Review: ‘House of Cards,’ The Complete Fourth Season for Binge Viewers (SPOILERS)

House of Cards Complete Fourth Season
Courtesy of Netflix

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.

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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.

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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.

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  1. Zen says:

    Is Brian Lowry a literary pseudonym or do colleagues give you (expletive) about looking like Leonard Maltin?

  2. Zen says:

    This is my favorite season. I know this because it’s the only time I bothered going online to see what other people/critics reactions are to it. In fact, I was tired of the show at the end of Season 3 so it helps that I took a break and then to my astonishment, I binge watched from episode 4 or 5 to the end in one stop. The line about “checking your intelligence at the door” when watching this season is ridiculous. It’s a TV SHOW – you should check your intelligence because you forgot TV dramas are meant to entertain people. I love the implausabilities (sp) and the all out war on fundamentalist / extremest Islam gives me goosebumps because I wish we could stamp out all religious extremists – sorry but you people are crazy.

  3. The guy who plays Conway is hopelessly miscast. No charisma, bland

    • Zen says:

      he looks like a young Keith Carradine to me. My only disappointment is that he turns out to be almost as much of a scumbag as Spacey’s character. I thought the show was going “good vs evil” but having a polar opposite political figure with morals and integrity is a total stretch even for this show :)

  4. makusa8888 says:

    Suddenly a candidate appointing his spouse as a running mate doesn’t look so far-fetched. There’s a small chance Trump could name his daughter as his. Not likely, but it’s actually in the realm of serious discussion. Amazing…

  5. bluemachine says:

    Wondering why on earth no Arabic speaker was in the basement with Claire or in the situation room with the President when Al Ahmadi speaks on video. In real life that would likely be one of the first things ensured.

  6. figureditout says:

    I wrapped up season 4 last night. It’s clear to all that Claire will become President next season when Frank dies from the failed liver transplant, right?

  7. HodjPodj66 says:

    Just watched the last ep last night (IMHO the show is better when not binged on). I agree some of the plot devices were a bit beyond belief, I get that the story of Claire’s rise to power is what the season was about. I liked it. It made me think, is reality stranger than fiction or fiction stranger than reality?

  8. Agree with a lot of this. However, I liked the first half over the second. I wanted Frank to wake up and give his wife hell when he found out what she did. When he forgave and agreed with her plan, I rolled my eyes and lost interest. Claire’s ice queen performance is tiresome. Does anyone connects with this woman? The whole second half with Conway bored me. Just seems like I seen that part of a storyline before. But couldn’t imagine a sitting president bringing Conway into the Situation Room. Everybody is doing Frank’s job but him.

  9. Michael McDonald says:

    I don’t think you need to check your brain at the door when watching this show. Yes many of the events are exaggerated but isn’t every show? Even the West Wing has its moments of sheer ridiculousness. As for Claire becoming VP i think House of Cards does a good job of making it seem plausible. Claire is not just any first lady, and i think the move to make her VP adds a lot of intrigue to the show. For the first two seasons i always felt many of Claire’s story lines ran beside Franks. After she gets the VP nomination their stories are much more intertwined than before, and watching Spacey and Wright “Make the Terror” together is so immensely enjoyable to watch. As for it being unbelievable or absurd I think that element of it also parodies current politics. The current Republican front runner actually has a chance of being elected. Now that is unbelievable and absurd and that’s real life.

  10. George says:

    This show has become sooo slow and boring. The episodes directed by Robin Wright are simply not good. This last season is it for me….watch it as terror rules..

  11. Jeffrey says:

    I’m not so sure one could totally check their brain at the door. A lot of the back door deals, crisis management and invention look a lot like the last three decades in politics (the Underwoods dilemma withstanding). Many have checked their brains at the door right now in real time politics…look at what’s going on TODAY….

  12. Aj says:

    Boring…same one dimensional acting and character development and its plot is getting silly as a Super girl network show. Downton Abbey is 100X times better than this fictionally unbelievable story line.

  13. Dan says:

    This show is loosely based on a couple Shakespearean plays… so one would expect operatic, over-the-top levels of villainy and palace intrigue. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright Penn are deliciously equal parts psychopathic and evil in their roles. Yes, even the Bard would be impressed.

    It’s a twist on twisted, real life politics or haven’t you read the news lately?

  14. hopeyjam says:

    Two comments:
    Yes, the show is an exaggeration of DC in some ways (and it’s not plausible that the President could choose his wife as the VP candidate). However, there were some parts of this season that were actually a milder version of what’s ACTUALLY happening irl.
    Second, I agree with NiceGuyinCT. It’s called “House of Cards”. It seems cynical, because it’s telling a story about two people who are precariously building something elaborate that is destined to fail miserably. Thinking otherwise would be like wondering if in Breaking Bad, Walt would stop making meth, set out on a quest to make amends, sell all his worldly possessions, and start a charity to help teens recover from drugs & alcohol.

  15. mp says:

    They ruined the show by making him become Vice President and President so quickly. How can he push someone in front of a train if he has secret service around him every second and hes trapped in the White House every scene. Then they ruined it more by not sticking to the realism of politics and started getting cartoonish. We all know the threesome with the secret service agent was when the show jumped the shark.

  16. NiceGuyInCT says:

    Of course it’s awash in cynicism. For pete’s sake, it is called “House of Cards”.

  17. apartamente says:

    cant wait to see it

  18. Justin D says:

    @blowryontv Not to criticize your criticism, but throughout the article you used the phrases “escaping into it as fiction” and “several bridges too far,” maintaining a trend that HOC is over the top and absurd……yet as I read your article, I was thought to myself…..”Wait a minute….isn’t that exactly what makes HOC so unique so damn good! It’s a realistic take on D.C. politics, combined with dynamite acting and a semi-fictional twist!” Then, at the end, you mentioned the “exaggerated window.” Exactly! Compared to HOC, The West Wing is a merely a run-of-the-mill political series, and House of Cards belongs in it’s own sub-genre!

  19. Dale says:

    We have Donald Trump running for President this cycle, and you think this season was exaggerated. The point of the show is not to take it merely at face value but to evaluate how quickly we are willing to give into racism, bigotry and even nepotism when we are confronted with the emotion of fear.

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