Friday, March 4, 2016

Power Couple Broken, Power Restored: House Of Cards Season Four Is Claire's Season!

The Good: Moments of performance, Plot and mood development, Character development
The Bad: Protagonists become utterly unredeemable, Oppressive mood
The Basics: House Of Cards Season Four starts and ends dark with a middle that unites the Underwoods against the world.

House Of Cards had a rough third season (reviewed here!). Outside the introduction of Petrov and Heather Dunbar and the debate episode, it is hard to go back eagerly to the third season of House Of Cards. Nevertheless, I found myself getting up at 4 A.M. to start watching the fourth season of House Of Cards with pizza, coffee and a surprising amount of anticipation. House Of Cards Season Four is a slow-burn season; the first few episodes are slow and the mood is ponderous and oppressive, but it builds to something engaging and smart fast enough to make the initial investment worthwhile.

It is impossible to discuss the fourth season of House Of Cards without significant references to the prior seasons, especially where the third season left off. Indeed, the fourth season relies upon the prior seasons - especially the way it peppers back characters from prior seasons in significant ways - for its successes. The reappearances of Lucas Goodwin, Raymond Tusk and Russian President Petrov have significant repercussions in the fourth season of the show.

Opening with Lucas Goodwin in prison, getting information from his cellmate about the Armenian mob, the Department Of Justice puts the former reporter into witness protection and Goodwin comes back into play. While President Underwood struggles to fend off the primary challenge from Heather Dunbar, amid rumors that his marriage is falling apart, Goodwin makes his play by trying to enlist Dunbar in his investigation of Underwood. Underwood is besieged by Claire, though, when she leaves him and heads back to her family's home in Texas. Claire's mother, ill for years without her knowledge, quietly enlists her friends to support Heather Dunbar, while Claire scouts out a seat in the House in her family's district. Outmaneuvered by Frank for the House seat, Claire plays hardball with her husband and when he refuses to work with her, she threatens to divorce him after Super Tuesday.

But when Underwood is shot at a public event, the entire political landscape changes. When Donald Blythe assumes the responsibilities of the President, Claire seizes upon the opportunity to become de facto President. While Frank Underwood lays dying, Claire Underwood brokers an international deal that promises to lower gas prices at the pump by bailing out the Russian Federation. In the wake of a liver transplant, Frank resumes his post as President, now with Claire as his equal. Together, they run for President and Vice President after manipulating the nomination process and they run against the Republicans. But as terrorism and political enemies multiply, all of the Underwood's secrets are exposed!

The fourth season of House Of Cards is oppressive and intense before it becomes clear what the direction of the season will be. As the relationship between Frank and Claire disintegrates, House Of Cards becomes almost unwatchable. The thirteen episode season quickly takes focus as an assassin pops up and Claire's mother's health teeters on the edge. House Of Cards Season Four has a lot of death . . . and a lot of the darkest aspects of politics.

In its fourth season, House Of Cards returns every major character - save former Vice President Matthews and Rachel Posner - even if just for flashbacks or cameos. The resurfacing of the media as a factor in the lives of Francis and Claire Underwood returns the show's original dynamic, though now with a much darker flair.

The essential characters from the fourth season of House Of Cards are:

Francis Underwood – President of the United States, he is a Southern Democrat who is in an intense primary race against Heather Dunbar. He has taken Claire for granted and after she walks out on him, he begins to hallucinate doing violence against her. After removing her ability to run for Congress, he finds himself negotiating with her just to try to save their marriage. When an assassination attempt nearly takes him out, costing him his liver, he returns to the White House and Claire with greater strength and commitment,

Claire Underwood – The Southern debutante, she escapes to Texas where she reunites with her horrible mother. As she confronts her mother's sickness and her legacy, she decides to force the issue of prioritizing her ambitions with Francis. As a result, she steps in with the Russians and then maneuvers Durant out of the way for the Vice Presidential nomination. She is clever and takes serious power after threatening Frank with the nuclear option of divorce and outing his family secrets in Frank's race against Dunbar,

Katherine Durant – The Secretary Of State who has spent three years executing Frank Underwood's will, she slowly loses her influence at the White House. As Claire negotiates with the Russians, Durant gets skittish by her reliance upon Raymond Tusk, the Chinese, and continuing to work with Frank,

Donald Blythe – Entirely a nonentity, until Frank is shot, he is lost as acting President. He quickly leaps to the conclusion Frank wants, which is to not try to be on the 2016 ticket,

Jackie Sharp – Still having an affair with Remy Denton, she is extorted into helping to pay for the Russian bail-out. Remy works to protect her, but she opts to come clean instead of continuing to work for Frank,

Doug Stamper – Chief Of Staff to Underwood, he continues to ruthlessly enforce Underwood's will. He struggles to remain sober and maintain control over Seth and the secrets he has held for the President. When he uses his influence to get Frank bumped to the top of the liver donor list, the resulting casualty leads him into an intriguing new personal relationship,

Leann Harvey – A campaign consultant, she is hired by Claire to win the Congressional seat in her home district in Texas. When Frank torpedoes that effort, she stays with Claire as her de facto Chief Of Staff before Stamper hires her to run the Underwood campaign. Mistrusted by Stamper, Leann quickly proves herself invaluable to the Underwood team,

Conway – The sudden, presumptive Republican nominee, he has massive popular support and a mechanic to build a credible run for the Presidency right out of the gate! The governor of New York and a former Air Force officer, he is instantly formidable. He has a hot young wife and two children, which sets him apart from the Underwoods. But the Underwoods quickly figure out that Will Conway is a narcissist and they learn to use it against him,

Heather Dunbar – Despite losing the Iowa Caucus, she makes a powerful fight for New Hampshire and then capitalizes on Leann's interference to make serious gains in South Carolina. She slips when Lucas Goodwin contacts her and the resulting fallout forces her to choose between politics and integrity,

Tom Hammerschmidt - The former editor of The Washington Herald, he comes back into play after the assassination attempt on Underwood. After going through his notes, he investigates the story Lucas Goodwin brought him years ago. After discovering Meechum's travel logs were forged, he begins to woo people Underwood betrayed in order to expose the corrupt President,

and Remy Danton – Former Chief Of Staff, he resurfaces as a liability to Jackie Sharp maintaining her post as Minority Whip. He is finally put in a position where he reaches the end of his rope and is willing to betray Underwood.

House Of Cards might have dark, utterly depressing character arcs that lead to a rapid and powerful ascendancy for Claire Underwood and utterly ruins any lingering empathy viewers might have for Frank. The prevalence of past characters popping up at random makes it so viewers must have seen the prior seasons of House Of Cards in order to get the most out of the current season.

The fourth season gives Ellen Burstyn the plum role of Claire Underwood's mother. Burstyn has amazing range and develops the new character from a stubborn, somewhat off-putting, repressive matriarch to a wounded, deeply ill woman whose last chance for redemption pops up fast. Burstyn will undoubtedly get Best Supporting Actress for the role and the truth is, given the power of her performance, she deserves it.

House Of Cards once more gives Kevin Spacey a chance to showcase his range. Never before have viewers seen Francis Underwood so wounded and Spacey plays the physical aspects of Underwood being shot and slowly recovering brilliantly. Spacey has nothing on Robin Wright, though. Season Four of House Of Cards is very much Claire Underwood's season. Robin Wright plays Claire as ruthless, pragmatic, focused and she makes Claire a credible tactical threat to Frank. When Claire and Francis reunite, Wright is able to portray more emotion and depth than with many of the prior seasons.

Ultimately, the fourth season of House Of Cards redeems the slacking flagship Netflix series. As the Underwoods fight to maintain their power, the show refocuses in an interesting way. With Underwood's father exposed as (potentially) being in the Klan and an election year Supreme Court nomination, one has to wonder if Netflix employs prophets. The full-season's arc takes a couple of episodes to get going and there is a lull near the end before it explodes in a new potentially villainous direction for the next season! That makes House Of Cards Season Four worthwhile television.

For other Netflix exclusive seasons, please check out my reviews of:
Arrested Development - Season Four
The Clone Wars - Season Six
House Of Cards - Season 1
Jessica Jones - Season 1
Orange Is The New Black - Season 3
Sense8 - Season 1
Daredevil - Season 1
Grace And Frankie - Season 1


For other television reviews, please be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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