Like any other obsessed and impatient politico, the season four premiere of “House of Cards” ranks up there with Super Tuesday and Election Day.
In the face of incredible hype that grows exponentially year after year, season four did not disappoint in the slightest. Still sheik and devious as ever, the series harkens back to plotlines from seasons one and two far more than the narratives of season three, which was intriguing and refreshing in a way.
A complaint I heard from several other fans was that season three was too focused on political drama and not as much on the Shakespearean social drama that is the personal lives of the Underwoods. Season four returns to those backroom hushed conversations and the introduction of new members to their campaign. It progresses powerfully, bringing back earlier minor characters without it feeling like an unnecessary nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Taking place in the midst of the contentious 2016 election cycle, Frank Underwood has to campaign against both a feisty primary challenger in former solicitor General Heather Dunbar and the imminent Republican challenger, New York Gov. Will Conway.
Facing political, personal and medical crises, Underwood resorts to his relentless, primitive nature to achieve the goals he sets out for. Failure has never been an option, but in season four the stakes have never been higher. A loss in any aspect of his life, whether in marriage or politics, would shatter the image he has risked to cultivate.
Even when the show deviates from the politically plausible, it makes up for it with blistering writing and compelling character conflicts. Sex, death, adultery, murder and addiction all remain as the core tenants of the series.
And the lauded triumvirate that have propelled the series through three exceptional years, Spacey, Wright and Kelly all deliver hallmark performances. Their strengths in solitary moments or in contrast to minor characters justify the honors they have received. They never let up from the three-dimensionality of their personas, captivating viewers through another season of megalomaniacal plotting.
That being said, some of the acting this season left much to be desired. Joel Kinnaman’s turn as Gov. Conway comes off as too stiff at times and I’ve never been impressed by Sebastian Arcelus as the defeated journalist Lucas Goodwin.
On a positive note, however, several new cast members or recurring characters add a vibrancy to the series. Guest actress Ellen Burstyn steals the season as Claire’s dying mother, unearthing character elements in the First Lady that had only been alluded to in earlier seasons. Now, they are finally on full display while watching her mother go through the emotionally-wrenching hospice care process.
Repeated from previous seasons, the year in which production takes place has a marked impact on the nature of the storyline. The 2015 Charleston shooting, the continued rise of ISIS and the celebrity candidacy of Donald Trump all craft the story, and in a potentially prophetic moment, a brokered convention takes center stage.
The season ends on another cliffhanger, one of the most stunning ones yet, but already keeps viewers on edge for next year’s season five. What becomes of their empire, the one they have schemed against democracy to achieve, remains to be seen.