By Sean Ray | a&e editor
After the absolute bombshell that was dropped at the finale of “House of Cards” season three, fans were probably expecting things to escalate from there.
They were wrong. Season four is not an escalation. It does not attempt to go bigger or bolder than the seasons before it. However, what it does deliver is a closer, more personal examination of its characters; taking the time to not just examine what the Underwoods are doing, but also what they are feeling.
After the finale of season three, Frank Underwood’s political empire is threatening to erupt. His allies have turned against him, he has been humiliated by Russia and his wife, Claire, has promised to leave him. With the prospect of complete political annihilation on his door step, Frank must try to repair his broken empire… and he does. Amazingly so.
Season four is perhaps the most optimistic of the show’s entire run since Frank first became president. Many of the problems of the past season get quickly swept under the rug or dealt with so efficiently, that it makes the audience wonder whether they ever should have been worried about them in the first place.
However, do not mistake this lack of suspense and high conflict to imply the show is boring in anyway. Rather than focus on high stakes political battles, “House of Cards” takes a more intimate look at its characters, and more time is spent with Frank and Claire during personal moments rather than their clashes with others. This is the first season that really gets the viewer into the mindset of Frank, Claire, Doug and many other characters as people rather than politicians.
Unlike the previous seasons, season four does not have a major, overarching plot line. While there is the Democratic primary and upcoming national election, these issues fade into the background and either get dealt with in a quiet manner or are pushed down the road for a later season.
Instead, the show seems to take on a more serialized format, introducing a smaller issue that is the focus for three or four episodes before moving on to a new one.
This bold new direction works out well for what “House of Cards” was going for. Had the seasonal conflict been too grand, it would have drown out these more emotional scenes this season was going for. That’s not to say these smaller plots are boring, but they just do not take up as much screen time.
Perhaps the best decision of this season is the expansion of Claire Underwood’s role. Robin Wright’s acting as Claire has always been a treat, but the character often gets relegated to minor side plots that do not deal with the main cast of characters and felt very boring compared to what her husband was doing. Not so this time around, as Claire finally begins taking on a more active role and playing at the big kid’s table.
The show also ties in past seasons more frequently, with many characters that were expected to never show up again making surprise reappearances. While this does not always work, as some characters frankly were not interesting to begin with, it was good to see several fan favorites make brief or even long stands in the spotlight.
Ultimately, “House of Cards” season four is exactly what the show needed at this moment: a breather. After three seasons of non-stop excitement and suspense, the Netflix series slows it down and allows the audience to fall in love with its characters again, before presumably ramping things back up again next season. I cannot say it is my favorite season, but it is refreshing to see the show runners know when to dial things down and not get into a senseless series of one-upping each previous batch of episodes.