- The primaries have given it renewed momentum
It’s usually more fun to watch the chase for power than the exercise of it – a point proven by House of Cards’ lacklustre third season in which Frank Underwood finally occupied the White House. Now, just like the real world (where truth is arguably proving stranger than fiction), primary season is in full swing, the candidates are jockeying for position and there’s an urgency where there was once calculation. Both Frank and Kevin Spacey have renewed fire in their eyes; there should be fewer absurd threesomes (although Frank’s weird “keep me company for a bit” line to his security guy Meechum hinted at unfinished business) and tiresome, bizarre cameos (Pussy Riot) this year.
- Frank Underwood’s an angry man
The apportioning of his own loyalties may tend towards the pragmatic, but there’s no doubt that Frank Underwood hates being betrayed. With his wife gone AWOL, he’s no longer the self-assured, entitled leader-in-waiting; instead he’s raging about phonetic pronunciation and looks both edgy and unexpectedly vulnerable. That brutal nightmare about a physical brawl with Claire suggests one of his most valuable public assets – that sense of self-control – may be at risk. It certainly left me winded. And I don’t buy his promise to stay out of Claire’s campaigning ambitions for one second.
3. Claire Underwood’s agenda is gradually becoming clear
An ambition that had always smouldered is coming to life now. She’s plotting to run for Congress in Texas, replacing retiring civil-rights icon Doris Jones. Only trouble is, Doris (Cicely Tyson, great casting) had already earmarked her own daughter, Celia, for the seat. Claire, of course, has come prepared, dangling the prospect of funding for a long-cherished breast cancer care centre, but Tyson doesn’t tend to play characters who roll over when faced with a bit of adversity.
And just in case you doubted her seriousness, Claire’s also hired a heavy-hitter in Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell), a whizzkid on the campaign trail whose father knew the Underwoods. She’s hard to read at the moment beyond being eager, smart and manipulative, although that hardly marks her out in DC circles. Watch this space.
4. There’s no such thing as happy families
Previous series have excavated Frank’s dysfunctional upbringing in order to contextualise his pathological tendencies. Now it’s Claire’s turn, as we meet her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn, ailing but imperious) for the first time. Initially a Miss Havisham-esque spectre with an ageing retainer in a mothballed clapboard mansion, she’s even steelier than her daughter – not many people can cow Frank Underwood (“white trash that lives in the White House”, indeed!).
But she’s also dying, which makes her dangerous. Her terminal cancer may have provided an expedient smokescreen for the Underwoods ‘ estrangement, but she’s a loose cannon nonetheless, apparently equally disgusted with her daughter and the man she married. Yet she’s siding with Claire, for now: “you’re stronger than he is, but you’ve got to put him in his place.”
5. Heather Dunbar looks like a formidable foe
It was only the briefest cameo, but Frank’s rival for the nomination (played by Elizabeth Marvel) responded to rumours of the Underwoods’ marital discord with dignity and restraint, as well as a not-so-subtle demonstration of her own rock-solid marriage. And her ten-point lead in New Hampshire meant she was able to land an early punch on the incumbent.