REVIEW: House of Cards – Season Four (2016)

House of Cards - Reviewed

The following is a review of the entire fourth season of House of Cards. Expect spoilers from seasons 1-3, but spoilers for the fourth season will be kept at a minimum.

House of Cards is one of my favorite shows ever, I would’ve said that prior to the release of the fourth season, and I’ll still say that now. Why do I bring this up? Just to inform you that this review comes from a fan of the show who happens to be a member of the target audience for the show: I am interested in American politics, I am a TV-nerd, and an admirer of Shakespeare-esque storytelling. I enjoyed the third season of House of Cards, which I know was somewhat polarizing. I liked it, but with the fourth season of House of Cards I’ll go as far as to say that I absolutely loved every second of it. I thought it was a spellbinding season.

Let me preface the rest of the season review by stating why this year’s review process was somewhat different. Last year I reviewed every single episode from the third season of House of Cards, and it was a pretty tough experience for me. After watching each episode I would write for an hour, and then I would jump right into the next episode. I’m pretty sure I did all that the first three or four days after the season was released. That writing process drained me, therefore I will not be reviewing single episodes of the fourth season of House of Cards. Instead, I’ve poured a lot of love into this season review, and I hope you’ll feel my love for the show. Without further ado, let’s get to the review.

The fourth season picks up almost right where the third season left off. Not a lot of time has passed and Frank (played by Kevin Spacey) has to campaign without his First Lady (played by Robin Wright), who has decided that her own political aspirations shall no longer take a back seat to her husband’s. After winning in the Iowa Caucus at the end of season three, Frank is very much still combatting Heather Dunbar (played by Elizabeth Marvel) for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. Meanwhile, Lucas Goodwin (played by Sebastian Arcelus), the former Editor-in-Chief at the Washington Herald, has been put into witness protection, and a Republican prodigy, Will Conway (played by Joel Kinnaman), is getting ready to battle either Frank or Dunbar.

That is basically the world we’re reintroduced to in Chapter 40, the first episode of the fourth season. But there is much more to the fourth season than meets the eye. However, for the sake of staying somewhat spoiler-free, I’ll have to stay clear of any details. But rest assured that foreign policy was not left out of sight in the fourth season of House of Cards, even if that may have been handled worse than some would have wanted it to be in the third season. Actually, I thought the fourth season handled foreign policy much better than the third, but I digress.

The fourth season of House of Cards was about challenging Frank. Putting up roadblocks for him to crash into or cruise past. Lars Mikkelsen’s Petrov, who does make an appearance this season, challenged Frank, just like Dunbar has been known to do. This season gave him more than a handful of new obstacles, but none wiser than his First Lady. Claire is an excellent opponent, and rest assured that the show does answer every question you may have about a possible future together for the Underwoods.

I want to properly discuss the main characters and the greatest performances this season, but before getting to the household names of House of Cards, let us start with some of the new additions. First up is Neve Campbell (of Scream-fame) who plays LeAnn Harvey, a resourceful campaign manager. I like the actress a lot, but I must admit that I thought she would stand out more than she ended up doing. The greatness of Michael Kelly (who plays Doug Stamper) and Derek Cecil (who plays Seth Grayson), I would argue, outshone her in their scenes together.

Next up is Joel Kinnaman who, as Will Conway, acts as the face of the Republican Party. That description is intentional, as I thought this season did a poor job of outlining the Republican Party, opting, instead, to focus only on his character and not the party leadership or outsiders. That, I feel, however, is more a knock on the show than the actor. Kinnaman does a good job, though the Swede did appear to let his accent slip once or twice, but I’m not sure you would pick up on that if you didn’t know he is from Sweden. Without saying too much, it should be obvious that he is an adversary in some way, shape, or form to the ‘protagonists’ of the show, and I thought he did a solid job.

The best new addition to the show in the fourth season of House of Cards, however, is the excellent Ellen Burstyn who plays Claire’s mother, Elizabeth Hale. She is absolutely wonderful this season, and she has a real power to her character, even when put in unfair situations. She isn’t afraid of saying what is on her mind, and Ellen Burstyn plays the character perfectly. An actress of her caliber, obviously, has no problem going toe-to-toe with actors and actresses like Kevin Spacey or Robin Wright. She was a thrill to watch in the fourth season.

This season also had a lot of returning faces reappear to us. Some that we could have expected to show up, but also some that I thought we wouldn’t ever see again. The ensemble cast of House of Cards has never been stronger, with Mahershala Ali, Boris McGiver, and others returning to the show in some way, shape, or form. That is all I’ll say about the returning faces, but now let’s get to three strongest performances in House of Cards. Those given by Robin Wright, Kevin Spacey, and Michael Kelly.

Robin Wright gave the strongest performance in the third season of House of Cards, and I think she might’ve given the best performance yet again in the fourth season. She owns every scene that she is in, much like Kevin Spacey, but she surpasses him in greatness when you notice how much she did this season, and I’m not just talking about what happened in front of the camera. Wright directed episodes in both the third and second seasons of House of Cards, and she was back to direct this year. She has really improved, and she deserves to be recognized for her work here. She directed some of my favorite episodes this season. Amazing work.

Kevin Spacey is one of the best actors out there, so you know that he, obviously, did a solid job this season. There are no two ways about it. Whenever the show called on him to take control of a scene, he had no problem doing just that. Even though Robin Wright has been getting better and better, as well as grown in importance, over the years, Kevin Spacey has always been a hard worker and an elegant thespian. Oh, and if you’re worried about not seeing any soliloquies from Frank this season, don’t worry – I counted around 13 or 14 soliloquies.

Michael Kelly, who plays Doug Stamper, is one of the most underrated actors on television. His character was underappreciated last season, but this season I honestly feel that he outshone a lot of the other characters and actors. During the first half of the season I was blown away by the performance, and even though I don’t like how the writers took his character forward in the second half of the season, I was, through it all, so happy about how good Michael Kelly was this season.

You may be supposed to follow Frank and Claire, maybe even cheer for them, but you have never been expected to like the decisions they make. They have always been cruel, conniving, and cold. This season gave you an opportunity to see just how they are apart, just how they manipulate each other, and how their means may not justify the ends. I love seeing these incredible actors and actresses work with each other, and I loved seeing how the writers and directors chose to dramatize the political scene yet again.

We already knew, prior to the release of the season, that there would be a fifth season, and I think that may be the end of the show. It is not that the show has nowhere to go, but the final chapters of the fourth season shone a lot on just how the house of cards could collapse, as it were. The ending of season four was cold and terrifying, but I want more. I’ll never get tired of watching Frank stack the deck.

A

– I’m Jeffrey Rex