For some reason, it doesn't feel like House of Cards is into its fourth season. That may have something to do with the binge-watching mentality that has been driven by the streaming format of Netflix; you can now watch entire series in a couple of days as opposed to over three months, and it feels far longer between seasons as a result. The format has become pretty revolutionary when it comes to consuming television, but the one downside is that it's easy to forget what happened in previous seasons. They kind of meld together and you have to go all the way back to season one to find Kate Mara's Zoe Barnes.
The fourth season actually references the first season a surprising number of times, as the investigative seeds planted by Barnes come to fruition. There's even a Mara cameo, while Corey Stoll (Peter Russo) pops up, too.
The main concern after the end of Season Two for fans of the show was a simple question - 'Where do we go from here?' Frank Underwood was the President, he'd risen to the top and he'd killed to get there - so how much further could he actually go? Well, after a series low last year, Frank and Claire Underwood answer that unequivocally: by keeping power, flexing power and partaking in games of power. Frank finds a formidable nemesis close to home in the form of his darling (possibly sociopathic) wife, while the addition of Joel Kinnaman as a hot young Republican candidate for President hints at the possibility of an intriguing new direction for House of Cards.
Unfortunately, Season Four of the enormously popular series doesn't quite live up to the endless possibilities presented. Nonetheless, it's a vast improvement on the previous season, yet still nowhere near as good as the first, which was heavily influenced by David Fincher's directorial hand.
Okay, the pluses. The major ones are still the superb performances by our dual leads. This started out very much a vehicle for Kevin Spacey to remind everyone that he's one of the best damn actors of his generation - which it did. Spacey continues to break the fourth wall with panache and range, while showing moments of vulnerability and wrath with an effortlessness that genuinely makes you forget you're watching a performance. Yet although Frank has the flashier moments, Robin Wright's Claire Underwood is the more well-rounded character. Wright balances steel and (rare) warmth with ease and this was her season to shine - which she does emphatically. It's beautiful, subtle work from Wright.
Michael Kelly has less to work with this season as the fixer Doug Stamper, and a lot of his plot work feels like filler. Neve Campbell shows huge promise, but is (thus far anyway) underutilised.
Thespian work aside, the plot is messy... well, messier. The throwbacks to previous seasons will require a brief revisit. The show has gone from placing an emphasis on scandal and power to one more concerned with soapy, cold, over-the-top plots. The assumption being that, well, power rules all. But there's only so much assuming we can do until it feels like an excuse.
How much longer Spacey and Wright continue in their roles is unclear; there will obviously be a fifth season with *makes trailer man voice* "More on the line than ever." At this point, it's the entertainment and fun factor over quality and character development - which is fine, of course. Those who enjoyed the denser, darker moments of the groundbreaking first season, however, may find their patience wearing thin.
Fun - actually, at times a LOT of fun. But also nonsensical, confusing and narratively strained.