[This review contains elements from the first three episodes House of Cards season 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
One complaint leveled against House of Cards is that, in its trashy, often narrow approach to the world of politics, Frank Underwood's road to the White House was too smooth. In just two seasons, the power-mad politician's gaping maw had made a quick feast of all his desires, making the season 3 shift from the Underwoods as underdogs to the Underwoods as two of the most powerful people in the world feel a little like the road ended at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. To combat this, the series shifted away from the sweeping machinations of a wicked and underhanded man who scammed his way into the presidency to focus more directly on certain individual arcs. The result was a largely inert third season that, despite some compelling moments for Frank, Claire, and even Doug Stamper, felt largely inconsequential in comparison to the hours that had come before.
It's not unusual for a series to try a new approach to an old story – especially if it's the only story the show has – but in these exploratory turns, the disadvantages to being one of television's preeminent built-to-binge series become clearer. Because the season is delivered all at once, so it can be consumed at the discretion of those watching, a program like House of Cards can find itself stuck in whatever wrong or simply misguided turns it finds itself making. In other words, the show isn't afforded the chance to correct course, or, to borrow an idiom used in a far more caustic look at the world of politics: it doesn't get to switch horses midstream.
As such, at the start of season 4, there's a feeling that Beau Willimon and the rest of the House of Cards team have not just set out to correct course, they've overcorrected and possibly sent the series skidding into uncertainty. There is something appealing about a show careening out of control; it lends an air of possibility to the proceedings, which have, as is common amongst certain shows entering their fourth seasons, begun to stagnate under the creatively suppressive rule of the status quo.
As with any season of the show, all anyone really cares about is what Frank and Claire are up to, so the promise of both the season 3 finale and the season 4 premiere – that the couple was potentially headed in opposite directions, or, better yet, into a head-on collision with one another – was the sort of aggressive (and easy-to-undo) shake-up the series could present as a real development. After killing off its most promising and conflict-ready characters season after season, House of Cards had arrived at an irreducible conflict, one that couldn't be asphyxiated or pushed in front of a subway train or buried out in the desert. This was a conflict that must be taken all the way to its end because these are the characters the show – and as far as the show is concerned, its audience – is most invested in.
Or at least that is how the series would like to present the Frank vs. Claire scenario, given it is the crux of season 4 – during the early episodes, anyway. The divergence between the two has all the hallmarks of a great story, especially since their united front is the cornerstone of the House of Underwood.
But, in true House of Cards fashion, no matter how brightly one plot's potential may shine, the luminescence of a half a dozen more (introduced in rapid-fire succession) proves difficult to resist. This feels largely like a response to the criticisms leveled against the show in season 3. It is the aforementioned over correction sending the series into a skid. But the more of season 4 you watch, the more apparent it becomes the skid – or the appearance of the skid – is staged by the premiere and the next few episodes that follow. The writers have chosen to combat accusations of a lack of material with all of the material; they have decided the sluggishness of season 3 will be tempered with a bustling season 4 where not only do things happen, they happen so quickly the viewer has no idea whether or not they matter.
It's a bit like a sleight of hand trick in which the magician actually wants the volunteer to think there's something up his otherwise empty sleeve. As its distraction, the first hour introduces Joel Kinnaman's selfie-taking Governor Conway via one of countless expository news segments playing in the background. But it also offers up Neve Campbell's pistol-packing Leann Harvey, a lawyer hired by Claire to somehow facilitate her own Machiavellian power-grab, as well as the First Lady's heretofore-unmentioned mother, played by Ellen Burstyn. The fresh faces add an alluring glimmer to the otherwise familiar events – Claire and Frank have tense negotiations about one another's future, wherein one of them inevitably tells the other the right course of action is to wait, that their time will come. This, in turn, is met with more backstabbing and attempts to undermine the other – as Frank does by scuttling Claire's shot at a political position by dedicating the majority of his State of the Union address to a breast cancer clinic the poor target of Claire's ambition has been trying to build in Dallas for the last decade.
Yes, these deceitful maneuvers are why so many people tune in to House of Cards in the first place, and if that's what you're into, then more power to you. But enjoyment of facile duplicity aside, the idea that a sitting president (heavily campaigning for reelection, mind you) would bury a dig at his wife in one of the most heavily scrutinized speeches anyone will ever give is possibly more than even the most ardent House of Cards fan excuse. It's silly, yes. This show is silly, yes. But there are limits to everything. And when the season begins with Sebastian Arcelus' mostly forgotten character improvising a stale bodice ripper to help his cellmate…uh, pass the time, the artlessness of Frank's self-congratulatory, winking power plays give you get the distinct feeling that House of Cards is content doing pretty much the exact same thing.
House of Cards season 4 is available in its entirety on Netflix. Screen Rant will have more reviews on the season soon.
Photos: David Giesbrecht/Netflix
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