Pop culture is frequently shaped and colored by the current events that surround it. In this sense, the new season of House of Cards, which begins streaming on Netflix Friday, plunges us back into a world that now seems far away and, in a sense, almost foreign. To be sure, we’re mostly still in Washington, DC, mostly in the White House with President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). But watching the show at a time when, just beyond your Netflix subscription, there is Donald Trump rampaging across the political landscape, a bull in the political china shop urging others to be as bumptious as he is — well, President Underwood, for all his often malicious scheming, seems quaint and mannerly by comparison.
Because of this, and because the previous season of Cards led itself down blind alleys of narrative that now require some escape, the new episodes — six of which were made available to critics — can frequently seem somber to the point of soddenness. It’s good for the show’s momentum that Underwood is in the throes of running for election — the blue “2016 Underwood” signs pick up the bright glint in Spacey’s eyes, and Underwood is never more compelling than when he’s out on the stump, pouring honeyed platitudes upon his supporters.
Related: ‘House of Cards’: Where We Left Off
But hovering grimly behind him — the Batman to his Superman — is Claire Underwood, unhappy in marriage and unhappy at her own thwarted political ambitions from last season. Obviously I cannot give away too much about the new season, but it’s not a spoiler to say that Claire’s drive, in her personal and professional life, take on a new centrality in season four, and Wright is more than up to the challenge: Both as an actor and as director of some episodes, she humanizes Claire’s steeliness.
Other guest stars shine. Ellen Burstyn, as Claire’s mother, is superb — you never doubt for a second that this is the parent who imbued Claire with a ruthless view of the world. Neve Campbell turns up as an extremely efficient political operative. Cecily Tyson is equally strong in an entirely different way as a Congresswoman with whom a strategic deal must be struck.
Again, current events find curious echoes at certain Cards turns: Just as Donald Trump has recently had troubles with a Ku Klux Klan endorsement, the KKK suddenly looms up to spook Underwood at a key moment here. But that’s enough hinting at what happens. Well, I will also say that if you aren’t immediately drawn in from the start of the new season, be sure to watch through episode four at the very least, when Big Things Occur.
Oddly enough, the most unwieldy element in House of Cards now is Underwood himself. The man who’s been at the center of everything — a President fashioned by show developer Beau Willimon into a kind of cross between Lyndon Johnson and The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet, half-realistic pol and half-idealized statesman — doesn’t hold center-stage quite as surely anymore. My goodness, it’s not until well into the second episode that Underwood finally turns to the camera to give us one of his trademark icy stares and a mini-speech about his innermost demons.
The new season of House of Cards is no place for a newbie to start. You have to be well-versed in all the chicanery that’s gone before to follow the references and the intricate maneuverings. And whether we’re talking about Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (the consistently wonderful Michael Kelly) or Claire or other members of Underwood’s cabal, it’s now the powers behind the White House throne that command most attention.
At precisely the moment when, in the real world, media coverage of Presidential politics is dominated by a figure who wants all attention paid to himself, House of Cards has opted to diminish its central figure to allow others to emerge, even if that is done strategically, in the hope of consolidating his personal power.
Whether that’s a winning strategy remains to be seen when all of the episodes are available to be binged.
House of Cards starts streaming Friday on Netflix.