House of Cards Review: Season 4, Part 3

Videos by OutKick

That’s right, we don’t submit to terror. We are the terror. — Frank Underwood

For those who missed the previous two installments, I posted thoughts on episodes 1-4 and 5-8 on Monday and Wednesday respectively, and I’d love for you to click those links and check those pieces out.

Beau Willimon’s tenure as showrunner has come to a close, and as I anticipated, he saved some of his best stuff for last. Make no mistake, even if it doesn’t end up in my top ten, Season 4 of House of Cards may well be the series’ strongest, and certainly is the most complete and entertaining season since the first.

One thing we didn’t talk about on Wednesday was the introduction of ICO (Islamic Caliphate Organization), the show’s version of ISIS, and here we got the real heavy hitter in terms of the international issue driving the policy and politics. The gas crisis was a little weak as a large-scale issue, and wasn’t delved into with the depth required for it to rise beyond the level of being a side-story. Here, with ICO, we see the larger, politically treacherous narrative emerge, and both the Underwood and Conway sides of the story helped to bring their rivalry to a smart location in terms of ramping up the drama.

While Doug Stamper continued being Doug Stamper, including a creepy turn with the widow of the man he allowed to die in order to save Frank’s life, we got a glimpse into something real. The politics in America today are divisive, ugly, and at times lead me to believe the real “hope” in this country are long gone, buried somewhere other than Arlington National Cemetery. The danger of the rhetoric on all sides is the true threats get lost in the muck, never used as anything other than a tactic to score points, earn donations, and secure votes.

You’re a pretender, Will. And if you win, you’ll go from pretender to fraud. — Frank Underwood

Watching the rapid devolution of Conway, House of Cards allowed its immense cynicism surrounding Washington and its power players to dictate its storytelling, and because of it, the season raged with blazing, fiery passion and became something more than a show about power. Behind all the betrayal was an Islamist movement dedicated to establishing a Caliphate, instituting Sharia law, and ending the western way of life. To accomplish those goals, three individuals were kidnapped and used as collateral to try and free the ICO leader.

What we’ve come to understand about ISIS more than anything else is that we fail to heed the warnings and words of these men and women at our own peril. When they say what they want to do and when they lay out their plans, those are not merely threats. The problem, which arises within the season, is why our leaders respond in the ways they do. What percentage of the reactions of our elected officials is legitimate?

Frank Underwood doesn’t want to see these hostages executed, but in addition to the obvious human reason, he also knows how it would look during an election year. Though Will Conway could assist in the effort, the acting POTUS has to ensure his opponent is not put in a position to harm him politically. What’s utterly fascinating about the way Willimon and his team plays all of this out is the balance between cutthroat politics and the lack of humanity within terrorism.

Outside of ICO, Claire Underwood makes her way onto her husband’s ticket once Catherine Durant falls in line. For a moment, it seemed possible that the Secretary of State was on her way to a head-to-head battle with Frank Underwood for the Democratic nomination, but Louisiana turned out to me nothing more than a McGuffin in the plot. It did provide more screen time for Jayne Atkinson, which is almost always a good thing, even if I immediately start looking around for Bill Buchanan and Jack Bauer.

Either Claire’s votes come my way or I turn the convention upside down. — Catherine Durant

Episode 10 was a special hour for House of Cards. I had a few folks tell me not only was it the best episode of the season, it was the best of the entire four year run. I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far, because I wasn’t particularly stunned by anything that happened within that part of the story. I had long ago assumed Elizabeth Hale would die during the season, even if it were at her daughter’s hand. It was a softer moment, not a callous or disgusting choice by Claire, and the inclusion of Tom Yates worked effectively to add a bit more tenderness to the proceedings.

The ending of 10 was strong, featuring the culmination of Claire’s plan to build her own brand and the full coagulation of husband and wife as rulers of the Democratic Party. The way the DNC was displayed and the few times we saw state party spokespeople speak on behalf of their slice of the country were entertaining and well done. In truth, I generally always enjoy a political convention being part of a political drama. There’s something about the atmosphere – all the way down to the lighting and the large swaths of people – that feels right for television.

And, when Frank and Claire walked on stage and the huge throng went crazy, we figure out yet again that these two win far more than they lose, which brings me to one problem I had with the conclusion of Season 4.

I have grown a bit tired of the Underwood success streak. Frank got what he wanted at the end of the first two seasons, and Claire had the last word in Season 3, but the power has only grown. I had a desire to see them lose to Conway or for an arrest or an indictment or something more negative to end the year. The cliffhanger would have been far more interesting had it been at the EXPENSE of the Underwoods rather than the glorification and expansion of their dominance.

After a dog has bitten you, you either put it to sleep or you put a muzzle on it. I’ve chosen a muzzle…for now. — Frank Underwood

Tom Hammerschmidt did release his story, wasn’t intimidated by Frank in the West Wing, but what we got at the end was a little underwhelming, with the notable exception of a spectacular final minute. Considering that Tom still hasn’t figured out that Underwood murdered his former colleague and friend, Zoe Barnes, or Peter Russo, he was able to uncover a good bit of corruption.

I recognize that the Underwoods will probably take the biggest loss towards the tail end of the final House of Cards season, but I’m weary of their dominance. Joel Kinnaman brings to his performance of Will Conway the ability to juxtapose a ruthless mindset with a friendly politician. I was hoping to see more of Conway in control, particularly with him leading in the polls by double digits throughout much of the season.

Almost none of Conway’s sustained power was consistently focused upon, and Frank and Claire being under the gun and in trouble during the run up to the election could have made the season even better. We saw some of Will’s shrewdness and even the obvious comparisons between him and Frank as politicians, but I wanted more of it.

Honestly, I could have done without the Tom Yates-Claire Underwood relationship outside of Texas, using more of that screen time to push Will Conway as the prime adversary in series history. I still largely find Yates vanilla and generally boring to watch. Conversely, Kinnaman and Spacey were dynamite every time the two actors shared the same space. We saw some great stuff with Conway and Underwood, but I wish Willimon had been more direct and spent more time nurturing that part of the narrative.

And what kills you is that I’ll make a great President. The kind of President who will actually be remembered. And isn’t that worse than dying, Frank? Being forgotten? — Will Conway

One of the best sequences of the season was Underwood and Conway in the White House kitchen, with both delivering devastating lines that shook the other. This was the “pull them out and measure them” discussion, far more pointed than what took place behind closed doors when the two played video games and Will gave Frank the Heimlich after he choked on the sandwich. Both those two scenes were exceptional, and in entirely different ways.

Remy Danton and Jackie Sharp coming clean to Hammerschmidt and deciding to let their relationship supersede their political future was a highlight for the tertiary players. The scene with the two of them in the car – smiling and joking as they sped off together as one – was one of the rare times we’ve ever seen anyone within the House of Cards universe choose personal over professional, and it was both refreshing and believable. Going on the record to enhance Tom’s story in the Washington Herald was a strike against the Underwood machine, though we’re left wondering what effect it might have.

I’m frightened, Claire. — Frank Underwood

Another positive aspect of Season 4 was the return of some of the other better secondary characters, from Garrett Walker to Raymond Tusk to Janine Skorsky to Freddy Hayes. I’m a big fan of the work of Gill, McRaney, Zimmer, and definitely Reg E. Cathey. All were utilized effectively to advance the story, with Freddy kicking the piss out of Tom Hammerschmidt in the alley being one of the more surprising turns House of Cards has ever given us. Freddy quitting his job showed just how talented Reg is, and it’s not a new development. He’s been really good for many years, and in relation to House of Cards, I’m definitely going to miss that barbecue joint being a key setting.

An entire season has gone by and we didn’t reach Election Day. The fourth year of the series came to a close in October, and I was a little frustrated by it. One of the obnoxious things that doomed The Killing on AMC was the first season finale, when most swore off the show forever after a bait and switch and a broken promise as to who killed Rosie Larsen. The ads and the lead writer had made it clear the viewers would know, and then went back on that statement after the fact. The killer was revealed at the end of Season 2, which would have been perfectly fine had the viewers not felt deceived.

How long can the show go without getting to the election? Frank Underwood became President after Walker’s resignation at the tail end of Season 2. He has still not actually won an election during that time, and yes it leaves some big things for next year, but I was disappointed that we didn’t see the results of the vote, instead we see Frank and Claire deciding to take the country into war, because it made their victory much more likely. 13 episodes, all of it in the run-up to the election, but we still didn’t get there. That irked me and still does today. It wasn’t a broken promise. It was just a desire that went unfulfilled.

Absent of that blemish, Season 4 of House of Cards was good television, and let’s talk a bit about that final scene, where we hear Frank laying out the plan, and then we get one of those small screen moments that gave me goose bumps, because of an aesthetically brilliant decision. It was a simple choice that may have been a game changer. Time will tell as to how big it really was, but in March of 2016, it was huge.

In Sons of Anarchy, Season 3 came to a close with a current shot of Jax, Tara, and the club and then a dissolve into a photo of his father, his wife, and the club. The two shots were identical outside of the people within them. That kind of stuff always works enormously for me. Even when Fuller House did it in the series pilot, I dug the effect. I’m a sucker for a callback or any style of deja vu-like creativity, something that opens the door to tie the past to the present or the future.

House of Cards chose to allow Claire Underwood to acknowledge the viewer and the camera in it’s final few seconds, tilting her head to look dead at us, as did Frank. So, we now have a question as to whether Robin Wright will be addressing the audience in Season 5 in addition to Kevin Spacey. That’s an intriguing possibility, but before you engage in that discussion with your friends, however, answer this:

How much more effective and “wow” would that final moment have been had Frank said, “That’s right, we don’t submit to terror,” and then Claire had added, “We are the terror.”

Frank spoke all of that dialogue, but with his wife breaking the wall between herself and the viewer, it would have been so much better and more defining as a snippet of television history for her to speak the final four words of what was an excellent season of the show. It was a great line, but it was a bit of a missed opportunity to leave everyone talking. Not having her speak leaves it open for us to debate whether she ever will or ever should talk, but even if she never did again, I’d have liked to have that moment finish us off for 2016.

We don’t know who wins the election, something that no doubt we will discover in Season 5. Beau Willimon won’t be the one writing the aftermath of that decision, but don’t expect the show to feel markedly different. Most shows are able to navigate a sea change behind the scenes without much disruption, though not all. The West Wing wasn’t the same after Sorkin departed and certainly Community didn’t work particularly well without Dan Harmon. Most of the key players surrounding House of Cards will still be in place, and Beau leaves the series on a high. Though the previous two seasons had massive problems and weren’t fully able to match the quality of the first, Season 4 is high quality stuff.

If you’re someone who considers him or herself to be a fan of House of Cards, there’s very little doubt in my mind you enjoyed Season 4. It’s hard for me to believe you wouldn’t have found much to sink your teeth into, especially if you stuck with the show through an insignificant third year.

What happens next? We’ll probably hit Election Day in the first half of the season, and the aftermath will take us down the stretch. I continue to believe House of Cards would be best served by depicting a Will Conway administration and shift focus on Claire becoming the main player, attempting to rise up to take him down along with her husband. Frank’s jealousy could lead to the final break between the two, and it may make more sense if Trump is the nominee and Hillary is the President by the time the show returns.

If the Underwoods win, I fear it’s going to start feeling very “same old same old.” This season felt fresh and was surgical in its precision. Next season needs to be far more “shit hits the fan” than “SOS” I feel like those in the position to make those decisions recognize how to make good TV, and after watching what was around an A- this year, the confidence level in the future is high.

House of Cards, for those who had lost interest, is back. Season 3 came and went and I barely ever discussed it after my review, which was a little rosier than it should have been in retrospect. But, I know I’m going to be talking about these last 13 episodes for a while with friends and colleagues. That’s the mark of success.

I said in Part 1 on Monday, “This is getting good, folks.” It remained good, became very good, and was often great. The politicial machinations and the calculated maneuvering was so much fun to watch, more so than ever before.

House of Cards has now hit the 52 episode mark, but now, I’m much more interested in opening the second deck. How about you?

I’m @GuyNamedJason. I am not the terror. I’m not sure I’ve ever even met the terror. Although to be honest, if I was the terror, the previous two sentences are exactly what I’d say to deflect accusations. So, maybe I am the terror. Anyway…follow me on Twitter.  

Written by Jason Martin