We Can Work With Fear: House of Cards Review16 March 2016
House of Cards has returned for its fourth season. After a somewhat flat third season it is safe to say that the show’s producers have learnt from the past; the team has produced perhaps the best season in the series’ run. No longer searching for bright spots while leaving the plot to stumble from pillar to post like a year ago, Frank and Claire are firmly back in the driver’s seat – even when they’re driving two different cars. In many respects, the first half of the season feels like a direct reply to the third season’s weaker plot and the frustrations raised about this by House of Cards’ keen viewers.
The resounding second half of the season features a return to strength for the formidable Underwoods. With unparalleled efficiency, depth and a beckoning coldness and cruelty, Claire and Frank have never been more compelling. As one character notes, “The Underwoods never cease to amaze.”
Robin Wright deserves a great deal of praise, if not a few accolades for her performance this season. She delivers some of the most powerful, subtle and nuanced acting we have seen on the show. Digging deeper into Claire’s past, Wright demonstrates her unwavering understanding of Claire Underwood in an unparalleled performance. Following suit, Kevin Spacey has also been sharpening his knives and again delivers another remarkable performance (as if there were any other expectations).
While the President and the First Lady are the formidable focal point, the ensemble surrounding them has forged the tightest, most immersive and downright riveting onscreen relationships one could imagine. With the introduction of Claire’s new assistant, ‘Lady Stamper’, the return of practically every character of note and a carefully curated selection of new characters, this season has been a master class in character economy and efficiency.
To cherry pick a few performances away from the top of the ticket, Reed Birney as Vice President Donald Blythe is one of my personal favourite performances this season and allows for a powerful contrast between his mild-mannered Blythe and the unstoppable Underwoods. Other performances worth mentioning include Boris McGiver as Tom Hammerschmidt and Ellen Burstyn as Claire’s mother Elizabeth Hale, for a pair of performances that carry important storylines.
These performances are underpinned by some of the most careful and well-crafted writing this show has seen. Across thirteen strong episodes, the audience is on the receiving end of tension, tenacity, terror and triumph thanks in no small part to former showrunner Beau Willimon handing over the reins to the in-house team of Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson. Willimon and the team have positioned the show in the strongest possible way for the future while still maintaining the essence and patterns that the audience – this writer included – desperately craves.
Departing for the year on the precipice of another key turning point, I already yearn for the return of Frank and Claire. It is simply not enough to spend the next year imagining the world they toss in their hands. As the Underwoods end the season triumphant amongst turmoil, I can barely think of a more cohesive or thoroughly enjoyable series. When House of Cards doubles down, you had best be ready.