Thursday, 10 March 2016

Verdict: House of Cards Season 4

Warning: this post contains spoilers for the conclusion of House of Cards Season 3.

Netflix's flagship Original Series returns for another high-stakes game of political maneuvering in the fourth season of House of Cards.

Now more than ever, art imitates life in House of Cards; running concurrently with the real-life race to the White House, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is faced with an uphill battle if he is going to hold onto the Democratic nomination, as well as the Oval Office.

His major rivals include former Solicitor General Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) and popular young Republican nominee and Governor of New York, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) - but above all else, the growing divide between Frank and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) threatens to bring his whole campaign crashing down.

If you thought the third season was dry, long-winded and uneventful, this new crop of episodes is for you. It's ripe with twists, turns and rug pulls that defy anything the show has done in the past - and yes, that includes Kate Mara's swift exit in Season 2.

The show picks up right where we left off; Claire has fled to her home state of Texas following a dramatic exit on Frank in the middle of his campaign. Harbouring her own ambitions for the upcoming election, she's determined to show just how far she's prepared to go to get what she wants. Meanwhile, Frank must contend with his Presidential commitments whilst also defending against rivals like Heather Dunbar and roping Claire back into the fray.

Storylines involve negotiating a bailout with Russian President Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), the desire to implement heavier gun control and combating Islamic extremism in the Middle East. Like I said, art imitating life. However, unlike real-life, the protagonists in House of Cards aren't delusional billionaires or religious zealots - ironically, they're less cartoonish than some of the current Republican candidates. This lends the show an element of nuance and quiet reflection that is sorely missing from US politics.

The tight plotting of season 1 makes a welcome return, with the episodes trotting along at a merry pace. The first two or three chapters are a little slow as the Underwoods work to establish some sort of new normal, but it's the fourth chapter where marital issues are put on hold with a much larger plot twist. From this point on, episodes flow from one to another with surprising fluidity as events unfold and unfurl with frightening pace. Just when you think the show is settling into another rhythm, the writers introduce another spanner to the works. Plus, the show draws heavily on Frank's past sins coming back to haunt him, lending this season a cohesive arc that runs right back to the very first episode from Season 1.

As we've seen in the past, the show is infinitely better when the Underwoods are working in tandem to work the system in Washington. When differences are set aside and Claire and Frank are back on the same team again, the show finds another gear entirely. It's peak House of Cards.

Spacey is once again superb as Frank; he gives a tour-de-force performance that oozes charisma, Southern charm and steely determination. There is a lot more anger bubbling beneath the surface this season; the deck is stacked against Frank now more than ever, and we see the cracks in his facade widen. Spacey is a masterclass actor who takes it all in his stride; whether it's sparring with Kinnaman or wooing Wright, he's in top form from Act 1, Scene 1 right through to the daring finale.

Joel Kinnaman and Neve Campbell make wonderful additions to the sprawling ensemble; Kinnaman plays a William Conway, the Republican candidate standing against Frank. He doesn't factor into the narrative until midway through the season, but his youth and firm relationship with his wife (Dominique McElligott) makes him a compelling and formidable adversary for Frank. Likewise, Campbell is excellent as a tough-as-nails campaign manager who Claire brings onboard early on.

Depending on your own preference, you'll either come away loving Claire's tenacity or loathing her depravity. There really is no middle ground this season as Claire goes against the grain greater than every before to get her end of the deal - at the expense of all others, including Frank. Credit where credit is due, Robin Wright plays her part to perfection. She's always been stoic and cold, but much more so this season.

Tightly plotted, superbly acted and much more incident packed than its preceding season, House of Cards' fourth season sees the show return to the stellar form we remember from its inaugural term in office. It's quintessential binge-watching material, and all the more relevant when you compare and contrast with the real world drama taking place currently.

What are your thoughts on House of Cards Season 4? Love it or loathe it? Let me know in the comments section down below!

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