House Of Cards: Season Four ***1/2

The Netflix hit series returns for a fourth season with plenty of surprises in store.

Is it worth a Netflix streaming subscription? Yes

For three seasons of “House Of Cards,” Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) have lied, cheated, manipulated, and in Frank’s case even murdered to get ahead in the minefield that is Washington D.C. politics. And yet after all they’ve achieved together, the end of season three left a cliffhanger: Frustrated and disenfranchised Claire told Frank she’s leaving him. Fade to black. Viewers collectively said “oh, no” and were desperate for more.

With the arrival of season four on Netflix last Friday, more has arrived. It picks up the day after last season ended with Frank on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. Claire has ventured off to her hometown of Dallas, Texas, ostensibly to visit her mother (Ellen Burstyn). Claire’s ulterior motive is soon clear: She wants to run for Congress, then governor, and even hires a highly touted campaign strategist (Neve Campbell) to make it happen. The problem is the longtime incumbent (Cicely Tyson) plans to endorse her daughter (LisaGay Hamilton) for the Congressional seat.

Through the first three episodes Frank deals with media rumors that his marriage is in trouble as well as links between him and the KKK. Soviet Premier Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) pops up in episode two to cause more headaches. Meanwhile, Frank’s opposition in the primaries, Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), looks for any opportunity she can get, Remy (Mahershala Ali) and Jackie (Molly Parker) are still sleeping together and scheming, and disgraced journalist Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) looks for a way out of prison to expose the truth about Frank. For his part, Frank has Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) on his side and little else.

And then episode four happens, which is a total, absolute game changer in ways you cannot possibly see coming.

With all these moving pieces it’s a good thing there are 13 episodes (all are currently available to stream on Netflix) to sort it all out, and that the quality of the storytelling remains top notch. There are ample surprises and “oh no he/she didn’t!” moments (especially the end of episode three) in the first few episodes, and the acting remains as superb as it’s always been. The stories, however, are treading deeper: Claire’s relationship with her mother explains why Claire is the way she is, and Frank and Claire’s marriage goes from essential allies to bitter enemies. They are equals of opposite gender in a patriarchal hierarchy that Claire is no longer willing to play along with.  

What’s more, it’s surely not a mistake that show runner Beau Willimon is putting Frank through the primaries and releasing season four in the midst of real life Republican and Democratic candidates battling it out in primaries. Whether Willimon is saying something about the real process or candidates seems unlikely – the show has always existed as an alternate reality rather than social commentary – but it does allow us to imagine what’s going on behind the scenes with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, etc., and darn if just the idea of all the wheelin’ and dealin’ doesn’t make your head spin.

My one complaint about the series is that far too many shots are darkened with unnecessary shadow, including daytime interior shots. It casts a gloom over the proceedings, which may be apropos but more than anything makes the otherwise glossy production an occasionally unpleasant viewing experience.

If you haven’t seen any of the earlier seasons, be sure to watch them first. Frank’s ascension to the presidency is a sight to behold. In season four, we see if he gets to keep it. This is what binge watching was created for.

Did you know?
The series is the first original Netflix production to win an Emmy – season one earned Emmys for cinematography, casting and directing (David Fincher!).

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