House of Cards Review: Season 4, Part 1

So, I'll give Claire some time, but for her sake I hope she comes out of her tree before I have to bring out my axe. -- Frank Underwood

Despite the fact that Season 3 of Swiss Family Underwood was filled with forgettable moments and threads that either went to an underwhelming spot or one that was so far over the top that all credulity disappeared, it was still fairly enjoyable. However, for House of Cards to rise to the level of truly great drama, Season 4 needed to return the series to its roots and the political maneuvering and treachery that came to define it in its first year. And, there has been plenty of reason for skepticism.

One very interesting reality about the series is that its fans, and television fans in general, enjoy it more than the vast majority of critics, who have largely panned it since the beginning and seen it as a second tier program. Because of the subject matter, I've always enjoyed the annual Cards binge, but at the same time, I know it isn't The West Wing. That's a bar it just won't ever reach, and any comparison to Sorkin's series is an unfair fight for Frank Underwood and company.

Entering Season 4, my expectations were a bit higher than they have been in the past, for one important reason. House of Cards has been renewed for a fifth season and the announcement came a few months back, which was celebrated. But, while the show will be back for at least 13 more episodes, Beau Willimon won't be a part of it. The showrunner and the man responsible for the local adaptation of the series left of his own accord, saying it was time to move to new things. His last contributions to the show reside within the new season, and knowing it ahead of time (though who knows when he actually made the decision) meant Willimon could let all the creativity hang out and tell a story that allowed him to drop the mic and walk off on top.

As Chapter 40 began, we find Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in a fight for reelection with Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), and a fight for public survival with his wife, Claire (Robin Wright). In truth, the first episode had its slow moments; especially several fairly dull scenes that were intentionally painful to watch between Claire and her mother, Elizabeth Hale, played expertly by the great Ellen Burstyn. Here, we recognize just what a horrendous human being Claire Underwood is, and to what lengths she's willing to go to further her own personal agenda.

Oh, I'll come and go as I please, mother. -- Claire Underwood

The new season has an advantage its predecessors haven't, namely being smack dab in the middle of the most ridiculous election year in several decades, or perhaps ever. Donald Trump's existence as a cartoon character makes Frank Underwood far less unbelievable than he was when he threw Zoe Barnes in front of a subway car or helped stage the death of Peter Russo. It became unintentionally hilarious when the Ku Klux Klan popped up in Chapter 42, mere days after Trump was endorsed by David Duke and struggled to condemn the KKK in a CNN interview with Jake Tapper.

Frank's approval ratings are low and America Works continues to be nearly as much a disaster for Underwood and conceivably most other Democrats in tight congressional races across the country as President Obama's Affordable Care Act was in the mid-term elections two years ago. The office has taken its tool on Francis, leaving thin grey hair and a short fuse. While Underwood has always been paranoid, it takes him a few episodes to come to grips with the fact that his wife is gunning for power. We've always seen Claire as Hillary Clinton relative to a marriage of convenience and an overwhelming addiction to power and control, but what she demands at the end of the third episode of the season takes things to an entirely new level. Even before that point, the vigor and viciousness with which she approaches Doris Jones (Cicely Tyson) and her daughter, Celia (Lisa Gay Hamilton), about the seat in Congress serves as a sharp prelude for what's to come.

I have joked with some friends in the media that I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Trump decided his wife (one of them) should be his running mate, which would in effect turn the presidency into something resembling a monarchy in appearance. The moment Claire told LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell) she wanted to aim higher than the House seat in Texas, it was immediately obvious where the plot was headed. It's a patently absurd notion, or it would have been before "Make America Great Again" became a suitable replacement for any policy or sense of decency in the political process. Can you imagine the vitriol and the charges of extreme arrogance levied against a husband and wife who believed they should run the free world?

The opener wasn't anything special, and if you told me much of it was boring, I'd agree with you, but it set the stage for the foundation of the season. Claire's mom used as a tool for Frank to draw sympathy and quell speculation of his marital troubles made perfect sense, and while he comes across as barely human, his wife's reaction, rigidity, and treatment of her family made her just about as unlikable as a television character can be.

As an aside, I had never noticed it before this set of episodes, but take note of how often Claire Underwood wears white, grey, and black. She does put on a red dress in Chapter 43, but it's a drab, dark, almost coagulated blood red. Wright could change nothing about her appearance or wardrobe and could seamlessly replace Donald Sutherland in The Hunger Games. She's cold, lacks feeling, and is somehow more selfish than her husband at this stage. She's President Snow.

But, House of Cards isn't about creating characters with whom the audience would like to drink a beer. In fact, the show concerns itself with crafting complete jerkwads, riddled with corruption and callousness. These are Washington establishment politicians; individuals who have lost any clue what the world outside the beltway is or how people should behave. They're repulsive, as are their Rogue's gallery of surrogates and assistants. Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is a murderer, just like his boss, and anytime Doug is one-on-one in a room with someone else, the intensity of the scenario and the sociopathic nature of Stamper make those scenes the white-collar equivalent of a slasher film. LeAnn has a similar cutthroat nature and she continues to be highly entertaining to watch. Campbell is a natural in the role. I admit to feeling sorry for Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil), but even he's presented as duplicitous.

One individual we have felt for in the past was Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), who I honestly had forgotten about until we found him in prison. Later we see what leads to him engaging in forced homosexual activity in order to further his plans to reach Heather Dunbar and try to get someone to listen to him about Underwood's crimes. When she shuts him down and leaves him sobbing in the stairwell, he resorts to the one place House of Cards hadn't gone before, but one we all should have expected.

When Frank was speaking prior to the first true "holy shit" moment of the year, the angle cut to a high shot with the camera looking down from a balcony vantage point to the President and his audience. For some reason, my first thought was John Malkovich from In the Line of Fire.

But nothing happened...and then everything happened, and when it turned out to be Goodwin pulling the trigger, the season completely turned for the second time.

LeAnn's tactic to get the Klan photo on the Gaffney billboard was underhanded, but it somehow felt both plausible and smart, again illustrating the depths of Claire's need for fame and authority. Chapter 42 was an excellent hour of the show from a dramatic standpoint and the story itself was better than any of Underwood's previous trips to the south, though the peach episode from the first season was light and fun.

House of Cards always leaves its audience thinking of the reactions of multiple characters to its biggest events. When Frank was shot and Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) died, within moments, my brain flipped to whether Claire would be upset about what happened or if she would think of how it would change her husband's public perception and alter her hopeful ascent. I felt positive I knew what she would do, but if you stop and think of the ramifications of making a mistake at that precise time, it reveals a subtle complexity.

Claire, I hope he dies. -- Elizabeth Hale

Claire can't come out and file for divorce, or even threaten it, after an assassination attempt. Any attempt to strong-arm the situation could backfire and cost her virtually everything. In many ways, the bullet that pierced Underwood's liver might have been the best thing that could have happened to him. Keep in mind he had just lost his home state in the primary and the momentum seemed to be firmly with Dunbar. The wife isn't the wounded party anymore, as the husband is LITERALLY wounded and in critical condition.

Then there's the reality that tragedy or near catastrophe on a national level historically unites the country as we inherently rally around our leader, our neighbors, and our flag.  

As the fourth episode fades to black, we get our answer to what the wife will do, and how soon she will put her altered plan into motion. Claire is indeed worried about herself, and she's taking steps to ensure her importance to the acting president and also to her husband's staff. I really wish we could have heard what she was about to say to her husband as he rested unconscious in the hospital, but I can guess.

Upon returning to the White House and meeting with Donald Blythe (Reed Birney) found a way to circumvent Frank's plan and involve China in a plan to alter the leverage associated with the gas crisis that has strained relations between Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) and Underwood. Stamper's facial expression when he recognizes that Claire is much less interested in policy than power is highly effective. He knows that level of devious because he IS that level of devious.

Season 4 starts out a bit slowly in the opener, but becomes supremely compelling much faster than its last two predecessors. While the gas crisis is interesting in that it's the exact opposite of what's happening in the real world (though the crude oil price plummeting over the last two years may well lead to a major conflict with Russia, producing a similar effect), that particular arc isn't doing much for me and it's been a bit cloudy and clumsy to follow. I've found myself wondering why it's really there, because we've gotten numerous sequences with arguments about this decision or that choice, but none of it has hit me like the personal issues or some of the other pieces of the overall narrative.

Luckily, House of Cards is at its best when Frank and Claire are at the forefront, and they're clearly the focus from moment one, even more so than usual.

The series works when the politics are used as the Trojan horse to push the conflict or the connivance of the two leads and how every move each one of them makes shifts the position of everyone they're in contact with on the figurative chessboard. We don't need to know all of the minutiae behind America Works, just bullet points to move us from one point to another. Whether it's money to Jackie Sharp or Remy Danton being manipulated or even Doug Stamper vaguely threatening any number of people, it all boils down to Frank and Claire, and that's the key. As long as that concept is never undermined, the show is generally in a good place.

Because so many of us are currently transfixed with the 2016 election, our minds were already on politics before Willimon and his writers brought the House of Cards world back into our lives. As such, it feels like a natural extension of our own thought processes, playing out on a high budget, slick as silk drama that appears to be on its way to a strong season.

I'm doing the House of Cards Season 4 review in three parts, with the next coming on Wednesday covering episodes 5-8. We'll conclude on Friday with 9-13 and overall thoughts. I'm writing the pieces as I go, as opposed to viewing everything and then going back through, which hopefully will provide more of a natural reading experience for you as you progress through the season yourselves.

At this stage, Season 4 has me far more interested than either 2 or 3, and the manner in which Willimon is allowing this portion of the story to unfold has been both refreshing and riveting. House of Cards, which has meandered or relied far more on style over substance for the last two years, is on the verge of a true resurgence. Frank has only spoken to us directly three times in the first four hours, but each has been effective. The story about the neighbor and the tree was vintage Underwood, in the best possible way. That tactic -- if it exists -- needs to be used sparingly and the quality must greatly exceed the quantity. Thus far, mission accomplished.

The assassination attempt, which many writers would save for a season ending cliffhanger or the high point of the penultimate episode, instead comes in Chapter 43, with nine hours remaining. That tells me Beau is confident in what's to come before he heads home and that the season has several twists hidden and waiting in the hedges at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

This is getting good.

I'm @GuyNamedJason. Follow me there. Don't make me get my axe.