I review a whole season rather than individual episodes, so there is a chance of spoilers. If you haven’t watched the whole season yet, stop reading now!
When your main character is a villain, the only way to keep the stories interesting is to pit them against a larger villain. House of Cards managed to do this very well in the first and second seasons but faltered in the third. Luckily, they learnt from their errors and Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is back to his cold and calculating ways.
He needs to be because he is up against two of his biggest threats yet. The first is a stroke of genius, with Underwood facing Underwood and his rival being his closet ally, wife Clare Underwood played by Robin Wright. It works so well because nobody knows Frank better and the personal way they attack each other plays out well over the first half of the season.
The show doesn’t relent either. Once it feels like one villain is “dealt with” a new one emerges. With the poor Robocop remake far behind him, Joel Kinnaman is the match for Underwood as his Republican presidency rival Will Conway. Managing to encapsulate everything Frank is privately but be polar opposite publicly, the character is a great way to develop the struggle for power the whole show has been about.
The series is always at it’s most interesting when it is revolving around Underwood’s scheming. This was what was missing from the previous season, almost showing too much of the humdrum dealings of a regular President. Here, Underwood is manipulating the media, playing with people’s personal lives and even using Islamic extremist groups as pawns in his “game.” It makes for an engrossing series, one which will keep you guessing as the pieces seem muddled and confused but fall neatly in place.
When the show is not focused on the Underwoods, or more specifically Frank himself, it does lose some of it’s shine. There are other stories, one involving a personal obsession of Underwood’s “fixer” Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly, while a dogged reporter tries to bring Underwood down using key evidence. Even book writer Thomas Yates makes a comeback under shady circumstances. They are all stories that work but lack the pull of the main plot and sometimes you just want to get back to the crux of the show.
Luckily, Underwood has plenty to contend with. An assassination attempt brings together great strands in the show, a plan to place his wife as his vice-president seems implausible but represents the scheming of the two central characters well while in the background is this starkly real issue with extremist groups in the Middle East. The series plows along at a great pace and season closer presents the two characters at their coldest, nastiest and greatest.
Overall, House of Cards’ fourth season is a return to the form of the first two. It has Underwood on the back-foot but as in-control as ever, scheming and putting in place plots which are a joy to watch unfold. With two protagonists of equal strength to our “hero,” we get an engaging season. Sub-plots lack punch but this is one of the best (political) dramas on TV.
Best Episode – Chapter 43: Although we all know what the outcome will be, Frank’s “assassination” is still a shock and a great cliffhanger.
Best performance – Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood
Should there be another season? – Definitely, so much more to come and some great plot threads to “tie-up.”
Season Rating – 4.5
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)