House of Cards’s fourth season may be as binge-watchable as ever, but missed opportunities and oddly toothless plot developments make it also the most disappointing. [Spoilers ahoy!]
Those who were hoping for the ultimate showdown between Claire and Frank Underwood are going to be sorely disappointed by the predictable outcome. The first six episodes certainly contain some sly political maneuvering between the two characters, but that war of wits is short-lived. For its second half the narrative sidetracks with a new Republican opponent for Frank who feels like a relic from a bygone age, and not anything like the larger-than-life personalities representing the GOP today.
This disconnect from any sort of political reality becomes the show’s ultimate weakness as the morbid fantasy begins to feel tired and oddly dated. House of Cards’s popularity has always stemmed from America’s severe distrust of government, but when a character as corrupt as Frank Underwood gets one-upped by a wet noodle with a perfect smile, you begin to wonder where the real drama is. Frankly, your average news coverage of a Donald Trump rally provides more shock and intrigue.
Season Four picks up directly where the third season left off, as incumbent President Frank Underwood struggles in the party primary, as rival Heather Dunbar eats away at his delegate count. Claire has left her husband but quickly realizes she needs to play the game and keep up appearances if she expects to further her political ambitions. The Underwoods have always needed each other, but for the short time the plot allows it one of the great joys of this season is watching these bloodsuckers toy with each other.
It’s a fun chess match that allows the show to introduce some new players, including Neve Cambell as political consultant Leanne Harvey (who aids Claire in her quest for independent political power), and the legendary Ellen Burstyn who plays Claire’s estranged and conveniently dying mother Elizabeth Hale. Cicily Tyson also joins the cast as Texas Congresswoman Doris Jones, whose seat Claire desperately seaks. But the icy rivalry is stalled in Episode Four when poor, humiliated, and recently-released-from-prison former journalist Lucas Goodwin shoots Frank in a last fit of desperation. He’s gunned down by trusted secret service agent Edward Meechum, who himself dies in the process.
From this point on the season moves slowly towards Frank and Claire’s reconciliation, as she demands that Frank put her on the ticket as his Vice President. Frank rightly calls this scenario out as ridiculous, but the writers choose to play out this plot thread to its absurd conclusion — going all the way to the convention. No matter how methodically showrunner Beau Willimon lays out the argument in Claire’s favor, it can’t help but feel contrived. Perhaps if Frank’s new rival, social media-savvy Republican Governor (of New York no less) Will Conway, didn’t read like an overmatched “regular guy” then Claire’s ascendance to the throne would seem more feasible.
Will Conway is meant to serve as a moral moderate who is in reality just as corrupt as Frank, but when the “hero” of the story is a murderer and Conway’s greatest point of villainy is unethical voter data gathering, the comparison is almost comical. It doesn’t help that actor Joel Kinnaman’s portrayal of Conway mostly relies on vacant pretty-boy good looks matched with unconvincingly droll line delivery. After last season’s tense face-off with Russian President Viktor Petrov, Will Conway is nothing but a huge disappointment.
Even if this season’s story is a letdown, the show still manages to remain as stylistically polished and totally self-assured as any “prestige” drama on television. Oh, don’t worry — House of Cards still revels in its own trashiness, as evidenced by this season’s opening scene which features Lucas Goodwin muttering a sex fantasy for his cellmate to masterbate to. The show has always understood its place in the pantheon of television dramas, but you’d be forgiven if last season tricked you into believing that House of Cards had greater ambitions.
Season 3’s level of script-driven character depth and nuance is largely missing this time around, but that doesn’t affect Robin Wright or Kevin Spacey, who give it their all and consistently provide compelling portraits even when the material doesn’t measure up. Wright in particular continues to own this show (both in front of and behind the camera, directing four of this year’s episodes) as she brings out complex interpretations of a character who should be fairly one-note. But it is the great Ellen Burstyn who steals this season out from everyone with a creation so cunning and venomous it ranks as her best performance since Requiem for a Dream. Her scenes with Robin Wright are so wrought with tension and heartbreak that they resonate as the best of the series so far. And once you hear Burstyn scream “I’M THE MOTHER!”, you’ll not likely shake it.
To its credit, Season Four of House of Cards certainly ends in an interesting place. For once, Frank looks like he could finally lose it all, as Lucas Goodwin’s former boss Tom Hammerschmidt is set to publish a tell-all article that exposes every corrupt dirty trick that Frank pulled to get to the highest office in the land (sans murder). In the midst of a terrorist-led hostage crisis, Frank and Claire come to the conclusion that the only way out of their pickle is to set fear into the hearts of American citizens. On live television, Frank declares war against the (loosely fictional) Islamic Caliphate Organization. The final moments are eerily uncomfortable as Frank and Claire watch emotionless as the hostage is executed via a live feed. But what happens next leaves the season on the kind of cliffhanger that instantly makes the viewer beg for the next season: Claire finally breaks the fourth wall alongside Frank as they stare into the camera’s lens, forever cementing their ruthless partnership.
That kind of ending goes a long way in making Season Four seem more substantial than it really is. In a marathon sitting, House of Cards’s many faults are easily forgivable, but when you stand back and look at the whole it’s becoming harder to care about any of it. The series may touch on issues affecting the American people today like race, guns, and terrorism, but it’s all surface with no substance. The show has no deeper insight into the politics of today. The real-life political circus happening on our shores is far more exciting and frightening than anything House of Cards has on its mind. And with showrunner Beau Willimon leaving his post, it’s hard to imagine just where the trashiest drama on television goes from here. It hardly matters, though. We’ll all be back next year to find out, assuming we’re still around after November 6th.