Warning: Below will contain spoilers for House of Cards (U.S.) for season four and references to preceding seasons.
There is a severe lack of political fiction on television, especially good political fiction. The first season of Netflix's House of Cards was a wonderful showcase of what a good political drama/thriller could be like. Borrowing heavily from the superb House of Cards of the United Kingdom, House of Cards brought us into a corrupt world of power, scheming and ambition.
As with many shows though House of Cards lost its way. Season two was convoluted with a plot that took a slide rule and red yarn to cipher out. At the conclusion of season three I was not sure House of Cards was worth watching any more. The plot did not go anywhere and the big political questions were ludicrous and predictable. More importantly what I, as a viewer, came to see in House of Cards was entirely absent. House of Cards was appealing in the first two seasons (and especially season one) because it was about Frank (Francis) Underwood's scheming to climb the greasy ladder of American politics inviting the viewer to play along by breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience. Season three on the other hand was watching Frank struggle and fail repeatedly and adding in that the season introduced a group of new characters who were not terribly interesting, including the seasons main antagonist. After my disappointment with season three I recorded a podcast with a friend on her website about our feelings on House of Cards in general and season three in particular, which you can find here.
Season four rights many of the wrongs that seasons two and three were burdened by. Frank Underwood is once again in the fight of his life, but one he seems well equipped to handle. The season is broken into two distinct halves. The first six episodes primarily deal with Underwood's conflict with his wife, Claire, a formidable figure in her own right. At the close of season three Claire walks out on Frank on the night of the Iowa caucus. When the series resumes Frank has an incredibly dangerous adversary, the one woman who can completely destroy him and has all the tools to accomplish it. Claire, frustrated at operating in Frank's shadow, looks to achieve her own elected office. This will be her primary motivation through the season. Frank has just as much power to undermine Claire's campaign. The two come to an understanding and bury the hatchet and come up with their own scheme. If they are to be partners in things, they should be partners in all things and Claire demands to be Frank's running mate.
A husband and wife ticket is ludicrous in the real world and strained credibility as I watched, as I'm sure it did for many. The writers on the show reinforce the idea by suggesting that Claire is immensely popular and is seen as an obvious asset. There are many precedents of a wife succeeding a husband, Eva Peron comes to mind. The Underwoods almost embody some form of monarchy, but even that doesn't feel right.
The battle for the Democratic nomination is going badly for Frank and he is barely holding on when tragedy strikes and he is gunned down by Lucas Goodwin, a former editor for the Washington Herald and a recurring character since season one. Frank is badly injured in the incident and is left incapacitated for several episodes. Into this vacuum Claire asserts her control over the executive government, largely through Acting-President Donald Blythe. Frank's hallucinations and dreams during his hospital stay are some of the most intriguing scenes of the season and combine imagery and characters from the show with a surreal, nightmare quality.
The second half of the season focuses in on the general election between Underwood and Governor William Conway of New York. The Conways may remind Canadian viewers a bit of our own recently elected Prime Minister, a young candidate with an attractive family and savvy social media presence. However, the writers of the show seem to be going for a contrast between Conway's Kennedy and Underwood's Nixon.
I will leave the rest of the plot aside to say that compared to season three and two season four manages to touch upon real issues in a realistic, light way. Some of the topics addressed in the season include: America's history and race relations, gun control, ISIS (through a proxy), domestic surveillance, data-driven campaigning, and end of life care. Morality questions are steeped through the season and offer difficult questions, perhaps the best of which being the conflict between Doug Stamper and the Surgeon General and the emotional fallout for Stamper.
I criticized House of Cards in the podcast I recorded with Bina (link above) by saying that many of the characters on the show felt incredibly thin. One of the best aspects of House of Cards season four is that so many of the characters from preceding seasons make an appearance and have real weight behind them. It reinforces the weight of what has come before in the show, that all the betrayals, slights and deeds of the Underwoods have consequences, even if they are delayed.
Two major cast additions in the season are Joel Kinnamon, who plays Governor Conway and Neve Campbell, who plays Leanne Masters a Democratic strategist. I have few criticisms of Campbell's performance. She arrives on the scene with force and offers a counterweight to Doug Stamper. Kinnamon on the other hand was a bit of a reach as Conway. His delivery felt a bit stiff and unnatural, though perhaps no more unnatural than Marco Rubio's.
Season four concludes on a decidedly dark note. It is unclear how much the showrunners intend to turn the Underwoods into malicious authoritarians instead of corrupt manipulators. The drama on the show is over the top, no doubt, the characters can waffle between profound and paper thing, but what I will say is that season four was fun to watch again. In my notes for the show under episode nine I wrote, "Love that 'What the hell is happening?!' feeling." House of Cards season four recaptures that sense of excitement because you're just half a step behind or something completely unpredictable happens that changes the game. I am not certain Beau Willimon and the rest of the creative team can pull it off for another season, but they certainly righted the sinking ship in my opinion.