Some may disagree, but the early appeal of Netflix’s flagship original series was based largely in its sensationalized elements — the juicy twists and turns that thrust the narrative forward as Frank and Claire Underwood plotted, schemed and lied their way into positions of greater and greater power. As anyone who’s up-to-date knows, the power couple’s ascension was far quicker than many anticipated, as Frank became President with a few taps on the desk to close out the second season. It was certainly thrilling to watch him run cons long and short in getting there, but what was he supposed to do next? Where would his quest for power lead him after obtaining the highest office in the land? What heights still faced this unstoppable climber?
The answer provided in Season 3 was “reelection.” After all, President Underwood wasn’t voted into office, so earning his next term was bound to be a challenge. And while the brutal nature of presidential campaigns is something today’s audiences can testify to holding plenty of opportunities for juicy backroom conniving, the events of last season were frustratingly enigmatic and utterly redundant. Beau Willimon and his writing staff felt like they were either stalling or making a play for relevance on a show that was built as a soap opera; a grand, beautifully captured and well-acted soap opera, but a series made around melodrama, nonetheless.
The issue lied in that Season 3 was messy and unsatisfying melodrama, making for many upset fans who — whether they knew it or not — were looking for exactly what Willimon seemed to be moving away from, even if he didn’t know precisely how to go about it. As much becomes all the clearer in Season 4, a 13-episode odyssey split almost exactly into two distinct arcs. The first deals specifically with last year’s cliffhanger as Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) meet each other as enemies instead of allies, while the second addresses the sins of the past; a thread strongly hinted at in the ominous teaser trailers. And though it might be tempting to see a cavalcade of returning players and plots as Willimon growing desperate to recapture the show’s glory days, “House of Cards” remains strictly in line with its new mission statement — and succeeds.
In other words, don’t expect the wild twists of years past. Even Frank’s signature move of turning to speak directly to the camera is muted throughout much of the first arc. (Dating back to last season, Frank goes nearly three episodes without so much as a wink to the audience.) Of course, there are still a few surprises, but Willimon handles them without the garish bluntness of old, instead fitting each development snugly into place like a puzzle piece part of a board only he can see. For some, this kind of deliberate pacing may make what used to be a fun, addictive binge feel a bit sluggish. And the new season does lack a bit of the ferocity that helped Netflix’s first foray into original programming immediately stand out. But it’s also the most mature take on this fictional political landscape to date; a decision made all the more interesting — and possibly important — because of how preposterous the real-life presidential race has already become.
Whether Willimon decided on this more stringent tone in response to world affairs or for the betterment of the show in general isn’t all that relevant. What matters is that he pulled it off, and he did so while paying fan service to former favorites and introducing new, enticing characters, as well. While I won’t be listing any of the key returning players from the first two seasons (why spoil the fun?), recognizing the massive cast is key in appreciating the ambition of Season 4. What could have been errant, extraneous introductions — like Claire’s mother, played by the incomparable Ellen Burstyn — proved to be rather inspired pathways into a deeper understanding of our main characters. We may not get to know Claire as well as we’d like, but her inscrutability is part of her allure, and Wright’s performance tells as much as any dialogue could dream to do. As far as incorporating the returning players goes, not only how, but when new faces connect to old ones is nothing short of remarkable. Nothing happens by chance. No one shows up without purpose (well, almost no one). For such a hefty portion, there’s very little fat on this rack of ribs.
The second half of the season dips slightly into the old “House of Cards” sauce, triggering its course with a mysterious and lengthy machination meant to make fans giddy with excitement (and earning it, for the most part), but also upping the ante, in a way, regarding one of Frank and Claire’s more daring sexual endeavors. Still, the payoffs aren’t meant to be wild this season. “House of Cards” is aiming at authenticity, and — for what feels like the first time — consistently finding it. The closing message is one that harkens back to America’s recent past while serving as a warning for its future. Considering how perfectly Season 4 blends past and present, such an intimidating final note should also serve as a beaming ray of hope for a series many were worried had peaked. At the very least, Willimon can move on with his head held high, knowing he’s successfully progressed “House of Cards” from a rich soap to serious drama.