But, as ever, it’s Wright’s show. When Claire spars with her ghostly mother or twists a metaphorical knife into Frank’s exposed belly, she never looses her footing. Her quiet war with Frank is compelling, and gives a semi-solid explanation to anyone wondering where House of Cards would be going for the rest of Frank’s presidency, and beyond. In the middle of the season, Claire voices the potential hope for a very high power in Washington; Frank scoffs, then yells. By the end of episode six the show is somewhat reset, but the icy glaze in Claire’s eyes speak more than words could at where she intends to be by season’s end.
As the newest cast member, Campbell fits well into Beau Willimon’s dangerous world (this is his last season as showrunner, and you can almost tell from the sheer breathless efficacy of its plotting). Frank Underwood might not be running around in a Halloween mask, but the second time we meet her, she greets Stamper with such Sidney-level feistiness it’ll be hard for Scream fans to disassociate the roles.
The women on this show are sharp, hard-edged, uncompromising creations; Campbell’s introduction does nothing to change that. A returning favorite in investigative journalist Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) isn’t seen as much until later in the season, but she does a lot with inquisitive glances and small quips to endear you to her bit role, as she did last year.
It’s all still beautiful to look at (honestly, some frames are so meticulously crafted, I’d swear you could fold them in half and everything would match). And House of Cards is still written in such a way as to make political mumbo-jumbo seem vaguely colloquialized. But the glaring problem with season 4 of House of Cards is that nothing – save one big turn – really stands out in the six hours of political maneuverings and shady dealings sent to critics ahead of time. The show’s felt mostly downhill in the crazy department following its right-hook of a season 2 premiere – but Frank is POTUS now, so his underlings have to do the dirty work. Season 4 keeps that trend going, blending the unhinged aspects of season 1 and 2 with the restraint of season 3 to somewhat mixed results.
House of Cards never gets too bogged down in the mundane nature of Frank’s political upheavals, but there’s something about the minimalist look of the show, combined with sparse and specific dialogue, that fails to cast a notable, lasting spell. As I write this review right now, hot off watching the first six episodes, I remember moods and outfits and striking direction (including some by Wright this year) more than particular dialogue or plot. Is that House of Cards‘ fault? Or Netflix’s? Or ours? Because we all know most of us will be done with all thirteen episodes come the light of Monday morning.
I’m not sure, and I’m not here to throw blame. But it’s impossible to look at the series in a vacuum three years after it essentially popularized the binge model. House of Cards is doing something different than Netflix’s other shows, like Orange is the New Black and Sense8, going deeper and deeper into more pointedly political, humorously relevant topics (Frank has to deal with an uncomfortably close association to the KKK early on), but the model it helped popularize now feels like it’s kneecapping the show.
You’ll want to eat it all up as fast as possible – the continued successful mimicry of David Fincher’s sleek aesthetic makes it one helluva easy pill to swallow – but it’s far too easy to glaze over House of Cards‘ meatier subtext while sprinting to the next tweet-worthy twist. Do I like Frank? I kept asking myself. Do I hate him? Am I supposed to hate him? Yes? No? Maybe? Some will relish in the show’s highly questionable morals, while others will find them too oppressive. And a separate group will, like this reviewer, end up stuck in the middle. House of Cards has found the complexity of its anti-hero but, in spite of its sublime direction, stellar cast, and deliciously dark drama, it has yet to master his brutal bite.