Look no further than Frank and Claire Underwood, if you want proof that the deadliest snakes slither in pairs. Their evolution to Washington's power couple in House of Cards – an ascension driven by the dirtiest deeds imaginable – has grown even more compelling now that they're sinking their fangs deeper into each other.
When we last saw President Underwood (Kevin Spacey), he was left to deal with his fractured marriage to Claire (Robin Wright) and an increasingly splintered electorate. As the fourth season begins on Sunday on OSN First HD, we find him trying to put the pieces back together in preparation for the upcoming presidential race.
But Claire – hardened by years of having his ambition trump hers – has finally dug in her high heels. She won’t play ball with him as anything less than his equal, a concept that “Francis”, as she calls him, a rabid Machiavellian, is unable or unwilling to grasp.
Over the first three seasons – while she more or less served his will as he slaved to his ambition – they both morphed into the kinds of manipulators who could make a clinic of chiropractors jealous. Whatever shred of conscience they once had soon evaporated.
In early episodes, Frank seemed merely clever and amusing as he made devilish deals and back-stabbed to bring down the sitting president. But it wasn’t long until he truly crossed the line – and added serial killer to his CV, doing the deeds personally – or through his truly scary “fixer” and right-hand psycho, his chief of staff Doug Stamper, so fiercely and feverishly played by Michael Kelly.
Meanwhile, Claire, in her early outings, seemed to have it all. She appeared more or less content with her own lofty career as chief executive officer of the Clean Water Initiative charity, and served as more of a confidante than a competitor to her husband. As it turns out, however, she only took the job to make herself and her better half seem like caring individuals – before her ruthless side reared up to fire half her staff, to punish them over budget cuts when she couldn’t get her way. Thus her descent down morality’s slippery slope accelerates; especially after flinty Russian President Petrov strong-arms Frank to force Claire to quit a job she loves, US Ambassador to the United Nations, over a troops snafu in Jordan. She’s not impressed.
Frank and Claire – when they're not goring each other this season – will also get to lock horns in new ways with new faces on board, including three acclaimed actresses: Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn (as Claire's mother, Elizabeth Hale); the regal Cicely Tyson (as influential Texas congresswoman Doris Jones); and Scream and Party of Five star Neve Campbell (as Claire's own "fixer" Leann Harvey, a driven political strategist). "It was brilliant to work with Ellen Burstyn again," says Spacey. "We did a television film many years ago called The Legacy of Michael Patrick Smith. She's the real deal, formidable, kind and lots of fun. Ms Tyson is simply sublime; an actress of extraordinary gifts who means so much to her fellow actors in the Broadway community, as well as those in film and television."
Now that the Underwoods rule the White House, some viewers may ask, what more could they possibly lust for? What’s left?
“Well, wait a minute,” says Spacey. “Do you think they don’t have ambitions about being in the White House? ... It’s not like their sense of wanting to accomplish something stops because they got to a place. It’s when you’re in that place that you can actually do things and be effective.”
As the campaign trail gets rocky en route to the Democratic National Convention, the President and First Lady will discover their success and fame get in the way – now that their schemes, dark dreams and shenanigans are playing out on the global stage.
What’s done in the darkness does indeed come to light in the nastiest possible ways this fourth season – but don’t look for any spoilers here – except to say that cornered predators are the most dangerous. “I think for me, and maybe for an audience,” says Spacey, it will be fascinating to see “how two people who have been quite brilliant and successful at working in the shadows now have to work within the biggest spotlight – one they cannot get out of.”
Adds Wright: “And to have these particular characters have to follow a system. We have our own system. And so that, I think, is more the challenge.”
“Without question,” says Spacey, “there is a tradition and a way of doing things in the White House – the White House is bigger than its current residents. So they ... find themselves in this world which they have to adapt to.”
With Claire gone, Frank scrambles
The best dramas chase their characters up a tree and throw bigger and bigger rocks at them – and the fourth-season opener of House of Cards throws the mother of all psychological boulders at Frank by subtracting Claire, his chief life collaborator and source of strength, from his life.
At first, Claire’s nowhere to be found – and their rumoured marital rift is the kind of news that’s hard to spin into a positive light on a hotly contested campaign trail – in an episode that’s rife with tension, emotion and jeopardy, thanks to one of the finest ensemble casts currently on the telly.
“We used to make each other stronger – at least I thought so – but that was a lie,” an angry Claire confronted Frank last season. “We were making you stronger.”
Frank only dug himself deeper by glaring back at her: “Well, here is the brutal [expletive] truth ... Without me ... you – are – nothing.”
Well, payback’s brutal – and it’s pure viewing gold to see Claire’s now mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Wright’s acting continues to be a revelation as we learn more of her Texas roots and political ambition. And if you think President Frank is a tough hombre to crack, he’s a puffball compared to a First Lady scorned.
Even better, Claire is but one of many new thorns in Frank's side, as House of Cards delivers the dramatic goods once again.
• House of Cards returns at 11pm on Sunday on OSN First HD