Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
A lot can change in three years. Back in 2013, when House of Cards launched, the very idea of a show streaming on Netflix, with all episodes erupting from the floodgates at once, seemed singularly odd. It’s hard to even get into that headspace in 2016. The service, for better or worse, has given its users a Pavlovian response to the consumption of its top-shelf programming: binge it soon, binge it fast, and get in on the conversation before it ends.
House of Cards is maybe the first actually great Netflix original series (sorry, Lilyhammer), the first to prove that a show didn’t have to be chintzy or overly soapy to get people to keep talking about it well past its debut. But, like Netflix’s effect on our TV culture, a lot has changed for House of Cards over three years, too. The show has gotten more complex, its issues more dense and relevant than ever, the characters as fascinating as they are enigmatic. Such changes bolster the show’s more shocking moments but, combined with the all-at-once model, they also result in a series that grows hazy in the mind more quickly than it should.
The new season starts essentially right after last year’s finale, with Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) off on her own after announcing her intention to divorce Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), following a tumultuous season between the two. To retaliate, Frank gets a few of his right-hand men, Stamper (Michael Kelly) and Seth (Derek Cecil), to begin trying to figure out Claire’s next move before she makes it.
That’s the first major boon to House of Cards‘ fourth season: it’s finally found foes formidable enough for the Underwoods to face: one another. Previous villains – Raymond Tusk, Heather Dunbar, Zoe Barnes to an extent – showed occasional glimpses into clever comebacks for the treacherous Underwoods, but they never felt like equals (strong exception to Molly Parker’s Jackie Sharpe). When Claire hires her own Stamper in the form of campaign adviser Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell), you could practically pop popcorn off the top of your streaming device of choice, given how much heat and tension boils to the surface of the once kinda-happily married power couple.
Deftly, the show doesn’t keep the two apart to plot and scheme but instead presses them together as close as ever. It’s an election year, so Frank’s on the trail of a few state primaries, masking Claire’s hightailing to Texas as a front for preparing his campaign in the southern state. Really, she’s trying to get a foothold back into Washington through the election of a local congresswoman (Cicely Tyson), and staying with her Frank-hating mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) while hiding out at her ghostly childhood mansion. The addition of two such venerable actresses click perfectly with the tone of House of Cards: they’re sweet, stoic scions of geniality on the outside, but their ruthless streaks quickly surface once they’re cornered.
As ever, Frank’s problems are twofold. He’s got his personal issues with Claire, and the season’s new geo-political sideshow in the form of a Russian refugee seeking asylum on American soil. Soon enough, last year’s creepily accurate Putin stand-in Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) is back in the game, causing immeasurable issues for Frank’s administration when the two can’t come to terms with the fate of the refugee in question. Add on top of all that the fact that season 4 right-off-the-bat reintroduces one of Frank’s oldest foes, still out for his blood, and the drama surrounding the Underwoods becomes just as addicting and murky as in years past.
That addiction is powered, of course, by Spacey and Wright, so good at being meticulously cruel to one another and to those who get in their way, that it becomes easy to visibly flinch from their back-and-forth barbs. Spacey isn’t given nearly enough of his joyously over-the-top fourth-wall breaking monologues in the first half of the season, but their occasional appearances still somehow work with ease. Of course, the best are of the subtle eye-roll variety that have made Frank a mainstay in GIFs since 2013.