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House of Cards season 4 review: 5 supposedly shocking moments from the first 6 episodes

The show's attempts to appear edgy remain as strained as ever.

Frank Underwood is back, and he's cranky.
Frank Underwood is back, and he's cranky.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The biggest complaint about House of Cards' third season was that nothing happened, as the show downshifted into character drama.

Well, season four has heard your cries, House of Cards fans, because it is literally just a big collection of stuff that happens. The show will introduce a new plotline, barely pause for breath, and then introduce another one. I've only seen the first six episodes (all that were made available to critics before the season debuted), but I feel like I've watched all 13 already.

I'll post a full review of season four on Sunday, but these first six episodes reminded me of just how hard — and how often — House of Cards tries to shock its viewers, offering up scenes that are meant to be cool and dark and thrilling, but mostly just seem like a little kid who's shouting swear words over and over again. Here are five of the biggest ones from just those first six episodes. Needless to say, spoilers follow (though the first one is for the first scene of the whole season).

1) Season four's very first scene is a puerile eye roll

Lucas is doomed.
Poor, doomed Lucas.

To kick off the season, reporter Lucas Goodwin (who went to jail after being somewhat on track to expose Frank Underwood's secrets) narrates some erotica to his cellmate in a world-weary voice, as said cellmate masturbates in his bunk. It's all we see before House of Cards cuts to its opening credits.

It's probably meant to be some sort of cynical commentary on politics, or journalism, or maybe even the show itself. (Write a series this long, and everything can start to feel a little masturbatory.) But it's mostly just the sort of tired, calculated edginess the show has long engaged in for little payoff.

And when you consider where Lucas's story is headed (see point 4 below), it makes the whole thing even more pointless.

2) Gas is $6 per gallon!!!

Gas prices in the House of Cards universe.
It goes up and up and up.

On this list of "shocking" moments, $6 gas is by far the least shocking. You don't look at a gas station sign advertising sky-high gas prices and feel as if anyone's even attempting to shatter taboos.

But $6 gas is House of Cards' greatest indication to date that it takes place in a dystopian alternate reality, where the political process split off from ours some time ago and completely changed everything. It looks like America, but it's only sort of America.

While you and I are enjoying lower gas prices, people in Frank Underwood's America are dealing with much higher ones, while he flirts with antagonizing Russia and the like. It's all very strange.

3) Claire wants to mount an Underwood/Underwood campaign in 2016

House of Cards
This shot is really nicely framed.

What's shocking about this isn't really that Claire suggests it, but that House of Cards itself attempts to suggest that an Underwood/Underwood ticket is a bad idea, when we know that all anybody cares about in the show's universe is what Frank and Claire are up to.

Said universe is a place where people who are waiting for life-saving surgery in the universe's version of Des Moines are still likely preoccupied with whatever skullduggery the president is up to. When delivering the second episode's State of the Union address, Frank spends a lot of time talking about a breast cancer clinic that some woman is building in Dallas, and everybody just sort of goes with it even though it's completely irrelevant to whatever they might care about. "Well, if it's what Frank cares about..." seems to be the unspoken subtext.

I see no way season four doesn't end with Underwood/Underwood 2016 becoming the first presidential campaign to win all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico or whatever.

4) Lucas tries to assassinate Frank

Frank is shot on House of Cards.
Frank, just moments before he's shot.

In episode four, Lucas shows up in a crowd of anti-Underwood protesters and takes aim at Frank, shooting him once and ultimately killing Secret Service Agent Edward Meechum (whom Frank has flirted with a bit more brazenly with every episode).

Now, on a show about politics, an assassination attempt is pretty standard stuff. But House of Cards puts Frank in a coma for several episodes! He's barely appears in episode five, and spends much of episode six wandering around some sort of coma version of the afterlife (see below). It's as if he were stuck in a piece of promotional art from late in The Sopranos's run.

I suppose the important thing is that, in spite of all this, one of the laws of the House of Cards universe continues to hold true: If you're going to go after Frank, something will intervene to stop you. Usually, it will be Frank or Doug. But sometimes, like Lucas, you'll just suddenly lose your mind, because the plot requires you to.

5) Frank's afterlife jaunt includes a near threesome with Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo

Afterlife threesomes for everyone.
Sexy good times in the afterlife.

Kate Mara and Corey Stoll make special appearances during Frank's journey through his own subconscious, in a lengthy sequence that references some of House of Cards' most famous moments. Of course, "some of the series' most famous moments" includes that season two threesome between Frank, Claire, and Meechum, and the new episode mimics it when Peter and Zoe close in on Frank.

And then he snaps out of it, before the phantoms of people he's murdered usher him into the next life with hate sex. He finds himself staring at a ghostly Claire in a shadowy Oval Office, and then he gets the liver he needs (thanks to a teenager's suicide) and all is well.

Truth be told, I'm kind of enjoying this hyperactive, faux-edgy House of Cards. It doesn't really have anything to say about life or the human condition, but it's definitely having a good time throwing things at the wall. I kind of can't wait to see what happens next.

House of Cards season four is currently streaming on Netflix.