House of Cards Review: Season 4, Part 2

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They’re beautiful aren’t they, the Conways? Their youth, their two little children…the country is falling in love with them. They won’t fall in love with us like that, but we have something they don’t. We are willing to go one step farther than everyone else. — Claire Underwood

When last we spoke, Claire Underwood was asserting her leverage to push her husband into putting her on the ticket and making her his vice president, should he win reelection. Her machinations were underhanded and at times somewhat infuriating, but if you had a problem with it before, boy did the situation ramp up, escalating to a completely different plane during the middle stage of the fourth season.

It’s not that House of Cards hasn’t given us the blackmail, the intrigue, and the devious in the past, far from it. However, I’m not sure we’ve ever been presented with such complexity in the tactical moves the two lead characters have made. I referenced a chessboard in the previous review, but here, we’re watching two political minds whose insatiable desire to cut the jugular out of anyone who would dare oppose them think not just one move ahead, but ten. The Underwoods and their operatives, specifically Doug and LeAnn, are playing Stratego, while everyone else is stuck playing Mouse Trap.

And many of them still haven’t deciphered the truth:

They believe they’re the ones playing and controlling the game, but they’re the plastic mice.

While in previous years, the middle of the season has been a bit of a slog, Season 4 has been the exact opposite. All four episodes were strong and Willimon and his crew did a great job in showcasing just how callous and self-absorbed Claire Underwood could be, but also how pragmatic she could be when the time came to realign with Frank. Ultimately, these two sociopaths are driven to try and rule the free world, even if they remain in close proximity to one another more for political expediency than love or even LIKE.  

I said you were nothing, in the Oval, without me. It’s the other way around. — Frank Underwood

It wasn’t surprising that Claire chose to continue on her path to Germany rather than return to Washington to be at the hospital while Francis went under the knife, but I had one mild problem with it. For someone so savvy, it seems an oversight for the wife to appear selfish in addition to being selfish. It isn’t about what she wants to do. It should be about perception first, because in politics, as we’ve increasingly seen in 2015 and 2016, it’s less about what you do, but whether it’s deemed appropriate. That felt a little “television villainy” rather than what we should expect from Claire, whose every breath is calculated.

Once again, Robin Wright displays excellent chemistry with Lars Mikkelsen, and the scene leading to the agreement between Claire and Viktor is one filled with tension and effective maneuvering. Both have moments to shine both as characters and also as performers. Lars is always in rare form when he plays Petrov as a creep, and as he flirts with Claire in order to build his case to be the alpha in the room, he kills it as an actor. Claire can stare a hole through anybody, and as a result Robin Wright brings a sense of dread and, “Damn woman, are you for real,” to her every on-screen highlight.

I’ve made no bones about my dislike of dream sequences in television. I didn’t like it at all when David Chase did it with Tony in The Sopranos. I didn’t care for Brody showing up in Carrie Mathison’s hallucination in Homeland. Very rarely does it work, and when it doesn’t, it breaks up the flow of a good show. Here, even though I fully understand why Frank saw Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo in his mind, I still didn’t really care for the technique. I wish Zoe were still with us, because it would mean Kate Mara is still with us, but she isn’t. Underwood being haunted by two people he murdered is sensible, but unnecessary.

House of Cards – in every season – does something way over the top in an attempt to be artistically brilliant. I haven’t cared for any of them all that much, from the oddity of Frank’s return to school to the threesome with Meechum to Stamper becoming Dexter Morgan to the strange mind twist with Zoe and Peter this year. I want the series to focus on the people, but I prefer it to be grounded in something real. I just don’t dig the dream stuff. It’s a personal thing. You may love it. But, I think it did very little for the season and hope that’s the end of it.

One thing the series has really nailed in its most recent iteration is the development of its tertiary or secondary players. Heather Dunbar admitting she met with Lucas Goodwin on tape, but using that time to attempt to score political points was excellent. Her dropping out of the race was an interesting turn, and it was somewhat subtle, effective without grand emphasis. We were given hints, but the performance in her final moments on screen pointed to a possibility she could survive and even thrive afterward. That was not the case.

The only problem with common sense is it’s so…common. — Frank Underwood

Then comes Will Conway, played quite well by Joel Kinnaman, who most remember as Stephen Holder on The Killing.

Conway as a character is a perfect foil to Frank Underwood. He’s young, has a compelling backstory, has the looks Frank wants, and in Hannah, has a nearly flawless wife in multiple facets. They’re an attractive couple with a small government conservative message, plus his military history, and they’re also razor sharp. In many respects, House of Cards is providing us the next Frank Underwood. While Will seems to be a good husband, a good father, and a half-decent man, it takes the show less than two episodes to show that he’s just another politician when the crowds have dispersed and the cameras put down.

Watching Will spin the data collection story in his favor through the webcam video at was a stroke of genius. That might be the most amazing political move I’ve seen in years, including anything Donald Trump has pulled off during this election cycle. He’s a formidable foe, and he’s the first person I’ve seen from either political party on the show that I actually believe could unseat Frank Underwood and beat him in an election.

Yes, the show is obviously about Frank and Claire’s willingness to burn the world down in their quest for power, but I could see an enormous value in witnessing their fall and the couple’s subsequent attempt to scratch and claw back to a position of importance. I wouldn’t wager a dime on it, but House of Cards runs the risk of being overly predictable if we don’t get a serious kink in the narrative. A Conway victory might be just the thing to bring the show back in 2017 with a fresh attitude and a new pathway. But, let’s get back to what’s in the now, rather than what could be in the future.

As Frank and Claire concern themselves with re-election and getting the running mate they want, outside forces are collaborating and working against them. Tom Hammerschmidt is asking a lot of questions as he attempts to find the truth that killed his old colleague, Lucas, after driving him to an assassination attempt. The former Washington Herald editor knows how to work a story, and it’s all old school, low tech, shoe leather journalism. When the pizza parlor owner recognizes Agent Meechum, Tom knows flames might accompany the puffs of smoke in the distance.

It’s this portion of the story that may well turn out to be the biggest of all, precisely because it’s always presented in such a staccato fashion. It’s on the side, but it’s there. It’s like the basketball team that has trailed wire to wire but hasn’t ever fallen behind by double figures. This story is just hanging around, staying close enough to be dangerous. Incidentally, that basketball team ends up winning when the favorite drops its guard or ignores the obvious for too long.

We’ve also got the return of Thomas Yates, first as a possible tool for the Conway campaign, and then as a speechwriter for the Underwoods to ensure his book on the President and First Lady doesn’t get published — or even leaked — before the upcoming election, if ever. Yates remains a take it or leave it character for me, because I continue to believe we’ve never really gotten all we could from him. The fact that he didn’t write “Scorpio” is still the most interesting thing he’s ever done. His original purpose in the show was to further the wedge the writers wanted to drive between Frank and Claire. I’m hoping it’s going somewhere more fulfilling this time around, or at least that the conclusion to his arc works better than it did last season.

I’ve found myself rooting against both Frank and Claire Underwood more than cheering for them. While that has happened in the past, it’s never been sustainable. This time, I really want Claire to get hers, because she’s engaged in so much chicanery that it’s impossible to back her anymore. That ship actually sailed long ago. At her side is LeAnn, who may be in some trouble due to the air strike fiasco and Doug’s desire to get her out of the picture as soon as possible.

Neve Campbell continues to do an awesome job of being a supremely hot scumbag (the best kind of scumbag), and she plays well off of Stamper, who remains the most terrifying man on television. Seriously, the scene with the water glass and Seth Grayson left me in the fetal position.

If I can’t get your loyalty, I will have your obedience. Blink. Blink! — Doug Stamper

Frank and Claire coalescing back together following the liver transplant was fascinating to watch, and because it’s House of Cards, we’re all left wondering if one is playing the other. After all, we’ve seen a lot of big things happen this season, and the final episodes have to lead to a solid cliffhanger. With that knowledge, I’m excited to get to the last five, as the show seems to be moving in a positive direction and has momentum at this stage for the first time in its entire run.

Netflix dramas often coast in their respective middles; for example Bloodline was almost unwatchably dull before its riveting final four episodes saved it from forgettable status. House of Cards has always floundered in the middle of its sandwich, at least until now.

Neither Season 2 nor 3 were even close to a top ten drama in their respective years, but Season 4 stacks up nicely to at least be near the discussion, or finish on a much higher level, when we get to December.

Part 3 of the House of Cards review, covering the final five episodes of the season and featuring some overall thoughts, comes your way on Friday. Hope to hear from some of you about how you’ve felt about Season 4 as well. Have at it.

Read part one of the House of Cards Season 4 Review. 

Follow me @GuyNamedJason. And yes, you guessed it, I still hate children. (Not really.) Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pour some water in Bucknasty’s mama’s dish.

Written by Jason Martin