“Here is the brutal fucking truth,” President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) said in one of the final scenes of House of Cards Season 3 last year. “You can hate me, you can be disgusted,” he spat, attempting to strong-arm his wife, Claire, into ditching her own ambitions, “you can feel whatever it is you want to feel because frankly, I’m beyond caring. But without me, you are nothing.”
Responding to the blow in the last scene of Season 3, First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) issued an F.U. of her own and walked out on her husband, an autonomous figure no longer concerned by her husband’s threats. “Francis,” she said, “I’m leaving you,” stalking towards camera and out of sight.
These were among the most jaw-dropping scenes of the season, which had otherwise been a slightly less gripping affair than House of Cards’s two previous runs. Deprived of prior series’ concrete opponents and goals (Tusk, the Presidency of the USA), the series focused instead on Frank’s precarious position as head of state while he fended off various competitors and problems. There was the Russian president Petrov and his dull machismo, the rarely underhand Democrat hopeful Heather Dunbar, and a shedload of faceless bureaucracy to deal with.
As this new season begins, there’s a number of intriguing threats the Underwoods have to face, but the biggest and most dramatic of these is the threat they pose each other. “We had a future, until you started destroying it,” Frank tells Claire in the most recent season trailer. Their interactions recall the chilling, thrilling tactics of their shared past: how far will they each go to get what they want, and at what personal cost? I can’t tell you that until the season premieres on March 4, sadly.
Having watched the first six episodes of the new series, what I can tell you is good news: the best components of the series to date are here in full force. The strange protectiveness viewers feel for Spacey’s Frank Underwood is still the show’s strongest weapon – we know our antihero deserves to fail but there’s still a perverse hope he’ll prevail. As the season opens, the cracks in his confidence are showing deeper than ever, while Claire and her motivations have moved well into the foreground.
House of Cards has never patronised its viewers, and demands attention, but this season rarely feels like work. As it pushes forward it presents richly drawn characters, both minor and major; questions the capacity for politics to ever play nice; makes us comfortable, makes us laugh, even – then rips the smiles off our faces. It’s unquestionably back on form.
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Look out for our episode-by-episode reviews to follow soon.