House of Cards: Season 4 – spoiler-free review

8 March, 2016 — by Ted Wilkes0

Season four of House of Cards came out this weekend and I’ve now just emerged from my cocoon. Did I miss anything and has anyone been watering my plants?

frank underwood FU2016 campaign

Everyone remembers their first time: their first kiss, the first time they rode a bike without stabilizers and the first time that Francis Underwood looked directly at the camera and began to tell you about his plans for world domination while breaking the neck of his neighbour’s dog.

House Of Cards was just such a first for me. It was the first box set that I ever ‘binged’ on.

It was on a long, sweaty, carb-filled weekend four years ago that I discovered the best political drama since The West Wing and it cemented in my mind that Netflix was the future of home entertainment.

I was certain that I would only watch one, maybe two, episodes over that 48-hour period. Instead by the end of the weekend, Netflix’s ‘countdown to the next episode’ didn’t even have to appear – I was already poised to confirm that I was indeed ‘still watching’.

Since that weekend it has become a tradition of mine that when a new season of House of Cards goes live I turn off all my electronic devices, stock up on chips and dip as if the end of days have arrived, build my most impressive pillow fort yet and settle in for the greatest 12 hours of TV I’ll watch that year.

I am fascinated by Frank Underwood. Every moment that Kevin Spacey embodies the congressman on screen I sit in awe. The man could read me a Tory party manifesto and I would sit at his feet and gladly let every last hate-filled word wash over me. In season two when he looked into the mirror – directly at me – to let me know that he hadn’t forgotten that I was there, I shivered. As he knocked twice against the most impressive desk in the free world, I gawked. As he urinated against his abusive father’s grave I allowed my mouth to fall open, aghast.

Frank Underwood president house of cards

Everything that he does is so measured, so articulate, so considered – every episode is a masterclass for aspiring (and some already established) actors. You’ll be pleased/terrified to know that none of this has changed in season four. Kevin Spacey once again IS Francis Underwood. Secretly, I wish that he were the president and this was some kind of salacious documentary that I was watching about his first four years in office.

The writing is clever, with lines that could have been penned for a Shakespearean drama; so heavy they weigh with subtext and metaphor. Characters don’t just quip with one another using tiny barbs of slander; they lop each other’s limbs off with huge, scything cuts to the bone. Secrets, lies and the threat of humiliation punctuate every scene and you’re left sitting, waiting for the next revelation and wondering who will be the one allowed the pleasure of divulging it. This creates the show’s most wrought moments, where you’re never quite sure when the mask of a character might slip, or in which direction it will fall. You just know that at some point, it will and their true self will emerge.

I could go on further about how beautiful it is, how the themes are incredibly relevant and how it remains one of the best shows streaming on any service right now, but just like the Underwood’s relationship, there are cracks in season four and they’re starting to show. Anywhere else, and I mean anywhere else, I could let these mistakes slide, but on a show that epitomises excellent storytelling, they unfortunately stand out like a Republican congressman with a soul.

David Fincher was obviously more involved this time around as things get weird. I’m a fan of Fincher, but Mr Robot has already got weird all sewn up at the moment. In House of Cards it feels a little clunky. As we flash between surreal dream sequences – when so much of what has happened in previous seasons is so rooted in reality – it all feels a bit forced.

For example, Zoe and Rousseau show up at one point and although it’s all explained rationally, it’s not a plot point we really need, I mean – come on. I watch House of Cards for the backroom deals and the politics; the things that happen behind the curtain that I would never normally get to see. However, season four dips away from the political and starts to get a little bit more interested in the will-they-won’t-they of Claire and Francis. Also, with the one time congressman now the President of the free world, the stakes need to be raised, however, this leads to a rather forced narrative about Russia, China, oil prices, Situation Rooms, political asylum and a poor man’s Putin knocking about.

house of cards frank underwood is looking at me

Even after all that though, House of Cards still made my entire weekend. It’s already been renewed for a fifth season and I for one will be blocking out another 48 hour binge as I know that no matter what the real President is doing in 2017, I’ll always slightly wish that Francis Underwood was in the Oval Office instead.

Of course, if it’s Trump, then I’ll be wishing that it was Francis or ANYBODY else in the world, as I sit in a fallout shelter beneath the dead zone that was once London, endlessly rewatching The West Wing while loudly weeping.

Check out more in-depth and slightly wayward small-screen analysis in our Television section, including our review of Outlander Season 1.

House of Cards: Season 4

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