'House of Cards' is built on women in Season 4

Zurawik: Women have not fared well in "House of Cards." But maybe that's changing.

Women have not fared so well in "House of Cards."

Ask Zoe Barnes, Rachel Posner or even Claire Underwood after the showdown with her husband at the end of Season 3.

Oh, wait: You can't ask Zoe or Rachel, can you?

Outside of Claire (Robin Wright), they were generally no match for the ambition, guile and mendacity of Francis J. Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Given the violent and grotesque endings for Barnes and Posner, along with Underwood's contemptuous treatment of most professional women who have crossed his path and managed to live, one might even use the adjective "misogynistic" to describe the treatment of women in the series.

But that looks as if it might be changing in Season 4, which arrives at 3 a.m. Friday on Netflix. Most major additions to the cast this cycle are women, and many of the actors who play them come with the kind of resumes and talent that put them in a league with Wright, if not Spacey.

I've seen the first six hours of the season, three of them written by women and two directed by Wright. They have me thinking this could turn out to be the Year of the Women on "House of Cards." At the very least, their presence promises a jolt of life-meets-art energy for the series, with Netflix's fictional president running against a Democratic female challenger as Hillary Clinton competes to be the first female nominee for the Democratic Party.

Academy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn plays Claire's mother, Elizabeth Hale, a woman who lives in the old-money enclave of Highland Park in Dallas. Burstyn, who has won Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe awards, steals the show in each of the first two hours, and helps make what has been consistently outstanding work by Wright even better in their scenes together.

Burstyn's performance forces Wright to find another, higher gear as an actor. I think a lot of viewers are going to like seeing a different, emotionally messier side of Claire in connection to her mother — a side that has nothing to do with Frank. That's a flash of female empowerment in its own right for the series: a woman not defined in any way by her relationship to a man.

Establishing a professional identity outside of her husband's shadow has been a major struggle for Claire throughout the series. That battle is more front and center than ever this year — with some surprising turns.

Wright has a wealth of good scenes in the first six hours, and several of them come with women new to the series, like Burstyn. They include Cicely Tyson as a Texas congresswoman and Neve Campbell as a Dallas-based political consultant.

Tyson, a Tony and three-time Emmy Award winner, instantly establishes her strong presence in the first hour with a scene that finds her character, Doris Jones, traveling some very complicated emotional ground. Without any spoiler specifics, what I can say is that Representative Jones starts out in a meeting with Claire being all graciousness and accommodation. Before it is over, she has drawn a hard line, and through her tone of voice and body language, she viscerally communicates what it feels like to be offended by race and class privilege.

That kind of exploration of racial privilege sounds a new and timely note for "House of Cards" — and to see it played out between these two superb actors is a treat. It's also a pleasure to be in a universe where almost nothing is one-dimensional. Claire might be victimized by Frank in major ways, but she is also perfectly willing and able to victimize others — especially women — without a moment of moral hesitation.

Campbell is not in a league with Burstyn and Tyson. But she has, thanks to showrunner Beau Willimon, who left the series after the filming of Season 4, a role with some very nice possibilities.

The one-time "Party of Five" star plays a character who keeps a handgun in her desk. When she pulls it out and points it at an uninvited visitor from Washington, he asks if "this is the way you say hello in Texas."

I say possibilities, because her character, Leeann Harvey, looks to me like just the kind of young, ambitious woman who sometimes comes to a violent and untimely end in Underwood's America.

(This is not based on any inside information, but the name Leeann Harvey does bring to mind Lee Harvey Oswald, the gunman who fatally shot President John Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.)

Meanwhile, Heather Dunbar is running hard against Underwood for the Democratic nomination. She and Rep. Jackie Sharp, who had thrown in with Dunbar after being double-crossed by Underwood, are two strong women returning.

Kim Dickens is back as another accomplished professional, journalist Kate Baldwin. But I make no predictions about members of the media in this series, because outside of politicians, no profession is treated with more contempt.

I loved the character of Zoe Barnes for a bunch of reasons. But she was about as vile and nasty a millennial worm as you could find.

Though the female reporter in the original British "House of Cards" certainly lacked an ethical compass and also came to a violent end, Willimon seems to have ladled up an extra-large helping of loathsome in creating Zoe. He had some assistance in setting that template from David Fincher, the executive producer who directed the first two hours. Based on my dealings with the Baltimore-based production, I don't think either of them likes the press very much.

But that anti-media attitude is one of the two primary cultural elements that made "House of Cards" so successful with audiences since its debut in 2013. The other one is its depiction of politicians who are as duplicitous, debased and, at least in the case of Underwood, as downright evil as we suspect some of them as being.

It's been fascinating this past week to hear pundits who had long been predicting the downfall of Donald Trump now grudgingly crediting him with being the first to understand how angry the electorate is with the political establishment. That's how they explain why the GOP nomination looks like his to lose.

But Trump wasn't the first. He and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders just got it long before the cocooned Washington and New York press corps and political consultants did.

But you know who was way ahead of the pack with that sociological insight? "House of Cards," which has steadfastly depicted political and press elites the past three years as running the country for their own private gain at the expense of the public good — and privately laughing at our gullibility.

In many ways, "House of Cards" is one of the richest dramas in television history. The degree to which it resonates with our national psyche is verified by the animated conversation it ignites as each new season drops.

It is as deep and wise in understanding politics, passions and the darker corners of human nature as Greek tragedy. Wait until you see the shocking violence, Jungian visions and Oedipal eye-gouging in several of the first six episodes.

In a year when America could very likely have its first female presidential nominee from a major national party, it's time for the series to be as smart and nuanced in its depictions of gender as it has about other serious matters.

Here's hoping I'm right in thinking that time has come in Season 4 on "House of Cards."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

If you watch

All 13 episodes of Season 4 of "House of Cards" will be available on Netflix at 3 a.m. March 4.

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