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'House of Cards' Season 4: The Whole is Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

By Genevieve Burgess | Streaming | March 18, 2016 |

By Genevieve Burgess | Streaming | March 18, 2016 |

It’s difficult to really wrap up this season’s House of Cards because the biggest takeaway I have is that it was wildly uneven. There was a huge tone and story shift between episodes 4-6, a new opponent introduced too late, a crisis that looked manufactured but turned out not to be, and a fizzle of an ending, but a jolt of a last line. So, please understand the following less as a fully formed essay, and more a series of thoughts on the season, some more well-developed than others [WARNING: Contains spoilers for all seasons of House of Cards which I think you would know, but these days you can’t be too careful]:

— First let’s talk about Claire. I get the sense that the show runners didn’t know they’d be getting a fourth season and planned her dramatic departure from the White House without a great idea of 1) What her plan was and 2) how to get her back in the White House and it showed. Running for a Congressional seat isn’t the CRAZIEST idea, and bringing in Neve Campbell’s Leann was definitely a good move. But to watch her flounder against Frank (as Frank floundered on the campaign trail) damaged the image of quiet strength that Claire typically has. Yes, the Underwoods eventually realized that they’re never stronger than when they work together or towards the same goal (Frank complimenting Claire’s work on the Russia plan when he wakes up was nice) but his earlier manipulations around her made her look short sighted and naive. Why WOULDN’T she expect him to do just that?

— On the other hand, it did show that without Claire, Frank is more likely to give into his petty side. What would it have hurt him to let her explore running for Congress? She likely would have failed because she has a tendency to overestimate how other people perceive her competence, and his point could have been just as well made with far less rancor. Now, thanks to an attempted assassination, it turned out that they were able to get along just fine later in the season but it was a big gamble on his part. He does need her. They are of a mind, but they balance each other in a way. Frank is fire and Claire is ice.

— RIP, Meechum. You did your duty. You had no way of knowing that the man you were doing it for did not deserve it in the slightest.

— I like the style of the Conways but I wish there was more substance to them as opponents for Frank and Claire. I realize that most of their plotline IS that they are without true substance and merely think they’re the same level as political animals as the Underwoods, but when the kidnapping crisis happened I was CERTAIN that Conway had engineered it. And if he had, it would have turned them from mostly vapid hypocrites to vapid hypocrites willing to get their hands truly dirty. It would have made them much more interesting. Kinnamen is doing a great job with his role, but there’s no meat in the middle of it, and I find that frustrating.

— Doug Stamper’s love is a terrifying thing. Swinging from trying to offer Frank part of his own liver (really, buddy? You know you were an alcoholic), to trying to sabotage the Underwood’s new campaign manager IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CAMPAIGN because he’s not down with sharing custody, to becoming creepily fixated on yet another pretty brunette whose life he ruined on behalf of Frank Underwood.

— I think Doug was so nuts this season because he saw Leann managing to be more effective at what he’s supposed to do. I mean, Leann probably wouldn’t KILL anyone for the Underwoods (…yet) but Doug’s sort of an errand boy who’s OK at the political shit. Leann is GREAT at the political shit, and willing to do some fairly dirty errands. So I’m hoping Leann is back in a big way next season.

— Seeing Frank and Claire firing on all cylinders again as partners was deeply, disturbingly satisfying.

— How did the timeline of this season work? We were already up to the New Hampshire primary at the first episode, which would put it right around February, and in the last episode they mention that the election is in three weeks so that would be October-ish. Frank was shot, nearly died, had a liver transplant, and mostly recovered from a liver transplant in that time. From the Mayo Clinic website: “Expect six months to a year of recovery before you’ll feel fully healed after your liver transplant surgery. You may be able to resume normal activities or go back to work a few months after surgery.” I know it’s TV and all, but there’s no way Frank would have been able to do half as much as he was up to in the back half of the season, physically. I’m about to go full Hammerschmidt on the timeline of this season.

— I am very scared for Tom Hammerschmidt’s dog.

— I wish that flower shop in Georgetown that Freddy was going to work for was real, because I would go out of my way to buy new table arrangements at the end of every week. There’s a handful of people who could call Frank Underwood a motherfucker without fear of reprisal, Freddy is one of them, and thank god he took advantage of that privilege. Someone needed to say it.

— Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the season was the finale. After beginning his campaign to be elected President sometime last season, I had assumed that this season would take us right up the election. Perhaps ending on a cliffhanger to prod Netflix into season 5. Instead, we get weeks away, and stall on Underwood starting a war. As intrigued as I am with the revelation of Claire breaking the fourth wall with Frank, and that great last line, it means the next season is hampered out of the gate. How do you pace a season around a pending Presidential election? Cover only the three weeks between “now” and the election? Put it in the middle and then try to restart the momentum for the back half? Given that the show replaced its writer before Season 4 was released I don’t think I’m the only one asking these questions.

— There’s some kind of tech subplot that they want us to care about a lot, but it’s not landing with me even a little bit. I’m more intrigued on how they think gas approaching $7 wouldn’t upend every single conversation about anything else. “The First Lady wants to be Vice President? There’s an Islamic Extremist group on the rise in the middle east? What the fuck ever, it costs over $100 to fill my tank.”

— Claire has now euthanized someone. Frank is still dependent on heavy medication to manage his liver transplant. I know how the British House of Cards ended. Some of you know what I’m referring to. The rest of you, well, perhaps you can piece it together.

I’ve said before that Frank’s move into the Presidency would hamper his devious plots and I wasn’t wrong. Yes, they managed to start a war of convenience, but on a personal level Frank and Claire can’t really flex their muscles they way they used to. Congressman’s wife Claire said “I’m willing to let your child wither and die to get what I want.” First lady Claire says “Do you ever regret having them?” Congressman Frank shoved Zoe in front of a train, President Frank leaks information and pissily yells at reporters. The most savage attack of the season was Claire getting that picture on a billboard and leaving her earrings in the safe deposit box. There’s been a de-escalation on the part of the Underwoods. The “we are the terror” line to close the season, and the reveal that Claire can break the fourth wall, was certainly a jolt, but I’d like to see the show demonstrate that fact rather than just tell us about it. Fingers crossed that next season manages to do just that.

Genevieve Burgess is a Features Contributor for Pajiba. You can follow Genevieve Burgess on Twitter.