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House of Cards season 4 review: The Netflix drama's latest season is a ridiculous mess — but better than you'd expect

The show no longer even pretends to be based on our reality. Good.

Frank (Kevin Spacey) games out some scenarios for his toy soldiers.
Frank (Kevin Spacey) games out some scenarios for his toy soldiers.
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.

House of Cards is a sledgehammer of a TV show, and its audience is the wall. It hurls itself against its viewers, until they either give way or turn it off. But it never stops trying to find a crack it can expand into a larger hole, until it's wormed its way past your defenses and into your good graces.



All this forward momentum is only appropriate, given the show it supports. Great TV dramas are built around the push and pull between question and answer, between the mystery of what a character might do in a given situation and what happens when she actually does it.

There's no such mystery with House of Cards, where you know exactly what will happen as surely as you do on NCIS. Obstacles will present themselves, but Frank (the hammy Kevin Spacey) and Claire (the almost perfect Robin Wright) Underwood will overcome. What you see is what you get.

But that can be entertaining, and it's perhaps never been more so than in the show's fourth season.

House of Cards seems to have given up on being meaningful or thoughtful, tossing a bunch of ideas at the wall and then waiting see if any of them stick. A few of them do, and the series follows them to whatever ends it can find. But for the most part, season four is just a collection of incidents, of things that happen.

But what things! If season three felt as if it tried too hard to invest the show with meaning, season four is totally comfortable with being an incoherent roller coaster, one stuffed full of events, where literally nothing of consequence happens.

Plus, a curious thing happened to House of Cards between seasons three and four. As our real-life political world got wackier, House of Cards stayed the course, and now it feels downright quaint. For instance, when Frank's father's connection to the Ku Klux Klan (he wasn't a member, but he posed for a photo with one) is revealed early in the season, it really, really hurts Frank's candidacy, at least for a blip of a moment.

Here in 2016 America, could it be that House of Cards feels almost idealistic, because the worst nightmare it could possibly imagine is a president who murders people one at a time? Strangely enough, that's where we are.

But there's way more where that came from. Here's the good, bad, and weird of House of Cards, season four. Needless to say, spoilers (for the whole season) follow.

Good: The season has a certain epic sweep to it

House of Cards brings back President Walker.
Bringing back former President Walker (Michel Gill, right) gives the season a feeling of epic grandeur it doesn't precisely earn.

Say what you will about whether season four makes sense on a macro level (it mostly doesn't), but this thing has scope.

It features everything from an assassination attempt to what it considers the ultimate examination of the Underwood marriage to threats of war with Russia to threats of war with ICO (a variant on ISIS) to a brokered convention to a presidential election. Showrunner Beau Willimon threw everything into the pot for his final season on the show.

And throughout the season, there's a willingness to engage with House of Cards' history that is, frankly, welcome. Characters we thought were long gone return, whether in the afterlife or living far off in seclusion. Characters who should have told Frank to fuck off ages ago finally tell him to do just that. And a journalist finally digs up something to stick to the president, as the season finale ends with a damning report on Frank hitting the Washington Herald.

Now, bigger is not always better. There were times in season four when I missed the intimacy of season three, a season that didn't quite work but was at least trying to develop House of Cards' characters into something more than pieces to move around a game board. But at least bigger is always bigger.

Season four's sweep is, in some ways, a little cheap (when you've written off as many characters as this show has, it's easy to buy gravitas by bringing a few back), but it's also entertaining. House of Cards has always longed to be an opera, right down to the soprano who occasionally wails on the soundtrack. Season four comes the closest the show ever has to realizing that ambition.

Bad: The show's story is hurtling toward an ending it has little to no intention of providing

House of Cards
Frank wages a bitter presidential campaign that dodges several bullets (somewhat improbably).

Now, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe season five will turn out to be House of Cards' last, and Willimon's departure had nothing to do with him wanting the show to end while Netflix wanted nothing of the sort.

I really have no idea. But it's impossible to watch most of season four and not feel as if it's the first part of a two-part conclusion.

As the season wraps up, everything is coming down around the Underwoods' ears, and they're vowing to create more chaos in hopes of climbing the rubble as it falls around them. It all feels like the story's big drum roll before the explosions of the ending.

But when Netflix picked up the show for a fifth season, it very pointedly did not say that season five would be the show's last. And Willimon left the show as so many other showrunners have (including Aaron Sorkin of the previous political drama The West Wing) — in a place where it feels like the status quo can never be regained, even though all TV needs a return to the status quo eventually.

House of Cards isn't going to suddenly become the best show on television if it ends in season five, but it's probably much closer to the end of its story than the middle. Is Netflix going to try to stretch this thing out? Because season four suggests that would be a very bad idea.

Good: The show's examination of the Underwood marriage is fitfully insightful

House of Cards
The season's best image shows the Underwoods at their most triumphant, as both halves of the 2016 Democratic ticket.

House of Cards has always been far more interested in the Underwood marriage than it really needed to be. The connection between Frank and Claire isn't as mysterious as the show imagines it is, and it mostly just boils down to, "They both like power, and realize the other can help them attain it."

But particularly in the latter portions of season four, when the couple enters into what amounts to a polyamorous triad with novelist Tom Yates (though he's more into Claire than he is into Frank), the whole enterprise takes off via its own weird force of will.

Bringing back Yates shouldn't work (and occasionally doesn't), and pairing him off with Claire really shouldn't work. But it does, because Willimon and company are 100 percent committed to their vision of the Underwoods as all of the worst things you possibly imagine about Bill and Hillary Clinton.

House of Cards has always danced around the worst fears and darkest conspiracy theories about the Clintons with a lead foot, but it's slightly more deft in season four, when the show finally acknowledges that what draws these two together is seeing just how long they can tempt fate in a game of chicken, before fate blinks.

The season's most powerful moments all come when the two are playing political brinkmanship against each other (a portion of the season that comprises far too little of its running time), and it delivers its most potent image when the Underwoods accept the Democratic Party's nomination for president and vice president, holding hands, softly lit from above, on their way to heaven, even if they have to kill St. Peter to enter.

Bad: The writing remains clunky

House of Cards
Oh, right, Neve Campbell is here, and her character isn't all that interesting. Poor Neve Campbell.

In one of the episodes centered on the Democratic convention, Claire and another character discuss a plan that both of them already know the details of, in depth, simply because the audience might need to hear more about it.

In other episodes, Frank's direct address to camera is mostly just there to make sure the audience is paying attention to certain points, while other characters say exactly what they're thinking or feeling, multiple times, as if to make sure the audience gets it.

These are all hallmarks of bad, bland writing, and the writing on House of Cards has never been its strong suit. It will occasionally pull off an interesting plot twist or something like that, but its dialogue is functional at best and completely overexpository at worst. House of Cards doesn't need clever writing, but it too often acts like a show that already has it. It doesn't.

Weird: The show's political universe makes less sense than ever

House of Cards
Frank and Claire Underwood forever! Frank and Claire Underwood for life!

Now, House of Cards has never really made sense politically. It seems to take place in a world where the 1950s never ended, the Democrats and the Republicans don't have rigid ideologies so much as general guidelines, and everybody acts as if the theater of politics is literally all that matters.

This is fine, as it goes. So long as the show's ethos is more or less consistent, it can get away with a lot. But where it gets tripped up is in the fact that seemingly everybody in its universe cares only about what the Underwoods are up to at any given moment. The show spends so little time building up any other characters that it becomes The Frank and Claire Steamroller Hour, as the Underwoods flatten everyone who stands in their way with the greatest of ease.

This problem is deeply compounded in season four, where things that would fell mere mortals only give the Underwoods greater heat. A brokered convention that almost ends with Frank being denied the nomination? America thinks it's exciting. Frank veering closer and closer to war with Russia? Why not!

There are occasional murmurs about how the Underwoods' behavior isn't playing well with the public, but the show's tunnel vision is so acute that it doesn't matter. On House of Cards, if the Underwoods ever slip behind in the polls, all they need to do is start talking about themselves as much as possible, because that's what the American people want.

House of Cards is deeply cynical about everything, as a matter of course. But in season four, that attitude feels less like a worldview and more like a defense mechanism. In a time when real-life politics can feel like a country racing toward oblivion, it's harder and harder to watch the Underwoods actively do so and feel like it's entertainment.

House of Cards season four is streaming on Netflix.

This is why Kevin Spacey's accent in House of Cards sounds off

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