TV series in review: “House of Cards” season four

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Nathaniel Nelson / Winonan

“House of Cards” returned this month with its fourth season, and did so with a bang. After the lackluster third season, show-runner Beau Willimon (“Ides of March”) and company brought back the twisted political intrigue fans of the series longed for.

For those who don’t know, “House of Cards” follows Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a corrupt Democratic representative from Georgia who, after being double-crossed by the president elect, crafts a plan to take the presidency for himself. Along with his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), the Underwoods quickly make a name for themselves, and after two short years, Frank earns his spot in the Oval Office.

Season three ended with a whimper, with the only development being Claire apparently leaving Frank. Thankfully, that is quickly remedied this time around and after the first half of the season, the two are working together in finer form than ever. Both Wright and Spacey’s performances play off each other perfectly, and for the first time since the series’ beginning, Wright’s character, Claire, takes center stage.

In episode four, the writers took a huge gamble and added the biggest twist in the series to date.

In a split second, two characters’ stories end instantaneously and the entire course of the series makes a marked shift. I don’t want to spoil anything, but for the first time, the main duo seemed vulnerable. This was one of the biggest problems with earlier seasons: Frank and Claire were invulnerable to harm. But now, Frank becomes not only weak, but also comes to the realization that it’s not Claire who needs him, but he who needs Claire. This seemingly small change in Frank’s psyche completely alters the tone of the presidential couple, and does so in an intriguing way.

That said, “House of Cards” has never been solely about Frank and Claire, but also about the supporting characters and their links to Frank’s political ambitions. Most, if not all, of the characters get their time in the limelight, while one incredible newcomer proves to be the biggest challenge to Frank yet. Republican presidential candidate Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) is just as cunning, but less corrupt as Frank, and the interactions of the two allow both actors to shine. Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) gets what is arguably the biggest side plot of the series, as the former editor of the Washington Herald attempts to uncover Frank’s corruption. You’ll have to see the season to see how that plays out, but believe me, it’s a trip.

Murders, sex, lies and slander are par for the course in “House of Cards”, and this season is no different. The only difference is the show no longer tries to stick with reality. While everyone sleeping with and lying to each other seemed a little ridiculous in early season, now it’s just expected. “House of Cards” never shied away from taking a darker, more cynical look at American politics, though now the commentary on reality has been overtaken by an air of fantasy. This leads the show closer to soap opera territory than ever before, but the stellar performances and writing keep it from toppling over the edge.

There were a few small mistakes in the season, but nothing that takes away its charm. First and foremost, the election is still not over after two seasons. With the first two seasons, the finale ends with a major shift in the status quo, as Frank moved through the executive branch. The third season ended without even simple closure, wrapping up midway through the presidential primaries. Somehow, this season still failed to finish the election, with November right around the corner. Second, there’s a terrorist plot introduced in the back half of the season that comes off as a little trite and self-serving. Frank invites Will Conway to help, which in and of itself is completely bizarre. A sitting president requesting the aid of his opponent in the election? Mere months away? Yeah, alright. Finally, Frank’s choice for vice president makes sense from a plot standpoint, but not a realistic one. Again, I can’t spoil it, but it shows how “House of Cards” is separating itself from political reality in major ways.

All in all, this was a huge season for “House of Cards.” Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright cement their places as two of the best actors working in television today, and Beau Willimon’s final season as show runner helped the series to get back on track. I doubt it will convert any detractors of the show, but for fans, this is a return to form. With the election right around the corner, Frank and Claire are left with more than a few things to handle. We’ll have to wait until next year to see how they fare.