WARNING: This review contains spoilers in its second half. We will give you due warning before they appear.
Netflix’s multi-award winning drama, House of Cards, has returned for a fourth season of Machiavellian political maneuvers and personal power struggles – and boy, are you in for a ride.
When we last left President Underwood, he was staring indignantly as his wife and First Lady, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), walked out on him and the White House, after a tumultuous roller coaster of emotional epiphanies and political near misses.
For 12 long months we’ve wondered: what will Frank do to the woman who betrayed him? Will he try to win her back, or destroy her like his other opponents? An equally valid question is, what will Claire Underwood do to the man who betrayed her; the woman who moved pawns around him while he became the most powerful man in the Western world?
We now have our answers. But, first let’s take a look at the season.
Gun control, Muslim extremists, domestic surveillance, domestic terrorism, digital disruption; this season covers it all to varying degrees, with narrative red herrings, double-dealing and betrayal around every corner, and a return to the form we know and love, thanks to a few new faces.
Neve Campbell – she of Scream and Party of Five fame – joins the cast as Leann Harvey, political advisor and strategist. Cold, calculating and manipulative, she’ll do well in the Underwood universe.
Claire’s mother, Elizabeth Hale – played by Hollywood powerhouse Ellen Burstyn – leaves no doubt as to where her daughter acquired her brutal and whip-sharp political nous.
After separating from Frank, Claire returns to her family home, where her mother is currently undergoing chemotherapy for treatment of lymphoma. This affords us frequent windows into her past; her mother shoots straighter than either of the Underwoods.
It’s here that we see a more resolved First Lady. Claire proves she can be every bit as underhanded and devious as her husband, begging the question: has she always been the brains behind this operation?
Knowing those who get close to Underwood are unwittingly dancing with the Devil, it’s unnerving to witness a relationship unfold between the Prez and his number one bodyguard, Edward Meechum, while Claire is away.
Ex-journalist and ex-convict, Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), returns to pick up where he left off: attempting to nail Underwood for the murder of fellow journalist, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara).
It was disappointing to see Goodwin fulfill his purpose in a predictable and cliché way – although it does set off a chain of events that weave through the remaining episodes.
Newcomer Republican nominee, Will Conway, played by Joel Kinnaman (The Killing), and his wife, Hannah (Dominique McElligott), are introduced as the perfect nuclear family, but eventually prove formidable opponents for the Underwoods.
The way Frank responds to these pressures is dynamic and agile, exploring the true zeal and acuity of his conviction, as well as occasionally his hubris.
Over the last decade we’ve watched as various television series have disempowered a leading woman or emasculated a leading man; some have outright killed them. This series is no different.
The greatest depth from this season comes when President Underwood lies dying after an assassination attempt – a moment that will shock, sending your heart into your throat.
As Underwood lies in a hospital bed, the political machinations of his many foes continue, like birds of prey circling the wounded. Counting his wife among those seeking to undermine him is truly the stuff of Greek tragedy. How could she be so cold? How could she be so… like her husband?
These episodes are a real turning point for the series – ‘Torture your heroes’ is clearly a maxim held dear by the show’s writers.
The question is; will Frank Underwood recover and rise as a phoenix from the ashes with his presidency and marriage intact, or are we witnessing the fall of a giant?
You’ll just have to watch to find out.