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‘House of Cards’ season four surprises with renewed greatness

By Jacob Edelman and Zach Phil Schwartz

Section: Arts

March 11, 2016

Spoiler disclaimer: If you haven’t watched the fourth season of Netflix’s series “House of Cards” and are planning to, you probably shouldn’t read further. This review contains spoilers.

This review comes from the perspective of two fans of the show who binge-watched all 13 episodes of the season in a row on the same day of release. Food and drink were prepared beforehand so there would be no interruption, and once the binge started, there was no stopping until completion.

The third season of the Netflix Original “House of Cards” disappointed many fans of the show that had waited in intense anticipation for a year. In our review last season, we said that we would wait on the next season of the show before we reach our final verdict on the “once-masterpiece of a show.” Season four trumped its predecessor with the full force of the cast’s masterful acting, connection to modern issues and nail-biting cliffhangers and kept us on the edge of our seats until the final moments.

Grayed and aged to the extent of a weary president, Kevin Spacey owned the role of President Francis J. Underwood in a way unseen since season two. While spending less time on camera in this season than in those previous, Spacey filled the screen with a dark and brooding presidential presence not easily attained by actors seeking to portray the individual in the Oval Office.

A classic element of the show is Underwood’s recurrent breaking of the fourth wall to talk directly with the audience. In the first half of the season, however, Spacey curiously meandered from the role of a defining feature. But, in the second half, his character’s breaking of the fourth wall made a startling and pronounced return, bringing the audience roaring back to the inner machinations of President Underwood’s mind.

Robin Wright filled a large role of executive producer, and maintained a cool and commanding posture in her role as the First Lady of the United States, Claire Underwood. The character has always epitomized independence and strength, but Wright took it to a whole new level in the fourth season. From the moment she entered a scene, Claire was the focus: rightfully owning the gaze and excitement of viewers. Storywise it became amazingly apparent that Claire was far more than just the woman at her husband’s side; she was a puppetmaster capable of even more than her husband.

Season four picks up just where season three left off: at the Iowa Caucuses. The competition between Underwood and his adversary for the Democratic nomination, Heather Dunbar, continues to intensify as the two candidates spar with each other. At times it seems as if Dunbar almost has the president beat, until he and Claire defiantly rise up and, through masterful politics and their awesome combined political power, force her from the race.

The season picks up steam following this turn, driving into the main presidential competition against Frank’s Republican opponent—Joel Kinnaman’s character—William Conway. Despite the fact that he looks 25 years old rather than the minimum 35 to run for president, Conway succeeds at representing modern and realistic conservative ideology thrown into the context of global threats similar to those faced by the nation today. Much of the debate between Frank and Conway ended up being about those international dilemmas, and a battle similar to that for the Democratic nomination between the titans ensued.

An interesting detail is that much of the controversy that presents itself in the season, from an old Ku Klux Klan connection bubbling up to the forefront of the issues, to undue election influence by private corporations, to the occurrence of a brokered convention. Season four is more relevant today than it was a month ago and than it probably will be a month from now.

The middle of the season brings the series to a crescendo when the flow of the tense election season is interrupted by a significant event for the Underwoods. Frank enters a state of purgatory during which he is forced to confront the demons of his past. This battle, spanning a number of episodes, allowed Spacey’s character to communicate what was happening between his mind and soul without the traditional fourth wall-breaking narration. At times though, it seemed like the continued insight into his mind undermined the story that was continuing around him.

Francis emerges from this event troubled, and true to his character, unchanged. Hardcore political junkies would enjoy how much the show then hunkered down on surprise electoral tactics at the Democratic National Convention, which ended up posing a threat to the Underwood presidency. This was a part of a series of smaller story arcs that continued to keep us on the edges of our seats.

The end of the season was unexpected to say the least. We can say for certain that the show has concluded each season with some ounce of positivity or hope, but this ending was different. The show became both literally and atmospherically dark as it came down from the events of the middle of the season. In typical “House of Cards” style, the writers did not hold back; however the season ended on an unexpectedly dark note, sure to surprise some viewers, and leave some wanting more.

“House of Cards” is becoming a different kind of series. As it goes on, it becomes more difficult for viewers to simply pick a random episode of the series and watch it on its own. There are few smaller plots, and the show has become so focused on the long arc that the episodes have become mutually dependant on one another. They cannot be viewed as singular units.

When held up in comparison to the rest of the series, the fourth season of “House of Cards” was impressive and finishes in a strong second place behind season one in terms of twists, quality and watchability. With the end of season three, Netflix producers were left inundated with mixed feedback. By the end of season four, it’s clear that they listened and adapted to the opinions of their critics and fans.

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