Friday 20 April 2018

House of Cards season 4 review: 'Consistently satisfying and deeply compelling - a triumphant return to form'

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright who star in House of Cards.
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright who star in House of Cards.

Meadhbh McGrath

With each new season of House of Cards, you can be guaranteed one thing will happen: in his quest for power, the endlessly ambitious Frank Underwood will encounter many obstacles and adversaries who seem up to the task, but he will always prevail at the very last moment.

Watching Kevin Spacey’s spectacularly camp politician being driven to rage is always fun, but the show has been criticised for not giving him a truly worthy opponent.

In its fourth season, however, Netflix’s flagship series has finally found someone formidable enough to really threaten our antihero: his wife.

In the last moments of season three, Claire (played by Robin Wright, who always brings a bristling chill to the role) announced she was leaving Frank, having realised he needed her more than she needed him. As the fourth season opens, we find a house divided, and the President struggling with the aftermath of his separation.

Michael with co-stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.
Michael with co-stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

The series mirrors real life by placing Frank back on the campaign trail, in the hopes of being re-elected. Soaring gas prices have turned the public against him, and he faces tough opposition in the form of Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), his rival for the Democratic party nomination. In an oddly prescient move, the KKK make an appearance to jeopardise Frank’s position.

Spacey is spellbinding as ever, and although there are far less of Frank’s fourth wall-breaking monologues (in the first half of the season, anyway), they are replaced by another surrealist device. We delve into Frank’s psyche with a series of striking dream sequences, as the show digs deep into its history and old skeletons come back to haunt him.

Loyal: Michael Kelly as White House Chief of Staff Doug Stamper in 'House of Cards'.
Loyal: Michael Kelly as White House Chief of Staff Doug Stamper in 'House of Cards'.

Lars Mikkelsen reprises his role as the eerily accurate Putin understudy Viktor Petrov, and we see the return of one of Frank’s oldest foes, but neither can match the brewing tension between the couple at war.

Caught in between Claire and Frank, we find Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), loyal as ever, and Claire’s steely new campaign adviser, Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell).

House of Cards - Neve Campbell makes her debut
House of Cards - Neve Campbell makes her debut

Of course, the relationship between Frank and Claire has always been the show’s most fascinating source of drama, and really, this season belongs to Claire.

Having grown tired of playing kingmaker, she now wants to be king, and heads to Texas in an attempt to relaunch her career. But before she tries to woo the sitting congresswoman (a sensational Cicely Tyson), she must get to grips with her ailing mother (Ellen Burnstyn). Throughout the show, Claire more than any other character has remained a mystery, but when she returns to her ghostly childhood home and spars with her mother, we get a new insight into what drives her.

Feeling impotent in her relationship with Frank, we see her cruelly asserting her power over her mother. Burnstyn is a welcome addition to the cast, as is Tyson’s Doris Jones and her daughter Celia.

Claire is intent on usurping Doris’s position, and the tension between Claire, a pampered white woman who feels entitled to the role, and Celia Jones, a hard-working black woman who has spent 10 years preparing to take over from her mother, allows the show to explore racial dynamics in a way we haven’t seen it attempt before.

Ultimately, season four pulls the show back from the plodding and brazenly ham-fisted mess we were presented with last year. While some viewers worried that House of Cards lost its way once Frank made it into the White House, the new episodes provide solid evidence that it has corrected its course and knows exactly which direction it’s headed in.

This is Beau Willimon’s last season as showrunner, and his breathless plotting and sharp dialogue will be sorely missed. Happily for us, he decided to go out with a bang.

There are still outlandish moments — in particular, a jaw-dropping incident a few episodes in that changes the game for everyone on the show — but this time around, it is consistently satisfying and always deeply compelling. A triumphant return to form.

House of Cards season four lands on Netflix today.

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