House of Cards returns for a fourth season on March 4, and it is more or less the same show it has always been. If you enjoyed the first three seasons, with all their twists and turns and underhanded Underwoodery, you will probably enjoy the fourth, at least through the six episodes that Netflix released to critics. If the first three seasons made you tear your hair out a bit, well, the fourth will probably do that, too. Sometimes House of Cards plays out like a more serious version of Scandal, and sometimes it plays out like a version of The West Wing where everyone has been replaced with their evil doppelganger, but at this point it’s mostly just its own animal. House of Cards is House of Cards. For better and worse.
(Quick digression, regarding the bizarro West Wing thing: If you need to burn 10 to 15 minutes this weekend, imagine an Underwood vs. Bartlet Democratic primary battle with Doug Stamper and Leo McGarry pulling the strings for their respective candidates. Imagine Claire Underwood and Abbey Bartlet sizing each other up. Imagine Josh Lyman jumping ship to work for Underwood and then making the Josh Lyman face — the original Jim Halpert face — once he realizes what he’s gotten himself into. Hell, let’s throw Selina Meyer from Veep in there, too. I would watch this show.)
Season three ended with Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in a tough primary battle with Heather Dunbar after ascending — possibly descending — to the presidency through his usual bag of devious tricks. And at the very end of the season, Frank’s wife, Claire (Robin Wright), announced that she was leaving him. (Also, the Doug/Rachel thing happened, but let’s all agree not to talk about that.) Netflix would very much prefer I not give away specific information about things that take place in season four, but here’s something I think I can tell you without getting into trouble: Season four picks up just after that, with Frank out campaigning and giving speeches and Claire nowhere to be found.
The effect of this is that Claire emerges as Frank’s new adversary. (At least one of Frank’s adversaries. Frank has a lot of adversaries.) This part of the new season is exactly what the show does well. As far-fetched as some of its political storylines have been and continue to be, it remains immensely entertaining to watch Frank dig himself into a hole and then weasel out of it like an evil little… uh, weasel. An evil, mean weasel with a hammy Southern accent. Who occasionally addresses the audience directly. Yes, let’s go with that. All of which makes House of Cards a perfect show for Netflix, because it gets its hooks in you and convinces you to watch episodes back-to-back-to-back, leaving little time for you to stop and question if what just happened made any sense at all.
(Claire and Frank butting also leads to the introduction of a new character: Leann Harvey, a cold and conniving political strategist from Texas, played by Neve Campbell. She’s a really great addition, something like a less creepy and tormented female version of Doug.)
Unfortunately, the other stuff that makes House of Cards a little maddening is still there, too. Everyone is still a scoundrel or a fawn, with the area between those two poles as desolate and empty as the stretch of road where Doug drove Rachel to… no, I promised. We’re not talking about that. And the show still takes lots of swings. Big ones, little ones, weird flailing ones. One of the swings it takes is very big and results in a Sopranos-esque stretch that throws everything into chaos. It’s not even that this particular swing results in bad viewing, it’s just that everything happens so much constantly that sometimes I wish they would all take a Hawaiian vacation and chill out for a week. It worked for Don Draper. Kind of.
So again, will you like season four of House of Cards? I don’t know. Probably? And even if you don’t “like it,” you’ll probably end up watching to the end if you start because everyone on the show has about three schemes going at any given time and it becomes impossible to look away. There will probably be a handful of moments when something happens and you’ll groan out loud. And at one point Frank goes to make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and puts so little jelly on it that it borders on infuriating. But if you’ve watched the first three seasons, you should have known most of that without even reading this review. Except for the sandwich thing. Spoiler alert on that.