Writer’s note: While we have tried to keep this review as spoiler free as possible, if you’re determined to stay pure, we suggest that you get caught up with seasons one through three of “House of Cards” (2013 – present) before reading this review.
Netflix’s flagship original series, the political drama “House of Cards,” returned for a fourth season on March 4. The show’s previous seasons chronicled the underhand ascension of ruthless politician Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) from Democratic House Majority whip to President of the United States and then the beginning of his time in office. At the beginning of season four, Underwood is fighting his first election against a challenge from within his own party — in 2016.
“House of Cards” was always a warped lens through which audiences could view their own political reality and, as such, has never shied away from fictionalizing the issues of the day. Previous seasons have dealt with corporate money in politics, government surveillance and a thuggishly assertive Russian president. Now, “House of Cards” is tackling the cut and thrust of a presidential election, from the delegate math, to the muck raking to the back-room deal making.
Season 4’s opening scene is dark. Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arecelus) — the tragically disgraced journalist who dared challenge the Underwoods — sits on the top bunk of a prison cell narrating an erotic fantasy as a muscular tattooed man masturbates on the bed below. After the series’s longstanding title-sequence, the action shifts to Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) rehearsing a speech on Air Force One. The juxtaposition of gritty, less-comfortable settings with the understated elegance of the political elite’s haunts has been a core element of the series since its beginning. These stark contrasts give the audience an insight into both sides of the political coin: the glamorous lives of the Machiavellian governors and the unvarnished, hardscrabble reality of the governed. Season four continues to use this motif to great effect, with Lucas’ challenging circumstances and disheveled appearance immediately testifying to the power of the Underwoods.
Beyond Goodwin, Frank and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) have left a string of shattered enemies in their wake, and the pair’s flawless cooperation has long been the driving force behind the series. But the end of season three saw a dramatic fracture in the pair’s relationship that has not healed by the beginning of season four. Season four’s opening sees Frank and Claire working against each other, each using their considerable political savvy in cloak-and-dagger attempts to undermine the other. To see the House of Underwood divided against itself is a welcome twist on one of the series’ constants and keeps the new season from feeling stale.
The pedigree of the cast has always been one of the show’s strongest points and the acting is as strong as ever. Kevin Spacey still exudes the same menacing air and polished, gravely gravitas that defines Frank Underwood, but the character’s newly grey hair lends him a haggard aspect that shows that, even for a man as ruthless as Frank, the presidency takes its toll. Robin Wright is outstanding as Claire Underwood, bringing an effortless poise to a relentless and driven character that would seem merely cold in the hands of a lesser actor. The supporting cast also does a wonderful job fleshing out the world of Washington. Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper is particularly good, moving like a chameleon between off-puttingly polished manners and unrestrained, dead-eyed violence.
Along with the stellar acting, the show’s presentation is on point. Jeff Beal’s soundtrack has always provided the series an understated, yet atmospheric aural foundation and Beal’s trademark walking baseline, far off horns and pensive strings still subtly complement whatever action is unfolding on the screen.
Along with its characteristic soundscape, visually, “House of Cards” has maintained its characteristic lighting and liberal use of depth of field, both of which serve to keep the focus squarely on the character (or characters) doing the talking.
Season four of “House of Cards” provides a narrative of tightly woven political intrigues filled with unexpected twists and turns, none of which feel egregious but instead keep the pace high from episode to episode. Producing four seasons of quality drama is no mean feat, but “House of Cards” has managed to craft a compelling narrative for the fourth time running. Whether parceled out week-to-week or devoured in a day-long binge, season four of “House of Cards” is a must see.