As Frank Underwood has told us over and over again, House of Cards is a show about power. And power abhors a vacuum.
Last season, House of Cards had to learn this the hard way. After two seasons of seemingly unstoppable upward momentum, Frank finally schemed his way into the presidency, only to reveal the gaping black hole at the heart of the show: there’s nothing Frank actually wants to do with power other than acquire it, making the various political quagmires he immediately got sucked into as frustrating for viewers as for Frank himself. The problem with making your main character a shark is that when a shark stops moving forward, he sinks.
In its very last moments, however, Season 3 offered a glimmer of hope, or what passes for hope in a universe where the surest path to becoming Leader of the Free World is murdering a journalist. As she began to realize she’d spent 30 years building her own gilded cage, Claire Underwood’s icy mask began to splinter, first slowly, then all at once. And in a move as gloriously spiteful as it was fun to watch, she chose the worst possible time to assert her independence from her husband: the middle of primary season. Just like that, House of Cards had a focal point again, and everything else — the jobs program, the diplomatic scuffles, even Doug Stamper’s perennial angst — faded into the background, where it belongs.
We begin Season 4 immediately where we left off, with the prospect of an Underwood vs. Underwood brawl hanging in the air. Claire has retreated to her childhood home in Texas, a move that immediately pays off on multiple fronts: building out Claire’s character by depicting her dynamic with her mother, played by none other than Ellen Burstyn, and expanding House of Cards’ purview from its claustrophobic emphasis on Frank and his never-ending string of crises. Even the look of the show grows noticeably less crowded and more spacious as we enter the Hales’ sprawling Dallas mansion, now a de facto mausoleum abandoned by Claire and haunted by her only living family member.
Who may not, it turns out, be living for long. Pathological discretion seems to run in the Hale family line, particularly when it comes to terminal illnesses. But Mrs. Hale is a hard woman, one who’s neither forgiven her daughter for hitching her wagon to Frank Underwood’s star nor given up on the goal of Claire one day surpassing him. It makes for a complicated dynamic, with Claire’s mother egging her on in the escalating war against Frank even as their own relationship remains strained at best and toxic at worst. It also explains how a Southern debutante like Claire became just as bloodthirsty as her husband. House of Cards has frequently dipped into Frank’s past, in his hometown and even his college campus, to explain the poverty he clawed himself out of and the hunger that motivated him to do it. This is the first time we’ve gotten a similar look at Claire, with whom we’ve never enjoyed the sort of one-on-one time Frank’s Southern-fried asides have allowed throughout the series.
Burstyn, it turns out, is just the beginning. Claire’s Texas detour brings a mini-wave of fresh meat into a cast that’s been slightly thinned out over the years (you know, from all the murdering). Leaving Frank doesn’t mean actually getting a divorce — why torch a marriage when a politically expedient sham marriage will do? — but simply refusing to wait out his term until Claire can start her own career. And to do that, she needs a Doug of her own, played with warm competence by Neve Campbell, and a place to plant her flag. In a classic act of Underwood hubris, she decides that place is an urban, majority-black Dallas Congressional district represented by a veteran civil rights leader, who also happens to be Cicely Tyson.
Once Claire has a life of her own for Frank to interfere with, the rupture turns ugly. We’ve seen Frank kill some of his enemies and send others to prison; the season even opens with a sordid look at the depths to which onetime Herald editor Lucas Goodwin has sunk to get himself out of supermax. Yet he’s somehow never seemed as terrifying or as all-powerful as when he’s controlling his wife from thousands of miles away. The presidency allows him to turn around her motorcade, summon her to the White House, and in one horrifying instance, trap her inside her new home. It’s the domestic nightmare Claire never wanted for herself, taken to the most extreme degree, with the borderline horror of it only underscored by Frank’s recurring nightmare — or is it dream? — of their confrontation turning physical.
On Frank’s side, the politics subplots have been pared down to only the most goal-oriented (the primary fight against Heather Dunbar) and antagonistic (continuing tensions with Russia). The cumulative effect is a hasty retreat from last season’s experimentation and a doubling down on the intrigue, and shallow cynicism, that made House of Cards so addictive in the first place. It’s possible that peeling back the impeccably tailored tarp over the gaping maw at the heart of this show, however briefly, did some permanent damage. In his last season as showrunner, though, Beau Willimon does his best to help us forget that the political show he created actually isn’t very good at telling stories about politics.
What it is good at is being a slow-burn soap opera. And by reorienting itself to become the Frank-vs.-Claire show, House of Cards has embraced just that. Crisp cinematography and businesslike dialogue aside, this show has never been realistic. When Claire, mid-argument, demands to be named Frank’s running mate, I had a thrilling realization: it’s finally stopped pretending to be, too.