When House of Cards premiered back in 2013, it was one of the most electrifying things to ever happen to television. Not only was it a wildly suspenseful drama starring two of Hollywood’s most respected actors, it was the first big original show to be put out by Netflix, and the combination of its prestige and release format pushed the concept of binge-watching into a new stratosphere. Viewers wanted nothing more than to hop along for the immersive ride as Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) ruthlessly maneuvred his way to the US presidency.
Yet, by following that adrenaline-inducing path, House of Cards effectively painted itself into a corner. Frank’s pursuit of total power was the lifeblood of the show, and once he achieved it and the end of Season 2, things predictably went downhill (even Season 2 had some lethargy compared to Season 1). Nobody wanted to see Frank actually lead the free world. If people were looking for a gripping drama about a guy going about his day job deceptively, they would’ve just watched Mad Men. Even though Season 3 had its moments and finished on a more promising note than it started, it felt like the series’ best days were behind it.
But then a funny thing happened; in Season 4, the magic came back. Unlike the restrained drama of the Underwoods’ first year in the White House, this installment’s major storylines tapped back into House of Cards’ true ethos and made it great again (cue the Trump quips). Perhaps you can chalk some of that up to the show reaching a more inherently exciting part of the election cycle, but the main reason for the revival is that the writers fixed the ‘painted into a corner’ problem. Instead of stagnating and trying to entertain the audience in different ways, they challenged their limitations head on and figuratively knocked down the walls that were cornering them. The painting that ensued was as reckless as ever.
Fans could have been justifiably disappointed when Season 4 opened with Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) narrating a sexual fantasy to a prisoner in their shared cell. Despite being an investigative journalist with the inside scoop to the story of the century, he was never all that interesting of a character. But thankfully, his screen time was just a means of reviving the invigorating storyline that’s been dormant for far too long: the Washington Herald-crew’s investigation into Frank Underwood’s ascent. From the beginning, this has always felt like the trump card that was going to finally topple the house of cards the Underwoods have built. That’s why it was wise to kill off Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) if the show was going to progress beyond a second season.
Not being able to address the stalled investigation was one of the reasons the series had backed itself into a corner, but finally, the writers decided to say “screw it” and address the investigation anyways. Having Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) go Spotlight on the situation was a fantastic choice that built up nicely to the climactic finale. His efforts also served to highlight the astounding complexity of the world that the House of Cards writers and showrunners have built. Specific details are often lost in the rapid shuffle of the show’s affairs, but watching Hammerschmidt experience a breakthrough by stumbling on something as forgettable as presidential travel records from Season 2 makes you appreciate the difficulty of crafting a show this intricate.
Coming back to the investigation though, Frank and Claire’s (Robin Wright) response was one of those series-defining moments that makes you totally reevaluate things. Just like when Agrestic burned down in Weeds or Jack and Kate got off the island in Lost, a reputable news outlet—backed up with sources on the record—publicly confronting the Underwoods over their dirty past was a total game-changer. It was a series finale-worthy development that got pulled prematurely and subverted everyone’s assumptions about the show’s limitations.
When the Underwoods had their private discussion in the finale (just before Frank’s closing broadcast), it was like they were a meta-representation of the show’s writer’s room. Well, how the hell do we emerge from this mess? But the first law of House of Cards is that the Underwoods always have a way out. That they settled on a viable solution (fear mongering) wasn’t so much a revelation as an inevitability.
This season was really a testament to the necessity of their partnership. With the way Season 3 ended the show could’ve gone down the full-on Underwood separation route, but it wisely decided to use the momentum of their reconciliation to recreate the spark that fueled Season 1’s legendary scheming. The way they executed their plot to get Claire on the Democratic ticket despite publicly supporting Durant (Jayne Atkinson) was very reminiscent of the trickery that resulted in Frank becoming vice-president after orchestrating the rise and fall of Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). All of the Underwoods’ best plans are like hockey assists, which, for those who aren’t up to date on their sports lingo, are setups that lead to the setup that leads to the goal. To be a master manipulator you have to have impeccable forethought, and America’s fictional First Couple hasn’t lost its edge in that regard.
They do, however, have challengers in the First Couple department. The Conways are out to capture America’s hearts, one social media post at a time, and their youthfulness makes for a nice contrast to the Underwoods’ old-fashioned appeal. Even though William Conway’s characterization seemed a little bit questionable at first (it’s a lot easier to imagine him living it up in South Beach than running for president), Joel Kinnaman sold it with his impressive performance as the surging Republican nominee. Others might have struggled to play someone with Conway’s steely demeanour and tone, but Kinnaman totally owns it and portrays him as a dynamic character who genuinely struggles to balance his military-honed integrity with the lure of dishonest election tactics.
House of Cards doesn’t quite get as much out of some of its other newcomers. As political consultant Leann Harvey, Neve Campbell is underutilized. Early on she shows off her feisty side, but that tapers off as other storylines progress. Ditto for fellow Canadian Colm Feore, who, as Conway’s running mate, never gets to be more than a stock character of a dutiful old guy, complete with the Clint Eastwood-esque voice.
Some of the old faces find themselves in similarly stagnant positions. After over a seasoning of hinting at some kind of major shakeup from Seth (Derek Cecil), we’ve yet to see him do anything truly dramatic or impactful. Meanwhile, with Rachel out of the picture, Doug (Michael Kelly) has a new woman to creepily and inappropriately obsess over. It’s not exactly clear what Doug’s motivations are in forging a relationship with the wife of a man he robbed of a liver transplant (hell, everything about Doug’s personality is pretty cryptic). Regardless, it definitely feels like a situation that’s going to get real messy at some point.
You could say the same thing about House of Cards as a whole, which is perpetually messy, but especially so right now. The war against ICO has begun, Underwood corruption allegations are very much out in the open, and there’s an election going on! With so much unresolved conflict, Season 5 can hopefully capitalize on the momentum that this season generated. As long as the writers keep (figuratively) breaking down walls when their furious painting gets stalled, we should be good.