“House of Cards” has been a show that’s had its ups and downs. When it first premiered, it started with a dynamite season that knocked everyone’s socks off, delivering an impressive amount of tension, thrills, and excitement that made the brief 13 episodes fly by in a snap. When it came to the second season, things slowed down a bit, still giving us the same intriguing characters and a few engrossing plotlines, but it just didn’t reach the same heights as before. However, season three changed all that by kicking the show back into high gear and once again delivering 13 episodes that had you on the edge of your seat. It also left us with one hell of a cliffhanger, showing that things were going to be quite different when it came to the show’s inevitable fourth season, but would it be able to continue the show’s new-found streak of greatness, or would the pattern of ups and downs only manage to reassert itself?
When last we left Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), she had just walked out on him at about the worst time possible: right in the middle of his campaign for the presidency. Obviously this complicates things, forcing him to dodge questions about Claire’s whereabouts until his campaign can come up with a satisfactory answer. Meanwhile, Claire has plans of her own, which include trying to win herself a House seat as a potential launching point for Governor. Frank and Claire make it a point to try and sabotage each other’s carefully laid strategies, that is, until they realize that the best way to move forward is to do what they’ve always done before (i.e. work together as a team).
With their forces combined, they redouble their efforts to face anything that comes their way, including a contentious Democratic ticket, a feisty and devious Republican candidate, terrorists, a hostage situation, and reporters who will stop at nothing to uncover the truth about Frank’s criminal past. Of course, this is not even to mention the upcoming election, which they’ll have to deal with on top of their already over-crowded agenda of crises.
Right away, the fourth season of “House of Cards” gets back to what it was always best at: scheming, the butting of heads, and the underhanded struggle for dominance between foes who will do whatever it takes to come out on top. It just so happens that the two “foes” who are facing off at the start of the latest season happen to be the Underwoods themselves, and from the past few seasons, we know just what kind of standoff that would result in.
We’ve seen what Frank has been willing to do to put himself where he is today, including murdering a congressman and a reporter, lying, making backroom deals, and making promises he never intended to keep, but we’ve also seen that Claire can be just as ruthless. It would seem to be an indisputable fact that Frank would never have gotten where he is without Claire’s help, proving her to be a tough opponent that Frank knows he can’t take lightly. Perhaps he even knows in the back of his head that he wouldn’t be able to beat her, especially with the massive damage she could do to his presidential bid, leading him to call a kind of truce that is beneficial to both sides. This basically boils down to them putting aside their differences and doing what’s best for the team, for even they realize that this is the best way for both of them to get what they want.
From here, the show returns to the team facing off against whatever issues confront them, and while most of them are intriguing, there are some that fall by the wayside, feeling rather unnecessary to the main plot. The main one that comes to mind as falling into this latter category is that of Claire’s dying mother (played by Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn). It’s a subplot that’s meant to inject a little more emotional turmoil into Claire’s life, as well as a little more conflict into Frank’s, but all it really ends up doing is slowing the show down considerably. It’s made even worse by the fact that she merely ends up getting used as a pawn in the end, which does contribute to the Underwoods’ relentless nature, but overall doesn’t make the lax pacing of the storyline worth getting through.
There’s also the undeniably slow nature of the plot to uncover Frank’s past. It’s certainly an intriguing storyline, one that will have lasting consequences and introduce a whole new set of obstacles for the Underwoods, but the show takes the most snail-like route to bring it about, making you wonder if anything is ever going to come of it as it takes its lethargic course. Luckily, even with all of that going on, there’s more than enough to make up for the storylines that don’t quite work.
For instance, there are a pair of episodes that mostly take place at the Democratic National Convention that show just how tense and engrossing this show can be, especially with the Vice Presidential nomination being left up to the party itself. There are a number of power plays made here that have you wondering what could possibly happen next. Does Frank have the upper hand? Do his supposed pawns know more than they’re letting on? Does Claire have even a small change at being the VP nominee? If anything, these episodes represent the incredible political wheeling and dealing that made us fall in love with the show in the first place.
Then, of course, you have Frank’s main opponent in the coming election, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). Conway constantly brings up Frank’s inability to deal with a group of terrorists that has been causing problems, forcing Frank to balance his response with other outcomes he is trying to achieve, including getting some very useful information on the opposition. This storyline drives most of the remainder of the season, culminating with an ending that only goes to reestablish a haunting truth about the Underwoods that we’ve known all along. Let’s just say that when they want to get the upper hand, they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they get it, even if their backs are flat up against the wall.
As far as ranking this latest season of “House of Cards,” I would say that, overall, it’s not quite on the level of the first or third seasons, but it was certainly more engaging than season two. Like that season, this one did have a few sideplots that needed to be excised/reworked in order to make it flow better, but there were definitely more than enough thoroughly engrossing storylines to make up for it. Season four represents another incredible year of a show that has almost consistently shown us how exciting politics can be, especially when written and acted as stunningly as this. Even if the show is not always at the top of its game, the greatness it does have to offer only reminds us why it’s one of the best shows out there.
“House of Cards: The Complete Fourth Season” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.00:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. All 13 episodes present a perfectly sharp and clear picture that doesn’t show the slightest hint of fuzziness. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is likewise outstanding, giving you all audial elements from the dialogue to the score in top-notch quality. Overall, the show has been given amazing treatment that is sure to delight the show’s many fans.
“House of Cards: The Complete Fourth Season” may have a few subplots that needed to be removed or retooled, but it makes up for it by having several more that are thoroughly engaging and filled with the same great tension and excitement that made us fall in love with the show in the first place. Featuring the same great acting and writing that we’ve become accustomed to, season four gives fans everything they want, culminating with a great conclusion that will have everyone anticipating what is sure to be another incredible season next year.
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic and be sure to subscribe to the site for the latest updates.