House of Cards Review: a Return to Form but That Form Is Not as Good as It Thinks It Is

So Frank Underwood is back. Yes, the eagerly awaited, and much praised, Netflix Original, conceived by Beau Willimon, at last enters its fourth season. For many this will be a weekend of binge-watching with a very firm dent put in the sofa and local take-away restaurants kept busy.

As the third installment ended, with his presidency threatened by enemies within and without as he battles with his purer than pure rival Heather Dunbar for the Democratic nomination and with the sinister President Petrov for international hegemony, Underwood also faced a rift in his marriage which however successful his political machinations could bring him, and his house of cards, tumbling down well before polling day. To say that the series is a dramatic roller-coaster ride is an understatement. Season Three’s cliffhanger seemed almost a dramatic step too far. Had House of Cards bitten off more than it could chew?

There is still much play to be had. The series delicately dances around with the Underwoods’ marriage rift while just staying on the right side of credible; many of the narrative arcs from previous series are cleverly wound up, while new potentials given their first tentative breath of television air; and some delicious new characters are introduced: Claire’s reptilian Texan mother (Ellen Burstyn), the ruthless and sassy - no other word to describe it - campaign manager (Neve Campbell) and Underwood’s Camelot-esque Republican opponent Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). House of Cards knows how to tease.  

Much of the introspection of Season Three is banished and the meandering, rather wearisome sub-plots forgotten. Four is sharper, more focused than its predecessor: the personal languor of the last season is, thankfully, a thing of the past. Season’s Three main flaw, however, was that Underwood just never convinced as president. We watched and applauded his schemes as he plotted the downfall of one president and his own rise. Yet when he got there he blundered like a grade A amatuer.  The conceit of House of Cards totally rests on the morally dubious relationship between anti-hero and audience. Throughout Series Three the audience could have been forgiven for looking at ways to impeach both Underwood and Netflix. Four marks a return to form for ‘FU’. But would you vote for him?

House of Cards never stays far enough ahead of viewers to be truly great

Stylish does not come close to describing its production values. It is ever-willing to approach drama using current issues whether it be domestic surveillance or Islamic extremism but this is mere gloss. House of Cards is a peculiar mixture of the absurd and the surprising. Although compulsive, at times it is incoherent, even unfocused, and scenario after scenario is almost risible in its conceit, sometimes almost childish. Its political crassness is crushing, and the central premise of Season Four in unfortunately bad. Just as you are about to give up with a roll of the eyes, Willimon manages to pull something unexpected out of the his hat. But, although clever and nimble, House of Cards never stays far enough ahead of viewers to be truly great.

The real consistency with House of Cards is the quality of acting. Season Four sees a welcome return for the delicious Lars Mikkelsen as Russian president Petrov, as well as Michael Kelly who maintains the excellent standard of the last season as Underwood’s Chief of Staff Doug Stamper. Robin Wright (Claire Underwood) is startlingly effective; Spacey, putting to one side his dubious Southern accent, is near flawless and at his sparkling thuggish best. The trouble lies in that both are never truly fleshed out as believable characters. Their Macbeth and Lady Macbeth personae are sometimes stiflingly predictable. It would not be such a problem if Willimon injected any sense of lightness, or for want of a better word fun, into proceedings. Even Underwood’s habit of breaking the fourth wall, which could be effective, is under-used and his two dimensional character allowed to roam contentedly his West Wing domain.  

As political drama House of Cards is a far cry from Aaron Sorkin’s idealised vision of the presidency; it lacks the flair of the Shakespearean Boss starring Kelsey Grammer, tragically cancelled after two seasons. As television it is neither as beautiful and clever as Mad Men nor as well-paced and written as The Good Wife, now preparing for its seventh season. After a dismal third series, Season Four bounced back. The trouble remains that House of Cards is neither satire or black humour; for all its pretensions it still does not have genuine sophistication. House of Cards yearns to be serious. It is rather good television but it sees itself as more than that.

Then again, in the real world we face the prospect of a Trump presidency. That is a thought which makes Frank Underwood in all his Machiavellian glory and his absurdities seem palatable.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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