As in previous years, I’m binge-reviewing the latest season of Netflix’s House of Cards, the TV show that helped popularize the idea of “binge watching” when it premiered in 2013. Don’t read farther than you’ve watched.
Episode 1 (Chapter 40)
House of Cards Season 4: rebooted in Oz-land? Less-than-obsessive viewers, or even obsessive ones who’ve had to clear their memory banks as they’ve gorged on other complicated TV universes in the past two years, could be forgiven for some confusion at the opening scene of this season opener. The guy dictating erotica to his bunkmate is Lucas Goodwin, the hapless investigative journalist and boyfriend of the late Zoe Barnes. He was last seen in Season 2, when he was arrested for cybercrimes on the way to exposing the mortal crimes of Frank Underwood. Throughout the series, Underwood has had not one but many Swords of Damocles over his head; last season ended with the elimination of one in the form of onetime prostitute Rachel Posner, but Lucas’s reappearance and his escape into the Witness Protection Program may be a set-up for some nice symmetry. Might the season end with Frank in a jail cell?
The president, of course, has more immediate threats to face. Like the one from Claire, gone rogue after one too many insults and sidelining of her ambitions last season. This episode’s early scenes of her creeping through David Fincher’s very favorite kind of setting—a drafty mansion—with unknown purpose (other than to avoid Ellen Burstyn) provided a reminder that Claire’s deeper motivations and thoughts have always been removed from the viewer. While Frank cornily diaried into the camera in seasons past, Claire has maintained an icy, put-together exterior whether on the campaign trail or having late-night pillow talk with her husband. She’s a locked box, both to the people within the show and the people watching it.
The episode finally revved up the real entertainment engine of House of Cards halfway through when Claire and Frank and their operatives got down to the business of dealmaking. We’ve seen these moves and countermoves before: intimidation threats from the president; slick but brutal interception from Stamper; quid-pro-quo-or-maybe-just-extortion overtures from Claire, delivered with a slight smile. But we’ve never seen them employed by one Underwood against another for as sustained a period and with as high stakes as these. There have been times in past seasons when the show seemed stuck in cul-de-sac, but for now the dynamic of Claire as an insurgent and Frank as a seething spurned husband (instead of folksy asides, we get a murder dream) has created an interesting, novel dynamic.
Also promising are the new cast members. Neve Campbell’s consultant Leann Harvey has a faint Texas lilt that’s as subtly menacing as the little gun in her desk. And the two new senior citizens on screen, Cicely Tyson as Congresswoman Doris Jones and Burstyn as Claire’s mother, are a thrill: weary from all they’ve been through, but both maintaining strong convictions. Burstyn in particular seems like a potentially important new player, with barely veiled fascination in her daughter’s political life and completely unveiled contempt for Frank. We now know, at least, where Claire gets her chilly demeanor from. The notion that the hug at the episode represents a reforged mother/daughter alliance is one that should scare Frank as much as the Armenian Power gang scared Lucas’s former cellmate.
Read the review of the next episode.