By now, fans have had a week to binge their way through the fourth season of “House of Cards,” and based strictly on anecdotal evidence via social media, for many that’s become a sort-of ritual. So having now consumed all 13 episodes, here’s a complete, spoiler-laden review of a season characterized by its focus on the show’s central relationship as well as political flourishes that proved as intriguing as they were implausible.
In some respects, the season – which really amounted more to Season 4A, given where it ended, than a complete arc – addressed a longstanding complaint by giving President Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) an adversary worthy of him – namely, his steely wife, Claire (Robin Wright). It took an assassination attempt to bring the dynamic duo back together, but as Frank’s blessing of Claire’s affair made clear, their partnership has morphed into an entirely professional exercise, with a shared lust for power having supplanted more conventional matrimonial bonds.
As usual, the season contained some striking parallels to reality – including a brokered political convention and references to the challenge involved filling a Supreme Court seat during an election year – to augment all those cameos by on-air talent from CNN (and a few from other channels), playing themselves. There were also amusing demonstrations of the way the Underwoods play their marks, including a clever sequence that cut back and forth between Frank and Claire as they promised two different people the same job as Secretary of State.
The show closed with a rather searing indictment of how politicians use fear of terrorism to protect their turf, with Underwood overtly stating as much, saying ominously, “We make the terror.”
For all its smarts, though, “House of Cards” continued to indulge in flights of fancy that on their face seem so ridiculous as to break one out of the reverie associated with escaping into it as fiction. Foremost, it’s virtually impossible to imagine a scenario where a sitting president would choose his wife as his vice presidential running mate, no matter how hard the Underwoods worked to make it look like that was someone else’s idea. While the Clintons have established a precedent for a First Lady to pursue her own political career, that sort of direct nepotism – and how it would be perceived and covered – still feels like several bridges too far, as did the three-cornered bank shots the couple had to sink in order to pull it off.
Even the notion of a joint president/vice president debate seemed odd, as if it were a doubles match in tennis, with the pairs trading volleys back and forth. And while any one of these beats might be glossed over, the process of bingeing the show – and watching episodes in a concentrated frame – actually tends to heighten the impact of such absurdities, not mitigate them.
Similarly, the program’s history of having the Underwoods’ political opponents commit serious tactical blunders lingers. That included his Republican challenger, Gov. Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), who initially came across like a younger version of Frank, someone who was both ruthless and resourceful, shrewdly using social media to advance his image and agenda.
In the closing two episodes, though, the governor not only stumbled into a situation that put him at Underwood’s mercy – serving as a conduit to terrorists who had kidnapped a family – but then broke down and expressed regret about his military service, an attribute that he was successfully using to burnish his credentials. The candidate’s wife, Hannah (Dominique McElligott), did much the same by baring her soul to Claire, although it did produce one especially priceless exchange, where Hannah asks if Claire regrets not having children, and Claire icily wonders how often she regrets having had them.
Simply put, too many beats in “House of Cards” have played out along these lines, with the Underwoods’ promising antagonists making such rookie errors. If heroes are only as good as their villains, it would seem to follow that an antihero be filtered through a similar lens.
Moreover, the show maintained its habit of devoting a sizable portion of the season to a journalist delving into the Underwoods’ affairs, which, historically, has ended pretty horribly for the reporter. In this case, the story actually got published, forcing Frank and Claire to hatch their semi-desperate scheme to scare the nation into forgetting about their transgressions.
In a way, “House of Cards” has positioned itself as the anti-“The West Wing.” Both shows deal with the peculiarities of politics, and the impediments to getting things done. Yet while the latter ultimately tilted toward principles and passion, featuring people who genuinely cared about the country and were committed to service, this modern twin is utterly awash in cynicism. Practically everyone in “House of Cards” is operating out of self-interest and playing angles – in another great line, Frank wryly jokes that a politician would “drown a litter of kittens for 10 minutes of primetime” – with the Underwoods’ defining feature being that they’re just better at it than everyone else.
Tellingly, the season played out the campaign storyline over what would be more than three months had the show aired on a weekly basis, without bringing that plot to a resolution. That leaves Underwood’s reelection as a strong hook for launching into the fifth season, albeit under new management, with showrunner Beau Willimon moving on.
The main takeaway from Season 4 is that as houses divided go, the Underwoods are better off sticking together than they ever will be apart. After meandering a bit in the early going – including those tiresome flashbacks during Frank’s hospitalization – there was also a greater sense of urgency over the last handful of episodes, their flaws notwithstanding.
As noted in this season’s initial review based on six episodes, with its stellar cast and showy moments, “House of Cards” remains highly entertaining, especially if you’re willing to check your brain at the door. Still, the Emmy-nominated program has built its reputation in part on the exaggerated window that it provides into the world of politics. And that works best when the image that comes back is just slightly cracked, not the equivalent of a fun-house mirror.