(I tried to avoid spoilers. If you are hyper-sensitive to them, read no more.)
WASHINGTON -- Here’s something I didn’t expect to be writing after seeing the first hour of Season 4 of “House of Cards” tonight: Ellen Burstyn steals the show.
It’s not that I haven’t long appreciated Burstyn as a great talent, but when you think of “House of Cards,” you think of Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Michael Kelly. I wonder how many people even knew Burstyn was in the cast of Season 4 until Netflix announced it today.
Burstyn plays the mother of Claire Underwood, and without serving up any spoilers, let me tell you that she brings a depth and darkness worthy of David Fincher, the executive producer who directed the first two gloriously dark hours of Season 1.
What a superb piece of casting, and what a complex and original character showrunner Beau Willimon crafted. Burstyn, as Claire’s very-Dallas mother, absolutely grounds an hour that had started feeling a little too much like a soap opera for my taste.
This is a series that at its best, is as big, deep and dark as Greek mythology. Those opening images of Washington send a chill through my bones every time I see them. I feared that the “marital discord” Claire and Frank were experiencing in a continuation from the end of Season 3 might not measure up to the cosmic misery, violence and destruction the gods of ancient times inflicted.
But fear not, by the end of the hour, you’re back in the madness of Francis J. Underwood. And it’s not all the result of Burstyn’s performance by a long shot. She’s just the biggest and most pleasant surprise.
There’s a scene that has enough violence, brutality and bent sexuality for Oedipus. (There's even some eye-gouging.) And it doesn’t involve Doug Stamper. But Doug is all over the first hour doing Frank’s twisted, dirty work again -- particularly when it comes to Claire.
And there’s no shortage of Claire, that’s for sure. In fact, I believe the scenes between Claire and her mother have pushed Wright to find another, higher gear as an actress. She and Burstyn together are superb, and I think a lot of viewers are going to like seeing a different, emotionally messier side of Claire – a side that has nothing to do with Frank.
Wright’s best scenes in the first hour come with women – Burstyn and another newcomer to the series, Neve Campbell, as a Texas-based political consultant.
Based on this first hour, Season 4 could be the year of the women on “House of Cards.”
There’s yet another fine performance by a new member of the cast, that of Cicely Tyson as a Texas congresswoman who is about to step down after a long run and wants to hand her district to her daughter. The scene involving Wright and Tyson is lower key, but Tyson’s performance seems perfectly pitched.
Frank is in the middle of an election as we meet him him -- heading into and through New Hampshire and South Carolina just like the real candidates.
After a screening Monday night at the Smithsonian, Spacey reflected on the way the lines between art and life are blurred in the series as well as in a new portrait of him as Underwood that was unveiled earlier in the day.
"It's really fun to blur fact and fiction to the point where no one (expletive) knows what the (expletive) is going on," he said.
The good news: That's still happening in the first hour of Season 4 of "House of Cards."
Season 4 arrives March 4 on Netflix.