We binge-watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards season four (which only hit the innerwebs yesterday) just to bring you this article. So let’s get right to it.
Claire’s mom has cancer!
One of the most delightful surprises of season four has been the introduction of Ellen Burstyn as First Lady Claire Underwood’s mother Elizabeth Hale. Hale hates President Frank Underwood for controlling and thwarting her daughter’s political ambitions, and it makes things especially juicy at the season’s start as Claire stakes out her own political legacy while defying Frank’s control.
Granted, the ladies don’t get too far before Frank squashes rumors of he and Claire’s marital discord by announcing to the world that Hale has cancer. It’s a horrid move, using an older woman’s ailment to provide political cover, but par for Underwood’s crooked course; plus, it’s lovely seeing the Tony-award winning Broadway and film star back in the spotlight, even if her character is dying of cancer.
Lucas Goodwin hits rock bottom!
As if disgraced Washington Herald reporter, Lucas Goodwin hadn’t already been through enough — his lover splattered by a subway train, his reporting team threatened out of existence, his career and reputation destroyed over an attempted cyberterrorism charge — the fourth season opens with him describing sex to his masturbating cellmate; moments later, the masturbator threatens to choke him to death. Geez.
Goodwin quickly gets released from prison only to land in a demeaning car cleaning job where he’s forced to exchange gay sex for a car. He uses the car to meet with Heather Dunbar, Frank’s primary opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination. But even Dunbar wants nothing to do with Goodwin, writing him off as a disturbed paranoiac rather than a true victim of Underwood’s corruption, which of course leads to one of the season’s other huge surprises…
Frank gets shot (and Meecham dies)!
It’s about time that someone tried to kill Frank, the King Midas of Ruin, we just didn’t think it’d be the disgraced Washington Herald reporter, Lucas Goodwin! Goodwin gets two shots on Underwood, nearly killing the President and successfully killing Frank’s personal (and bisexual) secret service bodyguard Edward Meechum — where did Goodwin learn to shoot?
To be clear, we’re totally anti-murder and will miss seeing Meechum’s generically handsome face, but the assassination attempt provided a much-needed dramatic high-point, the best of which was seeing Underwood’s Chief of Staff Douglas Stamper FREAK THE FUCK OUT!! As Stamper considers his own irrelevance should the president die, he offers his own alcohol-drenched liver as a transplant option and then dooms another man to die by forcing the Secretary of Health to drops another man off of the liver transplant list just to save the president’s life. What a psychopath! Is there anyone who finds Stamper relatable?
Also, Frank’s hospitalization provides an impetus for he and Claire’s reconciliation, another big surprise this season!
Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes come back for revenge
Yeah, they only come back in a hallucinatory dream while Frank recovers in the hospital from his gunshot wound, but it’s nice to finally see all Frank’s prior sins come back to haunt him. Barnes goes all succubus in a short, white dress while Russo watches; Russo eventually presses Underwood’s face against a window pane shortly before all three of them simultaneously engaging in a torturous quasi-kiss, Underwood writhing in while the real-world surgeon replaces his liver.
Russo and Barnes’ return signifies the season’s larger theme of Frank’s many slaughtered chickens coming home to roost — Freddy Hayes, the former BBQ restauranteur, calls out Frank for his over-privileged motherfuckery; ex-President Garrett Walker and Underwood’s political crony Jackie Sharp turns on him and spills Underwood’s secrets to dogged editor Tom Hammerschmidt, and it all makes for exquisite drama and a satisfying payoff to the multiple arcs created in the last three seasons.
Claire becomes a vice president candidate, kills her mom and then sleeps with an ex-sex worker
The probability that America would ever elect a husband-and-wife team as President and Vice President of the United States is as likely as a president hiring a video game reviewer to write his biography (something Frank did in season three) — that is, it would never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever happen in real life.
And yet, House of Cards goes there. Why anyone would want Claire as veep is beyond comprehension: she headed an unstable international non-profit where she had to fire pretty much everyone and was a shitty U.N. ambassador. But negotiate a Russian peace deal with while your nearly-assassinated husband gets a new liver and suddenly everybody wants you to be vice president!
Shortly before she’s nominated at the convention, Claire has to make the decision to euthanize her cancer-ridden mother in one of the series’ more sorrowful and touching scenes. Needing comfort, Claire beds the campaign’s head speechwriter, former sex-worker Tom Yates. Which leads us to the show’s five other most surprising moments…
5 Other Most Surprising Moments
The show is cool with open marriage: Even cooler, Frank is totally down with Yates giving Claire sexual comfort on the reg (he even tells Yates to stick around just so Yates to offer Claire what Frank cannot). This makes House of Cards one of the few depictions of an open marriage on TV — something that’s pretty neat, considering that three percent of the U.S. population is in a non-monogamous relationships. It’s pretty cool, even if Claire and Frank are like Lord and Lady Macbeth.
The season is actually topical: Season one focused mostly on a vague education reform bill, season two focused on an energy trade deal with China, season three focused on Middle Eastern conflict involving Russia, but season four is the only one that incorporates modern-day issues of racism (a slight nod to #BlackLivesMatter), election-year politicking and multimedia manipulation by homegrown, Islamic terrorists. Way to stay relevant, House of Cards!
Heather Dunbar drops out of the race: Who would’ve guessed that Underwood’s most formidable political rival would get taken out by her 30-second meeting with an attempted assassin? We were sorry to see her go, but she may get some payback if Hammerschmidt’s exposé on Underwood gains traction in season five.
Frank betrays his Secretary of State: In a weird and improbable sleight of hand, Underwood pledges to make Secretary of State Catherine Durant Vice President, only to turn around and discredit her in the media in a shadowy bid to get his wife nominated as VP at an open convention instead. Underwood even threatens to kill Durant if she tries to retaliate by derailing his campaign, and he does it all with a smile and a laugh, of course, which makes it all the creepier.
The show humanizes terrorists: Yeah, the terrorists introduced in the last few episodes are monstrous, but before they start slicing throats and screaming in Arabic, they’re portrayed as powerless people desperate to end violence against their families and spiritual brethren. Claire even gets asked how she would feel if her own family were unfairly bombed by U.S. forces — a great bit of writing that bestows humanity and empathy onto those who resort to unspeakable acts.