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‘House of Cards’ Review: Kevin Spacey Connives Across the Campaign Trail

The fourth season of Netflix’s hit political drama delivers a frosty first couple and some delicious newcomers

Is the current presidential election getting you down? Is the prospect of an amoral, conniving opportunist who uses the worst of humanity to his advantage becoming a presidential nominee — or even president himself– just too much for you? Well, Netflix has good news for you with the fourth season of “House of Cards,” which debuted Friday just past midnight. President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is running for re-election, and somehow that seems so much more appealing than the current options. Maybe it’s because he’s fictional.

There’s just one problem. The incumbent is having trouble explaining why his wife (Robin Wright) isn’t playing along on the campaign trail. But that’s because the First Lady has some plans of her own following the stand-off with Frank that ended Season 3. And those plans — without giving too much away — involve the state of Texas and some new high-profile cast members, including Ellen Burstyn, Neve Campbell and Cicely Tyson.

The new fourth season opens on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, and conditions between the Underwoods are definitely frosty — Frank’s violent dreams notwithstanding. That chill extends to the show itself as it heads into campaign season in earnest. Fans of the show — especially those who took issue with some of the theatrics of last season — will be pleased with how the new episodes shake out.

As a sitting president on the campaign trail, Frank is more reserved and boxed-in than we’re used to seeing him, not as free to hatch and execute his Machiavellian plans as previously. And he’s not addressing the audience nearly as much. But that narrative device is hardly missed.

Frank’s constrictions give Claire plenty of time to shine, and Wright gets some choice material to work with in the new episodes as her character progresses. Without giving too much away, watching the latest phase of one of television’s most fascinating marriages unfold is quite a thrill, especially when they find themselves at cross-purposes — which is most of the time.

Beyond Spacey and Wright, series regulars Molly Parker and Michael Kelly continue to be standouts, with Kelly’s chief-of-staff Doug Stamper returns to his quietly ruthless self. But the newcomers to the show quickly prove themselves. It’s possible Frank has never faced a greater foe than a mother-in-law who never cared for him and always considered him white trash.

But while Frank may not be as wily as he once was, he’s still not someone you want to cross. Departing showrunner Beau Willimon is proving that while he’s leaving the show after this season, he’s leaving with a bang.