Airtime: Friday, March 4th on Netflix
Episode: Season 4, Episode 1-13 (S04E01-13)
Tweetable Takeaway: #HouseOfCards changes up the format in Season Four and the results are fantastic
When the first season of HOUSE OF CARDS premiered it was widely considered a game-changer and rightfully so. The series was written to be binged and created an anti-hero so vile and conniving you were watching to see what he was manipulating his way towards rather than rooting for him. It set a high bar that seemed to impossible to match in the following years. Season two followed the same format as season one, following Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood as he manipulated his way to a higher position. The first season saw him win a seat as Vice President, which forced season two into an incredibly convoluted plot that ultimately led to Frank becoming an unelected president. Season three became all about maintaining that seat and winning a bid for reelection. This appeared to be the show’s stumbling block, as the manipulations grew too extreme and saw the only salvageable part of Frank’s character – his relationship with Claire – crumble before viewers’ eyes.
House of Cards, at its core, as always been about the marriage between these two, but in the same way Frank’s often pushed aside Claire’s ambitions for his own gain, the writers seemed to push aside their more interesting narrative to make way for Frank’s political machinations. This all changed in season four. After the ending of season three, the natural progression of the series was to center around Claire and her dreams to be “more” than First Lady.
The season begins with Claire hiding out from her husband, Frank, in her home state of Texas. Frank, meanwhile, remains on the campaign trail, lying about where Claire is and what she is doing. Unbeknownst to Frank, Claire has decided she wants a seat in the House of Representatives in her home district. She hires Leann (Neve Campbell) to run her operations as they seek out the current representative, Cicely Tyson, who is preparing to retire. She has no desire to give her seat to Claire, but has long planned to throw her support behind her own daughter Celia Tyson’s campaign. It throws a huge wrench in Claire’s plans, further complicated by Frank who discovers what Claire is up to. After making a deal with Claire for her to appear while he gives a State of the Union and applaud as he speaks, Frank announces plans to create a clinic in Tyson’s district (something she has long worked create) and to support Cicely in her run for a seat.
To get back at her spouse, Claire arranges for the release of a photo of Frank’s father with a member of the KKK. Claire has a bold new plan involving Leann, too, and forces her ailing mother, Elizabeth Hale (played by the fantastic Ellen Burstyn) to assist in the massive pay raise for Claire’s political strategist. Claire wants to be Vice President, even though what little qualifications she has from the previous season were mired by scandal.
Meanwhile, good ol’ Lucas, who you may remember as Zoe Barnes’ boyfriend and coworker from season one and current prison resident, is let out of jail and put into the Witness Protection Program. Initially, he has zero desire to be found, but things quickly change and he seeks out Frank’s democratic opposition, Heather Dunbar, to give the big scoop on Underwood’s scandalous backdoor dealings. Heather rejects the bait, sending Lucas into a tailspin.
While out stumping for votes, Lucas rushes forward through the crowd and shoots President Frank Underwood! The president takes a bullet to the liver and is rushed to the hospital, but his loyal secret service agent, Edward Meechum, is killed.
Claire jumps at the opportunity to be president before anyone can notice she has made a move. She manipulates acting president Donald Blythe into trusting her counsel and controls him through chat and text messages while he sits in meetings with great leaders from around the world. A man named Milken, is seeking asylum from Russian and Prime Minister Petrov after losing the election to Petrove. The prime minister wants the man returned but Claire convinces Blythe to put the plane down in China because it supposedly buys them leverage. It honestly seemed like a big reach, as do most of the situations Claire puts the country in. Luckily for her, it works out. She is able to meet with Petrov and forces him to a resolve, aggravating Secretary of State Catherine Durant.
Frank lies in a hospital bed during this time, having visions of his Confederate ancestor and the two people we’ve seen him kill: Peter and Zoe. In reality, Doug is working hard to get Frank moved up on the liver donor list. When Frank survives the liver transplant, the man who was looked over on the list dies. Naturally, Doug’s guilt takes over and he begins hanging out with the deceased’s widow. It’s a smaller storyline that feels so repetitive of everything that happened with Rachel previously in the series that it seems inevitable the widow will find herself in a ditch next season.
Frank returns to work with a nicer approval rating than before he was shot and determined to find an agreeable situation with Claire. Leann previously went to Doug and told him if Frank doesn’t announce Claire as his running mate that the First Lady will announce she is divorcing Underwood on Super Tuesday. The problem is Claire may be one of the least qualified people for the job and all the numbers that Underwood’s team run prove that a couple running together could only hurt the campaign. But Frank needs Claire and he tells her so. She’s won but she’s going to have to be a little patient and do things his way.
We see the pair going back and forth, prepping for the speeches and appearances they have to make. They are a well-oiled machine that is at their strongest when they are working together. Claire backs a new gun legislation bill, using the assassination attempt on Frank as the jumping off point, while Frank informs his “new” VP pick, Senator Dean Aston, that he needs to back the bill even though he is firmly in the pocket of the NRA. Once Aston announces his support, the NRA drops him and his numbers plunge. He’s no longer an ideal candidate for VP.
The next step is leading the American people to believe that they are choosing the VP. Author Tom Yates is now back in the picture, helping to write the Underwoods’ speeches and going back to Texas with Claire as Elizabeth prepares to succumb to cancer. While Durant it meant to be the VP pick, support for Claire slowly grows as her involvement in dealing with Petrov earlier in the season is release and people feel sympathetic towards the death of her mother.
Claire ends up winning the VP slot, and when Durant realizes that is what Underwood planned all along she is furious as she confronts him. He reacts by admitting to all of the wrongdoing that was listed in Lucas’s “suicide note.” Though Claire had squashed the rumors while Frank was in the hospital, the look on the Durant’s face shows that there is a part of her that believes it. Underwood ends by taking it all back and convincing Durant to stay on as Secretary of State, that she is important to the cause. She agrees.
Now, while the first chunk of episodes showcased Claire’s skills, learned from Frank over the years, the second half of the season was all about how Frank views Claire, taking away her power as the story returned to Frank’s viewpoint. While excellently told, it was a bit of a bummer to watch Claire go back to being another piece on the chessboard in Frank’s story. Sure, the couple worked together more and Frank admittedly, not only that he needs Claire, but that he is also not enough for her as he allowed her to begin an affair with Yates (who quickly filled the void left by Meechum).
These last two episodes had a huge shift, as they didn’t involve Claire much at all. Instead, all the simmering subplots of the season came to a head. Lucas and Zoe’s boss, Tom Hammerschmidt followed Meechum’s logs and put together evidence that Underwood manipulated his way to the presidency and prepared to release the story. The Underwoods have been using Aidan MacAllen’s firm to illegally boost their campaign to compete with his oppositions use of the Google-esque Pollyhop (this show isn’t great with naming companeies). Then the ICO (House of Cards’ version of ISIS) took a family of three hostage and demanded they would only speak with Will Conway, the Republican governor of New York who is running for president against Underwood.
With few options, Frank agrees to let Conway, his wife Hannah, and their kids, stay at the White House, while the men attempt to negotiate the family held hostage to safety. The season made a point to create comparisons between Will/Hannah and Frank/Claire. Frank and Claire may have no love between one another, but they have always respected each other and created a formidable bond. Will and Hannah are very much in love, with Hannah wanting to be the equal partner to Will that Claire is to Frank. That will never happen though, and Hannah has a harsh realization of that fact when Will loses his cool and snaps at his wife amidst the hostage crisis.
Will and Frank work with the rest of Frank’s team and manage to release the wife and daughter of the family. They believe they have located the hideout and send in SWAT, but they are wrong and are unable to save the father, James Miller. At the same time, Hammerschmidt’s story is published and the NSA wants MacAllan’s firm’s data. Everything is crumbling around the Underwoods and Frank appears defeated.
And now we get back to Claire. The woman who refused to just be First Lady (seriously, this entire show seems to think the First Lady is less active than the VP. I bet you the Obamas and Bidens would disagree), picks up the pieces of her husband and says, “I’m done trying to win over people’s hearts. We can work with fear.” Because now the Underwoods are going to distract the American people from their scandals by starting a war. The ultimate power couple end the show with one of Underwood’s breaking-the-fourth wall moments, but this time, Claire joins Frank in staring down the camera. Claire has entered the one realm of the show that Frank has never allowed anyone else to go: the inner workings of his mind. Now they are equal.
This season was not perfect. As much as I love Robin Wright as Claire, there are many, many times where her ideas seem completely ill-conceived and you wonder how the hell she was able to effectively manipulate Frank. It’s as though Claire still doesn’t know who she is – that she’s still the same immature college student she was when she met Frank – and has simply ascribed his attributes onto herself in order to adopt an identity.
After three years of setting a vague goal (vice presidency, presidency, reelection) and manipulating people out of the way to achieve ‘it’, this season let go of that constricting structure. Instead, the season evolved over the course of its three acts, and even though the last two episodes felt a bit like the part of a new season, the change alleviated the pressure the writers had clearly been feeling and allowed for stronger character development of both Claire and Frank.
The question remains: With creator and showrunner Beau Willimon leaving, how will House of Cards change? The writing of the series will inevitably feel different now that the acclaimed playwright and driving force behind the voice of the show is handing over the reigns to senior staff writers Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese. Equally as important, if they don’t let Claire have some fourth-wall-breaking dialogue and truly establish her as a dual protagonist alongside Frank, than the triumphant ending of season four will feel like a wasted opportunity. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from House of Cards, its that one should never let an opportunity go to waste.
Emily is a writer and television obsessor. If desired, Emily will talk to you at potentially-annoying-length about topics such as why the CW is her favorite channel, the current amazing state of underground comedy, and how she avoids TV/films about zombies because most of them do not chew with their mouths closed.
Emily J | Staff Writer