TV Review: “House of Cards” Season 4 – Unbalanced But Solid

Written by Jesse Gelinas March 14, 2016

Frank Underwood campaigns for the upcoming election in season 4 of House Of CardsThe current political climate in the US is quite nerve-racking. People on both sides of the aisle are caught up in various scandals and seedy dealings. Powerful forces are toiling away behind closed doors to push agendas on the people without their knowledge or consent. And a theoretical wall on the Mexican border just keeps getting theoretically taller. So, for some much needed escape, Netflix’s House Of Cards returns for a fourth season. And fortunately, there is no corruption, conspiracy, or secret agendas to be found… until after the opening credits.

House of Cards season 4 finds Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) still on the campaign trail. He’s behind in the polls and dealing with a secretly failing marriage that threatens to become news any day now. Claire (Robin Wright) is pursuing her own chance at elected office, while various concerned parties conspire to bring down the powerful duo by digging into their crooked path to the White House. Meanwhile, ICO, a new terrorist group is becoming a bigger threat than Frank would like to admit, and a young pretender in the Republican Party is poised to steal the Presidency unless the Underwoods can come up with a new game plan.

“We had a future until you started destroying it.”

The show remains a dramatic powerhouse. The entire cast is top notch, and has been since day one. Season 4 introduces a few interesting new characters. Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) injects some much needed young blood into the political realm of the show, and stands as a believable threat to Frank’s reign. Neve Campbell joins the team as Leann Harvey, a sharp consultant who soon becomes a powerful ally. And Claire’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) is introduced as Claire’s ailing mother. While Burstyn is always a joy to see, and brings her usual commanding presence to her scenes, her contribution to the plot is quite lacking. She soon becomes just a vehicle for Claire’s own (much needed) development. So in that sense, she serves her purpose. Though it seems a bit of a waste of a great actress for a relatively inconsequential role.

Underwood and his rival, Conway, in season 4 of House of Cards

The show’s lifeblood continues to be Frank, and his ruthless Machiavellian insight into America’s political system. While the writers have cut down on the fourth-wall breaks heavily, it makes the moments where Frank does address the viewers much more impactful. While he doesn’t instill as much terror into the viewer as, say, his first words to us in season 2, he is still capable of a few truly scary moments this season. This continues to be a career defining role for Spacey, and one that has already entered the pop culture machine that will allow its fame and notoriety to live on.

“You’re a motherfucker, Mr. President!”

House Of Cards continues to draw from real world political issues for its story arcs. National surveillance and data collection is at the forefront this year, and its use in manipulating voters is a heavy plot point. A new terrorist group called ICO, very much mirroring ISIS is a looming threat in the later half of the season. The terror aspect is a tad underdeveloped though, and while it is a main focus in the season’s closing episodes, I feel more could’ve been done to really open it up. It does, however, seem to be where next season is headed, and the writers have already proven that they can certainly play a decent long game when they want to.

Frank counts his blessing in season 4 of House of Cards

If I must fault House of Cards for one thing, it is an inability to strike a decent balance with its content. Yes, this is a political drama with much more going on than just politics, the subplots and side stories seem to always get either too much focus, or far too little. In the midst of an impending terrorist negotiation, a blossoming love triangle seems silly to focus an entire episode on. That said, when a real interesting dynamic is suddenly established between Claire and her mother, constantly jumping back to a character we had basically forgotten about, just to show us how awful his life has become, seems tedious. And when the season ends, we haven’t moved forward nearly as much as we should have. AN election is still on the horizon, enemies are still plotting. In two seasons Frank went from Congressman, to VP, to President. In the last two seasons, he has been awaiting an election that doesn’t seem to be getting any closer.

One more small crime I cannot ignore, is the horrendous dream sequence. I know it’s a popular trope in these sorts of shows, but please, find something new to do with it if you must. The Sopranos coma episodes kind of perfected this already. If you want us to be intrigued by a compelling, complex character that you’ve created, the inside of their mind has to contain more than the faces of a couple of victims of collateral damage. If you’ve nothing new to say or show us, then don’t bother. It’s been done.

“We do not submit to terror. We make the terror.”

Overall, “House Of Cards” remains a perfectly solid drama, worthy of a weekend Netflix binge. The acting is always stupendous, the dialogue is crisp and quotable. But all aspects of the story need to be brought back into balance so that it can mesh properly. The last two seasons are treading water in some ways and pacing is becoming a noticeable problem. The trade off is that we get some wonderful development from our two leads (now on much more equal footing). All things considered it’s still Netflix’s best original offering to date, and is a hell of a lot more entertaining than the current political circus reality has stuck us with.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Poster for House Of Cards season 4

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About Jesse Gelinas

After years attempting to escape the Matrix, Jesse has accepted his fate as a writer and Senior Editor. Now that's he finished with his film degree, it gives him something to do while waiting for the machines to get careless.

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