‘House of Cards’ Season 4 Review: The Underwoods Are the Danger

‘House of Cards’ season 4 is on the campaign trail. But what lengths will Frank and Claire Underwood go to secure the presidency?

Blurring the lines between who to trust is not a new concept for Netflix series House of Cards. But Season 4 goes a step further. It leaves us wondering who’s exactly is being used for whose entertainment? And at what point do Frank and Claire transcend basic political scheming?

The start of Season 4 looked like it was going to be an epic Underwood vs. Underwood fight. Except House of Cards flipped the script on everything we’d been lead to expect for this season. It wasn’t at all about Frank vs. Claire but it was, in fact, about Frank and Claire.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards Photo: Netflix
Gif: j-umpthefence via Tumblr

The Underwood’s relationship is symbiotic. Not just to keep up appearances but because Claire makes Frank more bankable. It’s true too. I know, for myself, that early on in the season I felt like I would vote for Frank. Not just because he’s on the liberal side of the ticket, but because of Claire. This point became a strength as the season went on.

Aside from the personal politics between the Underwoods, House of Cards has an uncanny way of injecting real life into its borderline fantastical take on politics. The most obvious case of this is, of course, the inclusion of ICO which is very clearly the show’s take on the very real ISIS. And that’s a wide net. There are political issues, and then there is everyday life.

This is part of what makes House of Cards so compelling. It’s very clearly a part of our world. Perhaps the show takes place in an alternate universe where the President is Frank Underwood and Berenstain Bears is spelled with an “e”.

As I mentioned in my recap of the first episode, there are a lot of blurred lines between where Frank Underwood’s mythical presidency ends and where our current political landscape begins. And I sort of preferred the one presented by House of Cards over the real primaries happening right now.

Given the nature of what happens throughout the 13 episodes I feel obligated to offer anyone reading this fair Warning: Spoilers are an inevitability. So if you’re not caught up or aren’t interested in what comes next I strongly suggest you turn back now. For everyone else: Welcome to the terror!

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards Photo: Netflix Gif: annikekrahn via Tumblr

In the first episode the biggest thing that stands out is Lucas’ line about Frank. “He is the government.” And without truly knowing what was coming I actually used it a lot in my recap, because it’s quite exemplary. You could add an inflection to almost any word in that sentence, but the urgency is the same, and the message is all that much truer by the end of season four.

Frank knows how to work a system. And he continues to do so, which is really the whole reason we watch. It’s not for the meta-analysis of our own sorry state of affairs; or even to draw more attention to the backhanded, cutthroat nature of politics. It’s to see Frank address his audience (I think we are allowed to call him Frank – hopefully he won’t throw us out of the White House) in those inclusive fourth wall breaks that characterize the show. We’re a part of an exclusive group of people. We have unrestricted access.

But what are we to Frank? Are we the viewers that Will Conway willingly allows into his life? Are we the American people? There’s not really an answer. We’re the closed door. We’re complicit in the plans of a madman who wants to leave a legacy to the American people.

There are no locked doors. We don’t need credentials. We’re a friend to the Underwoods, or at least we’re made to feel that way. And in a total twist of irony we’re not addressed very often – if at all – for quite a few episodes. It’s understandable but it’s also confusing. Our entire take on this world is through what Frank exposes us to. We can pass our own judgements but in the end we’re at his mercy. And that message is quite clear by the end.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards Photo: Netflix Gif: emmasneverland via Tumblr

We’re quick to forget who Frank is. In a lot of ways, his true self simmers on the surface. He kills people who get in his way. And I kept wondering whose blood he was going to get on his hands this time around, especially when things started to get dicey around his past transgressions. This is a man who offers real advice like, “Shake with your right hand but hold a rock in your left.” He lives by his words, he believes in them. But he believes in himself more. In a Frank Underwood presidency everything has a value.

In those first few episodes it really seems like everyone serves Frank and woe betide you if he doesn’t need you. Seth is very nearly a casualty of needing to prove his worth. And his ethics take a hit after he secretly aligns himself with Heather Dunbar’s campaign. Doug makes a compelling (and by compelling, I mean threatening) case for Seth to get his act together.

The only reason it really works out is because Heather’s campaign manager knows Lucas and they meet in a back room and the meeting is the proverbial shot in the foot for Heather. Well actually, it’s literally the shot in Frank’s liver but the metaphor sounds more eloquent.

The assassinations or attempted assassinations of presidents and presidential candidates is a blemish on our country’s history. And the problem goes so far beyond just those two groups.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards Photo: Netflix Gif: doppelutiful via Tumblr

A quick Google search with pull up hundreds of lists dating back to Abraham Lincoln in the theater, Bobby Kennedy, to as recently as those holding elected office like Gabriel Giffords (never mind instances like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr‘s Han Solo-esque “Who Shot First” duel). Which is why, when Frank gets shot by a deranged Lucas in episode four it’s shocking. But after I stopped screaming (MEECHUM!) a few things about the situation really stuck out to me.

The scene is scary but not because you don’t expect it to happen. You don’t. When you see Lucas barreling through the crowd that’s not what you’re thinking at all. Well, maybe as a joke, in “wouldn’t it be funny if he shot him right now…Ooooooo” kind of reaction. Which makes the event all the more ironic.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards Photo: Netflix
Gif: j-umpthefence via Tumblr

No, what’s scary is that a crazy man gets a hold of a gun. He then proceeds to take that gun to a campaign stop. But not just any campaign stop, he takes that gun to a college campaign stop. And it because it’s TV nobody dies. I mean Meechum does, but that’s his job. None of the protesters, which are the people Frank has gone out to hear, are hurt. And that’s a good thing. Especially when you look at what’s happening to protesters in real life.

For me, there was a real life application to that scene. Back in undergrad my university hosted a presidential debate two elections in a row. And it was a very cool experience. Right down to the Secret Service who essentially infiltrate the campus. Security was tight. They closed the roads. It was an event that was taken very seriously and it was an exciting time for us students. But it’s extremely upsetting that a sitting president can be shot during a campaign stop at a university. This isn’t strange or fictional. It’s close to reality for the world we live in.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards Photo: Netflix
Gif: dailyhouseofcards via Tumblr

For House of Cards, gun control is an issue for Claire to spearhead. Because the show focuses on Frank, we definitely want to see him live; if for nothing else but the entertainment value. But that’s an even bigger problem. At what point does entertainment have no place in politics? The interesting thing is after Frank receives his liver transplant and starts to recover, the show asks just that. What’s scarier is the way it arrives at it’s answer.

Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) shows up on the scene as the hunky New York governor with “New York values.” You know, the important stuff like books, bagels and birth control. And like a Republican Captain America he swoops in just in time to save the world from Hydra. Except, as it turns out, he’s been working for the bad guys all along. And while that might sound like the synopsis for Captain America: Winter Soldier, it differs in that Conway doesn’t want to distance himself from the bad guys. He’s one of them. He’s just a different kind of bad guy. Everyone’s hands are dirty, it’s just a matter of how filthy and what kind of filth. Conway might not have killed anyone (that we know of, yet) but he’s a different kind of threat.

“Everyone has a flaw, and this is Conway’s. [I spoke with the president, and I said that I’m willing to assist in any way if it would be helpful.] He aches for the spotlight. He feels almost invisible without it. Now, if he’s center stage on this, he can’t fault my performance, because we’re sharing the stage together. If I get booed, he gets booed. But it’s really the applause that Conway’s hungry for… Yeah, a narcissist. But give him a pool to reflect in…Watch out. He knows exactly what to do with that. Unless he overreaches.”
Joel Kinnaman & Dominique McElligott as Will & Hannah Conway in House of Cards Photo: Netflix

Unlike Frank, Conway puts his entire private life on the internet for all the world to see. It makes him seem like he’s more accessible and, in a lot of ways, it makes that him much more threatening to the Underwoods. It’s more than him just opposing Frank. Conway thinks that he would be a good president, but what he does when there is no spotlight proves otherwise.

There’s actually an argument for Conway being more dangerous than Underwood. The parallels are not subtle but there’s a very distinct moment when Will yells at Hannah because he’s angry whereas Frank in similar circumstances tells Claire to “find her steel.” I mean obviously Frank and Claire have said things and done things to each other in anger (like the release of the KKK picture that costs Frank his home state) but it’s different. The two couples assert their power differently.

Will Conway doesn’t like feeling powerless. Neither does Frank, but what Conway does when he can’t make the system work for him is get angry. He’s just a pretty face with his own agenda, and when the cameras are off it’s an act. Frank even goes so far as to call him a fraud. Even Conway’s family-man persona becomes inconvenient when there’s no one to see it. And that’s the biggest difference. Frank looks for his next target. We have seen him go to any means necessary to maintain his position of power. In the early seasons as Whip we saw him move people around in order to get what he wanted.

And that’s where Tom Hammerschmidt’s (Boris McGiver) crusade to prove Frank’s blatant abuse of power backfires. Not on himself. No. Hammerschmidt gets his article published at the Herald. He gets big names to go on record like Remy Denton (Mahershala Ali), Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) and former President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill). Most of this research feels like House of Cards just wanted an opportunity to touch base with older characters. To really see how far Frank’s destruction reaches.

Janine Skorsky (the indomitable Constance Zimmer) is a great example. Addicted to pain meds, she’s not functioning. She’s been made to feel crazy. She wasn’t just marginalized by Underwood; she was destroyed. In a lot of ways the people left standing are way worse off. Which is what makes Hammerschmidt’s article so dangerous. And the reality is that even after his short, off the record conversation with Underwood he has no idea what he’s really jeopardized. Frank plays his little game. And I actually looked at the time on the last two episodes and tried to estimate how long Hammerschmidt had to live.

Boris McGiver as Tom Hammerschmidt in House of Cards Photo: Netflix

No, getting the truth out there backfires on the American people. We are the hostages in creating the legacy the Underwoods hope to achieve. The very people who have sat and listened to Frank wax poetic about his childhood and how he gets people to do what they should. The viewers who continued to support him despite every backdoor deal we know. We are all pawns. So, by the end, when Claire acknowledges us with a small look as well, Frank has moved beyond knocking his ring against a table. He tells us outright who he is and what he’ll do.

When Frank gets shot it’s scary, but we’re not really afraid of the guns. We go so far as to enjoy the madness that those moments perpetuated.

We thrive on the chaos the same way the Underwoods do. We’re entertained by it.

Stray Observations

  • Claire as a running mate was exciting and I loved the whole “beyond partnership” rhetoric. It also plays right into people’s fears about a candidate like Hillary. It’s interesting because people can support Trump for “fun” but make a joke about a Clinton/Clinton ticket and people jump down your throat. Plus, wouldn’t it be fun if Claire were to become president? In case you were wondering if that’s really possible there’s answers to those questions and more here.

    Kevin Spacey & Robin Wright as Frank & Claire Underwood in House of Cards Photo: Netflix Gif: isaacoscar via Tumblr

  • Speaking of Claire, she has a type right? She likes her arty boys! I actually asked out loud how long we thought it would take for her and Tom to sleep together. I guessed the next episode and I was right.
  • I love the Underwoods a lot though! For a bunch of reasons but mostly because they’re way more progressive than anyone will ever really know. I mean there was literally a breakfast meal that included Frank, Claire and her new live in boyfriend. What presidency made such good use of its consorts?
  • A fun little fact: Robin Wright directed a whole bunch of episodes this season!
  • I actually like Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) though. I honestly thought that there was going to be another three-way.
  • I also sort of expected Meechum to end up in bed with Frank when Claire was staying away. I was wrong, but who knew there could be so much sexual tension from a man tracing another man’s hand?
Kevin Spacey & Nathan Darrow as Frank Underwood & Edward Meechum in House of Cards Photo: Netflix Gif: frankunderwood via Tumblr
  • Doug needs a serious timeout. The donation to the family of the guy who died because he insisted Frank get the liver was one thing but then actively pursuing that man’s wife! *Takes out spray bottle and spritzes him* Bad Doug! Bad! Seriously, stay away from the nice lady!
  • The open forum convention was exactly the spectacle it was supposed to be. Mostly because it’s a reality we could see play out this election season. I don’t know if the showrunners have some kind of crystal ball and knew that was a possibility or they just chose to showcase another little known factor in the democratic process but it was a lot of fun. What an inspired idea and a great way to keep this season relevant throughout this election year.
  • Will Conway was an interesting character and I look forward to seeing him handle losing to Frank next season in spectacular fashion! However, I would be remiss not to mention Hannah and Claire’s epic clapback when she was asked if she regrets having children. Classic!
  • Most underestimated moment goes to Hammerschmidt for his, “Underwood might be a crook but he’s not a killer” line!
  • Frank’s aging progression was really well-done. There have been lots of piece done on what the position does to a body but watching Frank not just go grey but really become older was quite fascinating!
  • I needed more Aidan Macallan (Damian Young) and his algorithm! And his playlist!
  • Most underrated line of the entire season: “The moment bigotry becomes a form of partriotism America is no longer America.”

Overall season four gets a solid A in my book. It started in one direction and went somewhere else entirely but isn’t that typical of politics? It also managed to give adequate screen time to every familiar face from as far back as season one (complete with a creepy Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) hallucination). The 13 episodes went faster than ever.

Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes in House of Cards Photo: Netflix Gif: frankunderwood via Tumblr

My viewing party was so involved we almost missed an opportunity to continue the tradition of eating ribs while watching, and by the end found my appetite for the series quite insatiable. If nothing else, Season 4 proved that – no matter how good he is at manipulating the system – Frank can’t keep the past down forever.

Frank’s progression this season from mostly threatening to literal terror (oh yes I went with the terror word here!) has a Heisenberg/Walter White like movement to it. He has bled for the presidency. Those final moments of the season leave a lot of cards (hahaha!) up in the air. We’re eager to see how this new plot takes on a life of it’s own.

House of Cards Season 4  is now streaming on Netflix!

So what did you think of House of Cards Season 4? Did it live up to your expectations? Were you swept up in Conway’s good looks? Is Claire really suited to be VP? Share your thoughts in the comments!