How ‘House of Cards’ Got Its Groove Back (Season 4 Review)
Let’s take a moment to look back…at Dexter. Everything was ticking along nicely, the characters were developing well and then we had the introduction of the Trinity Killer in season 4. John Lithgow brought a whole new dimension to the show and they closed on a shocking and incredible moment of television. In the months that followed we were curious as to how they were going to top this. As it turns out, they weren’t. This halfway point for the series was the high watermark they’d never reach again.
The conclusion to season 2 of House of Cards had a similar feel. The show began with the devilish Underwoods seeking revenge on the president and his staff over an overlooked promotion, and the second season ended with them having achieved this goal. They’d eliminated or depowered their enemies and taken the crown, ending the final episode on a truly unforgettable image.
Where do they go from here? Season 3 began with Stephen Colbert dropping in a plot thread about unemployment, kicking off Underwood’s welfare reform. We also got a new antagonist in the form of not-Putin, someone who operates on the world stage and can give the new president a run for his money. Sadly, none of this carried the same bite as the previous story arcs. Underwood couldn’t destroy not-Putin the way he destroys local enemies, so the conflict fizzles. New journalistic characters don’t pose a threat like the ones left on the tracks. The Underwood’s had done such a thorough job of beating back their opponents that the tank was devoid of sharks. As a result season 3 never had those jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing moments the show had become known for.
Season 3 could’ve been the beginning of the end for House of Cards, and that would have been sad. Fortunately for us season 4 has put the show back on track in a big way. What follows contains vague spoilers.
Although the third season was a step backwards for the show, it was still excellent television and ended on a fantastic moment. The Underwoods had split, meaning that the new season opens with Claire and Frank Underwood facing off against each other. This is a great direction for the show to take, but certainly not a sustainable one. Eventually one would have to prevail and the foundation of the show would be damaged. This plot thread plays out just as long as long as it needs to, and sheds new light on their lives and history.
Once resolved, the repaired dynamic between the two gives way to new stories reflecting issues from the real world. A public shooting not only puts the nation on edge, but brings the gun issue to the fore. Like in US politics there are those pushing their ideals and those working a political agenda and seeking to make the nation a safer place can lead to career destruction. We also get, later in the season, an extremist Islamic hostage situation and domestic surveillance. Like gun control these are plots that explore hotly contentious issues, bringing the very public concerns into this fictional world and alluding to the politicians who use these fears and events for their own gain.
In addition to these well written story arcs, Frank Underwood is once again surrounded by enemies. We have Claire Underwood working against him, we have not-Putin causing grief on the international stage, we have journalist Tom Hammerschmidt building a case against the president, Lucas Goodwin looking for revenge, Heather Dunbar threatening his position as the Democratic nominee and his Secretary of State turning against him. Then there’s Joel Kinnaman (from The Killing and upcoming Suicide Squad) as the Republican nominee Gov. Conway. Conway and his family are young, charming and make extensive use of social media to connect with the public. He’s a different kind of threat, one that could reasonably challenge Underwood on his own turf and may prove to be no less dangerous.
As to the extended cast of characters, there’s only a few side plots running. Doug Stamper’s unhealthy relationship status has been put to rest and he plays a smaller role this season. He does find a new, twisted love interest but it’s only a small part of the show, possibly in response to it being an overbearing story thread last year. Neve Campbell and Ellen Burstyn join the cast as a new strategist who does not put up with Frank’s venom and Claire’s mother respectively, each adding new challenges to the core cast.
More importantly, we aren’t left wondering what will happen next. We’re not curious as to the new direction the show will take or how this new development will play out (we knew the Underwoods would stay together). This season finale leaves us chomping at the bit for more. We know what the Underwood’s are going to do next and we can’t wait to see it.
Now I’m going to cryogenically freeze myself until the next season because this one was awesome.