“Politics is no longer just theatre, it’s show business. So let’s put on the best show in town.”
From the jump, Beau Willimon’s gripping political drama “House Of Cards” had always centered on the nexus where the unquenchable thirst for power meets ambition and Machiavellian opportunism. But in its fourth season, his portrayal of Beltway calculation, political cunning, and White House betrayal somehow managed to appear even more brutal and twisted. It’s the final season for Willimon, the creator and showrunner who recently announced his departure from the series, but the dark cloud that looms as a consequence is oddly fitting. Compared to previous years, ‘HOC’ hung from the sharpest cliff that was season three and fights back the most acerbic aftertaste by the end of season four.
After touching on major contemporary American issues (rising oil prices and gun violence among them), Willimon and his team of writers cap things off with an incendiary and implosive critique on the War on Terror. In the midst of a fresh presidential election, a context that is blazingly in vogue, our favorite conniving political couple mounts a superb and unconventional campaign, forming perhaps the most compelling arc in the show’s history yet. Power and equality, ace themes in the “House Of Cards” deck since episode one, are elevated by motifs of loss, rebirth, and reunification, with the overall direction and writing of the show noticeably tightened since last season. Oh yes, the Underwoods are back with a vengeance, and they’re cuddling up to their basest natures like never before.
POTUS Frank (Kevin Spacey) and FLOTUS Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood pick up where they left off after season three, marriage on the rocks, separated and hyper-vindictive. Claire is visiting her estranged mother, Elizabeth Hale (Ellen Burstyn) in Texas and vying for a seat in Congress. Having won the Iowa caucus by the thinnest of margins last time we saw him, Frank now finds himself mounting a campaign against two opponents: fellow Democratic party member and beacon of integrity Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), and an up-and-coming young Republican Governor from Albany, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is back by Frank’s side, personifying Machiavellian loyalty with stone-faced stoicism, after permanently disposing of Rachel Posner last season, while Claire gets her own Doug in the show’s greatest new character: LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell). As the season finds its footing in the opening episodes, Frank and Claire find the sharpest needles to slash each other’s ego, until Claire uses hers to sew back the tenuous bonds of their partnership. She proposes an idea that’s so radical it re-affirms the show’s place in its abstract world of politics more effectively than any previous murder or immoral ploy ever did. She wants to run with Frank on the same ballot. She wants to be by his side as both First Lady and Vice President.
The catch is that it takes a while for the season to get those wheels in motion as the first six episodes play out like second and third season appendices. Particularly in regards to former journalist Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) and Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), who return to stitch up old subplots with material that feels discarded. Goodwin, whom we last saw behind bars after Frank set him up on charges of cyber-terrorism in season two, works with the FBI to get out early and continues his mission to expose Frank’s darkest secrets. Lucas gets some face-time with Dunbar to convince her that her own suspicions about the President were right all along (remember, she tried to bring him down in the second season too), but without cold hard evidence, she quickly dismisses him as a desperate and unstable man. Abandoned and at the end of his rope, Lucas snaps and – in the show’s first truly stirring moment – takes drastic action against Frank.
In a turn of events that are pretty hard to swallow, Dunbar’s conversation with Goodwin derails her campaign, which paves the path for Frank to take on Conway head-on in the race for President. Meanwhile, the international pot brews as Russian president Petrov resurfaces because of an international dispute with China over oil drilling, with the U.S. forced into the precarious position of keeping its superpower rivals content while trying to keep its own oil prices from climbing.
Both of these narrative threads converge around Claire, who — with Frank indisposed and acting president Donald Blythe (Reed Birney) too much of a jellyfish to handle matters on his own — seizes the opportunity to prove herself in the political arena once and for all. Stripped down to their bottom lines, the Goodwin and Petrov subplots ultimately serve to prove that Claire’s duplicitous nature flourishes way beyond what we’ve seen with her Clear Water Initiative in season one, and short stint as UN ambassador in season three. The difference is that time her husband is not around to stonewall her. Once Frank is back in the picture, and sees the work that she’s done, he realizes that it is in fact he who needs her and not the other way around like he told her in season three’s finale. Not only is Claire a good choice to be his Vice President – she’s the right choice. Husband and wife, at last the equal of two evils, are reunited.
When episode seven starts, with the morning sun shining on the real introduction of the Conways, it’s like the dawn of a revitalized season. In the second half, manipulating sentiment by tapping into voter’s metadata through the search engine Pollyhop is introduced, brilliantly defining the instrumentum regni of 2016 (all the more frightening if you dare to consider what some of the most popular key words for voters of IRL candidates might be), and Will Conway is molded into a engaging foil for Frank – even more so than Petrov last season. The tech-savvy young ex-Marine who builds his cult of personality one selfie at a time is believable as a soldier, but not so much as a politician, which makes Frank’s “pretender/fraud” assessment of him pretty bang-on. Once ICO (the show’s version of ISIS) takes center stage in the final two episodes, watching these two verbally spar is as enticing as any of Frank’s previous head-to-head battles.
Meanwhile, Lucas’s old editor, Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), picks up his ex-colleague’s baton and continues to crack open the case to expose the POTUS for corruption, and author Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) returns as a much more believable man than the one we met in season three. Thanks to the script, Wright’s imperceptibly magnificent acting, and Sparks’ tranquil delivery, the relationship that continues to develop between Tom and Claire since their connection in season three is charged by something rare in the show’s contaminated world; a pure and wordless kind of understanding. It adds a necessary dose of humanity to Claire, who dominates throughout as the emotional and thematic epicenter of the season.
Her decision to be VP swells out of established ground as naturally as sulfurous gas out of an Icelandic crater, and once Frank gets completely on board, watching the Underwood camp comb through kleptocrats to make it happen is watching “House of Cards” at its most powerful. The reunification of husband and wife symbolizes the newly forged bond of equality and power. Claire’s raison d’être for 30 years has been to be respected as Frank’s equal, both in his eyes and in the public’s. As the previous seasons developed, she kept edging further out from his shadow (while continuing to compliment him in their common and insatiable lust for control), and by episode seven here, she’s finally out. She takes the season from weakness to strength in the pivotal sixth episode; watching her puppeteer Blythe and Secretary of State Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson), blindside Doug, stand toe-to-toe with Petrov is watching a woman who has finally found a way to match her husband in every way – and it’s exhilarating.
[Note: The next paragraph spoils a major event in the first half of the fourth season]
Supporting the show’s traditional themes is a heavy emphasis on the ideas of loss and rebirth. Lucas’ assassination attempt backfires with both him and Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) losing their lives, and the memory of Meechum haunts both Claire and Frank throughout the rest of the season. Frank is hospitalized and put on the waiting list for a liver transplant, which sets the stage for Claire to prove herself to Frank and to use Lucas’ action as a noble calling to become a spokesperson against gun violence (a domestic issue that currently haunts America). But more than the idea of losing Frank, it’s the idea of losing her mother — who has been fighting off lymphoma for some time — that empowers Claire to truly become her own woman. Meantime, the beautiful nightmare that is Frank’s liver transplant surgery in episode six sees the POTUS haunted by images of those he murdered — Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) — and through these macabre visions he is, symbolically, reborn. Even his fourth wall breaks make a most delicious comeback episode seven and onwards, symbolizing that he is his new and improved self only once he is fully reunified with Claire and treating her as his equal. It’s not for nothing that it was his liver — the most regenerative organ in the body whose main function is to purify blood — at stake.
[End of Spoiler]
This dark undercoating is neatly layered in the show’s misanthropy as the season pivots towards its better half, where the writing truly shines more than anything else (including Peter Konczal’s quite pallid cinematography). Airtight scripts — greatest of which include Laura Eason’s decisive episode six, Frank Pugliese’s episode nine, and Melissa James Gibson’s and Bill Kennedy’s episode ten — help the performances breathe and the direction thrive. Watching Frank toy with the gelatinous Blythe and lock horns with Cathy Durant in the season’s greatest exchange of political vitriol (“You know what the best story is?”) is Spacey at his hungriest and the script at its most engrossing. Robin Wright not only continues to deliver the performance of her career, but directs the living daylights out of episodes nine and ten, two of the greatest the show has perhaps ever seen. Meanwhile, “House Of Cards” newcomers Kari Skogland finishes off a rather shaky episode eleven by directing the greatest ending of the season. Of the new actors in front of the camera, it’s Neve Campbell who stands out by some margin. We see more of her in the opening stages, but her performance is so assured and controlled throughout the season that all of Hollywood should be collectively ashamed for letting this woman slip through the cracks without a good role for this long.
She fits in perfectly, and one great example is when LeAnn looks at an emotional sea of hysterical voters that her boss just played like a fiddle, turns to Yates and says, “Jesus. You did great work.” It’s the show’s most sobering moment in disguise by the way it reveals the biggest loser of any political game played in this show: the American voter. Not the elected official who is strong-armed into going against his conscience, nor the spineless VP who can’t see he’s being manipulated, but the collective American voice that chants, “Underwood! Underwood!” and chokes up on cue. That’s when the addictive surface in “House Of Cards” reveals the toxicity underneath. Therein lies the true power behind the show, and in this regard, the fourth season reaches hew heights.
Once we get through the slow start, the far-fetched theatrics, and Frank’s early, discombobulated, hallucinations, episode six wakes up the sleeping giant that the season ultimately grows up to be. Established themes evolve through new layers, and we get to see the empowered Claire Underwood take center stage in blistering fashion. We’re left with a remarkable cliffhanger and with some of the greatest work both behind and in front of the camera in the second half, and we have our proof that Pugliese and Gibson will make more-than-worthy showrunning replacements for Willimon, who gets a fitting adieu by writing the scorching finale.
His thoughts on the War on Terror are crystal clear once Frank delivers those killer last lines, and the looming cloud that signals the creator’s departure is fitting as the show ends on both the Underwood’s and America’s darkest hour. Also eerily fitting is how this season comes at a time when America is experiencing a ridiculous and frightening presidential election of its own, in real life. And the darkest thing of all? 10 hours of “House Of Cards” feels practically muzzled in comparison to 10 minutes of “America’s Choice 2016” on CNN. We can only hope that real-life voters aren’t as firmly held by what the Ancient Greeks called “invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry” come November.
These terrors and pageants keep the surface in “House Of Cards” furiously entertaining and binge-worthy. But perhaps the most glistening crowning achievement of the fourth season is how, time and time again, Willimon and his team reveal the scathing fury that bubbles underneath. [A-]
We’re not done yet! Go to the next page for a brisk rundown of a miscellaneous “Best/Worst” list of season highlights, and be sure to share your thoughts on the latest from “House Of Cards” in the comments below. Is it a worthy sendoff for Willimon? What did you think of Kinnaman and the rest of the new cast? Let us know!
MVP: We couldn’t live without Kevin Spacey’s Frank, but #TeamClaire has grown ever-stronger since Season 3, and by this season’s second half, takes full control of the switchboard. Robin Wright has undoubtedly become the main star of the show.
The Best Shot: The shadowy figure of Frank at the top of the staircase in a White House backroom, during a meeting that never happened with Aidan and Doug. (Episode 11, shot by David M. Dunlap.)
Greatest Freudian Slip: Frank replacing “trash” for “tragedy” when he says, “one man’s tragedy is another man’s treasure” in Episode 9, written by Frank Pugliese.
The Episode That Flip-Flops The Most: Episode 11, directed and written by Kari Skogland and Tian Jun Gu. Flopping with the butter-fingered handling of Freddy (besides the enormous satisfaction we get from Reg E. Cathey’s delivery of “motherfucker”) and Doug’s creepiness, and flipping with some of Kinnaman’s finest Conway moments and that incredible ending (see below).
Biggest WTF Moment: Aidan (Damian Young) taking his shirt off, putting on headphones, and flailing his arms to dance music in the metadata-montage. A tonal shift so sudden and discordant, it begs for its own YouTube reaction video. (Episode e8: directed by Alex Graves, written by John Mankiewicz)
The Most Politically Correct Moment: An inserted interview excerpt, disconnected from any event in the story, of an Ibrahim Halabi, American-Muslim community leader explaining how ICO doesn’t represent Islam and how “the moment bigotry becomes a form of patriotism, America is no longer America” in Episode 12, written by Bill Kennedy and Melissa Gibson.
The Least Politically Correct Moment: Having the African-American congresswoman, Celia (LisaGay Hamilton), who withdrew her support for Frank after the KKK incident in Episode 3, flip back to Claire’s side and arrange for the entire state of Texas to vote for her as potential VP in Episode 9. A great reminder of a fundamental rule in the political game: no matter how deep the cut, money is often the best band-aid.
Eeriest Parallel To The IRL Election: As surreal as it is, the KKK stunt in Episode 3 mirroring Trump’s David Duke blunder on CNN actually comes second for me. Top honors go to five words spoken by Heather Dunbar — the most honorable character “House of Cards” has ever had — during her exit speech: “Controversy has trumped the issues.” Insanely analogous, right down to the verb.
Joel Kinnaman’s Greatest Moment: As fun as it is to watch Conway squirm and get annoyed in the final two episodes, Kinnaman is on top form with his sleazy, succinct, dismissive delivery of, “Hmm, let’s go,” to his driver in Episode 11. He just hung up in the President’s face, gleefully, and exudes more arrogance in one mumble and one word than in entire episodes.
Most Underused Actor/Character: Kim Dickens as Kate Baldwin. Again. It’s bad enough she was wasted in Season 3, but we see even less of her in Season 4. Instead, it’s Tom Hammerschmidt who gets to crack the case, after he tells her to let it go. More Kate please.
If There’s One Character We Need More Of In Season Five, It’s: LeAnn Harvey (with Kate Baldwin right behind her in case you’re wondering). Neve Campbell has slipped into the role of the female version of Doug with a fierce, ninja-like grace, going toe-to-toe with Wright, Spacey, and Kelly and leaving an indelible mark.
If There’s One Character We Need Less Of In Season Five, It’s: The auxiliary bundle of Jackie, Remy, and Freddy. They’ve done more than their fair share. Time to pull out of the race.
Frank’s Greatest Hallucination: Fan favorites Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) haunting him in Episode 6, culminating in a claustrophobic spiritual face-squish like something out of a Björk music video. Frank and his fourth wall breaks are reborn.
Frank’s Worst Hallucination: Every other hallucination.
The Greatest Fourth Wall Break: Telling us how Sulla, the Roman emperor, defeated his younger opponent, while measuring his blood pressure. “Hmm, 110 over 80. Not bad.” (Episode 7, written by Bill Kennedy.)
The Best Ending To An Episode: The threesome morning routine in Episode 11, directed by Kari Skogland. As Jeff Beal‘s jazzy theme coils around the soundtrack, this is the wordless definition of what makes this perverted show so goddamn attractive.
The Worst Ending To An Episode: “I AM THE MOTHER!” Ellen Burstyn hamming it up at the end of Episode 2 is Season 4 at its most ostentatious and theatrical. Claire smokes outside on the lawn, trying to make sense of it all.
Juiciest One-Liner: “You know the difference between a politician and the rest of the species? A politician will drown a litter of kittens for ten minutes of prime time.” (Episode 9, written by Frank Pugliese.)