**THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS**
House of Cards season 4 was fantastic! That is a bold statement for me because seasons 2 and 3 had some clear weak points with storylines that felt completely secondary to the main plot. I enjoyed watching them, but I didn’t fall in love with them like I had season 1. I was still cautiously optimistic when I started season 4, and it hit all the sweet spots for me.
The season begins with a very strong focus on Claire. Season 3 ended with her leaving Francis, and that decision has a very strong effect on the beginning of the season. Francis is trying to win re-election, and Claire is nowhere to be found for the campaign. She wants to prove that Francis needs her in order to win. My problem with focusing on Claire had always been that I didn’t like her character. I firmly believe that there is always at least one character you actively dislike in any show you may get invested in. This holds especially true for a show like House of Cards where all of the characters are morally questionable in some regard. With Claire, I couldn’t identify with her at all. She is someone who is under someone else’s shadow her entire life and wanted something of her own. As she tries to separate herself in order to have Frank come around, she seems so empty and dead inside. She never lets her guard down or shows any authentic emotion. At least with Frank, we see him vulnerable in his moments of anger. We don’t get that with Claire. The show tries to fix that in season 4 with Claire’s mother. She is a hard woman, who seems to have gone through a lot over the years, but is still on estranged terms with her daughter. Unlike many other people, she sees right through Claire, and when asked for money, she stubbornly refuses. For me, it was refreshing seeing someone stand up to Claire other than Francis. The reason this season works so well is because it makes me feel an active like or dislike towards certain characters like Tom or Claire. Only good acting and writing can accomplish that.
An interesting thing about the season overall is that it didn’t introduce very many new characters. Neve Campbell comes into play as the woman who puts together Claire’s Congressional campaign and later comes to the White House to work on the re-election. She also introduces the main cast to a friend she trusts for domestic spying purposes so they can counteract Conway’s search engine partnership. Then there is Conway himself and his family who are not only likeable, but smart enough to play the social marketing campaign directly. Conway feels like one of Frank’s most formidable of opponents at times and one of his weakest at others. Conway’s perceived strength may be less about him being smart and more about Frank losing his edge after being shot. He is certainly in pain as the liver tries to take to his body, and he also shows moments of anger where he doesn’t quite know how to handle the situation. Freddy informs Frank that he is taking a job elsewhere and Frank can’t fathom why he wouldn’t stay. When he asks Freddy to cook for him one last time, he refuses because he cannot stomach being in a subservient role to Frank again. Freddy swears at him and Frank loses his temper. He also admits to feeling numb near the end of the season when he is talking to Claire about the article being published. She is the one that comes up with the course of action, not him. It was at that moment, not when Claire was telling him he needed her that I realized just how important she truly is. This leads me back to the lack of new characters.
There doesn’t need to be a many new characters. If the show is actually referencing its title, Frank’s entire life will eventually crumble down around him. The House of Cards will fall down. The new characters are certainly important, but all of the plotlines that have been circulating around for the past four seasons are merging together and it is returning characters that will make that happen.
Season 4 worked so well because all of the storylines this time around weaved into each other. I think a little too much time was spent exploring Claire in Texas with her mother, but it was important to the large scheme at play. Any time spent away from Frank and Claire has had a consequence elsewhere whereas some storylines in other seasons were not only uninteresting, but took away from the main focus. I never felt distracted in season 4. There was always a reason to see another character. For example, Lucas is released from jail unbeknownst to anyone in the White House. He flies under the radar and is able to get ahold of a car despite the terms of his release from prison. Lucas being released in turn leads to Dunbar bowing out of the race which in turn leads to the story being published by the time the season finishes up. The ramifications of one action might not be seen until much later on, but they are always important. All the focus on Claire and Frank being in discord at the beginning makes their reconciliation and scheming that much better later on and leads to the gripping fourth wall finale. The scenes with Claire’s mother finally give the audience some insight into her thought process which not many people are privy too. She was neglected by her mother, and I couldn’t help but wonder if their strained relationship played a part in her decision to not have kids at all.
In line with the season’s storylines weaving into each other, my favorite aspect by far was that plotlines from previous seasons finally came to fruition this season. Lucas was arrested because he got too close to the truth, and I quickly forgot about him. Then, he reappears this season and ends up playing a huge role even though his screen time is incredibly limited. Frank schemes Walker’s impeachment behind the scenes, and then Tom Hammerschmidt comes along and feeds off Walker’s resentment to write the story. The same goes for Jackie and Remy. Their affair is used as black mail to support the legislation Claire is pushing through. Then they disappear for a few episodes only to reappear later as the story materializes. It is that which I admire about the show. It is clearly the story about the rise of two corrupt people, but in many ways it is also an ensemble cast where someone can play a pivotal role and then disappear for a bit and the story always moves along because of the strength of the two leads.
Season 4 ends with a lot of story threads being open-ended. The story may or may not have significant fallout. Claire and Frank now have a lot of different enemies to deal with. The election has still not happened and the Conways are still a formidable threat. Then, there is also the storyline with Doug which I can’t help but feel will somehow become incredibly important. Season 5 will have many questions to answer without its lead writer. Will the show begin to suffer as a result? It’s difficult to judge one person’s contribution until he or she has left so we will find out in a year’s time.