season one managed to, if you will, have it all. The politics isn’t as behind-closed-doors as it was in seasons passed, which makes for a less interesting but more entertaining batch of episodes this time around.

Then there’s the last three episodes that completely derail the series, damaging one of the main character arcs and sending this show places it never needed to go while ignoring the intricate set-up of the first 10 episodes. If they are truly the stamp Willimon wanted to leave on his series before it’s put into other hands, it’s an admittedly bold failure. It does some serious damage to a season that was already walking a very thin line. A pulp political drama gone haywire isn’t what House of Cards needed to become. Season four leaves the series as a shell of it former self. But it was still a lot of fun getting there. One can only hope now that the folks at Netflix will recognize what has become of their original baby and give it a graceful farewell fifth season. Grade: B

Some Extra Spoiler-y Discussions:

  • The season’s greatest achievement is making Claire’s nomination as Frank’s VP relatively believable. I reacted as Frank did in episode three when the idea was first introduced, but then I cheered with the rest of the crowd at the convention when it actually came into fruition in episode ten. Were it not for the looming election, the season could have ended right there.
  • Too bad the season didn’t even cover the election, ending three weeks before it with the Underwoods planning their tyrannical takeover. After so much wonderful work on Claire this season, having her push for essentially world-domination felt like such a betrayal of everything she’s been since the beginning.
  • Still, the scenes shared between Claire and her mother, especially those later in the season, were expertly done. I hope to see Burstyn at the Emmys for Outstanding Guest Actress.
  • When we first started seeing Frank’s hallucinations, I was worried House of Cards was about to pull a True Detective season two. But the use of the show’s history, especially getting Corey Stoll and Kate Mara back briefly, worked in its favor.
  • So the whole subplot of Hammerschmidt uncovering Frank’s sins really went nowhere. It had potential to be the height of the drama in those last couple episodes. But no, here’s a last minute hostage crisis to distract you from the fact that the writers refused to deliver on any of their plot threads this season.
  • Does anyone really want to watch a fifth season where Frank and Claire continue to win while waging a ridiculous war? Do the right thing Netflix, end the show.

By Matt Dougherty

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