Spoilers ahead for all of Season 4 of House of Cards!
House of Cards is something of an enigma. For its first two seasons, the Netflix series was a shining beacon of what’s possible for the streaming service. It delivered a stunning political narrative that seemed all too similar to how the system actually functions, while delivering one of the most imposing and complex characters on television in Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Years later, the show has struggled mightily to recapture that magic. Season 3 was comparatively a scattered mess, in turn making Season 4 a make-or-break effort.
After marathoning through a weekend’s worth of new House of Cards, it’s still difficult to pinpoint what the series is trying to be right now. Its diversions into odd, formless story threads (usually the fault of Doug Stamper) run rampant, giving us whole episodes that seem more like pointless slogs and less like a necessary part of the greater narrative. It makes it that much stranger to see the show still managing to blow through plot points at breakneck speed, only to grind to a halt right when it needs momentum the most.
Nowhere is this need for forward movement highlighted more than in the three-episode mini-arc of the midseason. In this trilogy, Frank Underwood is shot by a would-be assassin, and spends most of his time vividly hallucinating in a hospital bed while his wife Claire ostensibly runs the country in his stead. It’s a brief story that represents all the problems the series has had, benching its biggest strength in Kevin Spacey in favor of more screen-time for Robin Wright. The result: Claire has quickly become the Lori Grimes of House of Cards, as the much-maligned wife of our main character we’d rather see less of.
To clarify, the problem with Claire Underwood is certainly no fault of Wright, who’s done considerable work with the role. The issue more is in the way she’s written, and the way the show is constantly undercutting her competence. Season 4 picks up where the last season left off, with Claire having left Frank to pursue her own political career. For some reason, she thinks the best way to do this is to politely ask the woman running for Congress in her home district in Texas to step aside for her. After that plan predictably blows up in her face, she then demands Frank add her to the ticket as Vice-President (despite never having held elected office), a move that stretches the limits of believability, even for a fictional series like House of Cards.
In order to make the “Claire as Vice-President” idea viable for us as an audience, the show is forced to sideline Frank in the assassination arc. During that run, House of Cards makes a concerted effort to show us that Claire can run a country herself, albeit through manipulating the malleable stand-in president, Donald Blythe. It takes almost a quarter of the whole season to show us Claire is capable enough to run as Frank’s VP, and then another two episodes to get her nominated in an open convention. In the end, the show wastes a whole lot of time trying to climb out of the hole it dug for itself, when really it should have opted not to dig that hole in the first place.
All that aside, the new season shines when it snaps its focus back to a more singular approach. The 3-5 episode detour of the middle episodes is followed by a return to the story we wanted all along, as Frank and Claire finally start in on the general election. We see the older, more experienced Underwoods go up against the youthful and social media-savvy Republican candidate, Will Conway, making for an intriguing thematic contrast between candidates. As Frank pushes for the election, we get to see him shine in his truest and most sinister form, with Claire back at his side as his equal-share partner in political crime.
Perhaps the most notable issue House of Cards is encountering in its latter seasons isn’t found simply in its scattershot storytelling, but in comparisons to its ABC equivalent, Scandal. More and more, the two shows are beginning to step on each other’s feet, hitting on virtually the same major plot twists every step of the way. The most notable examples: Both shows feature a dissolving marriage brought on by a First Lady who feels marginalized, a failed assassination attempt on the president, and nosy members of the press who end up six feet under. When it starts to feel like House of Cards is simply painting by numbers rather than blazing new territory, that’s when it becomes difficult to muster up enough excitement for new episodes. Season 4 certainly wasn’t without its brief flashes of brilliance in the face of this, but it still has a long hill to climb before it’s back on par with its early success.
You can stream Season 4 of House of Cards now on Netflix.
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