Sun TV Critic David Zurawik talks about season 4 of the Netflix series House of Cards. (Baltimore Sun video)
After seeing the first six episodes of Season 4 of "House of Cards," I can tell you there are three scenes that blew me away. A week after seeing them, they are still rattling around in my brain.
I am not going to describe the full scenario of each or name certain names, because I don't want to ruin anyone's viewing pleasure. I have been trying to avoid spoilers in all the pieces I wrote since Feb. 22, when I screened the first hour of Season 4. But if you are supersensitive to spoilers, stop now and come back later after you've seen the first six hours yourself.
1. The first hour ends on a startling move by Ellen Burstyn as Claire Underwood's mother, Elizabeth Hale, a woman of old money living in Dallas, Texas. Burstyn, an Oscar- Emmy- and Tony-winning actor, absolutely steals the show in this first hour, and she does it in the closing minutes. What a great addition to the cast, and what a perfect first turn she does on this talent-rich stage.
Be prepared to have every emotion you felt toward this woman turned upside down by the end of the episode. And be prepared to see Robin Wright's Claire Underwood as you have never seen her before now that she is in her mother's home, with all the Freudian undercurrents and matriarchal mind games in full flower.
I spent parts of the first hour fearing that Season 4 was going to go soap opera on us with the focus on the marital problems between Frank and Claire that defined the end of Season 3. But this one move by Burstyn at the end of Episode 1 instantly powered the series back to its deep, dark, mythic roots. It is the character and performance of Burstyn — not Kevin Spacey — that makes "House of Cards" Season 4 feel like a drama of ancient Greece as the final credits roll on Episode 1.
2. Twenty-one minutes and 30 seconds into Hour 4, the world of Frank Underwood changes in a flash while he's campaigning for president. Slight spoiler: It's not going very well.
"What do you think I should be doing differently?" he asks one young woman as he walks along the edge of a crowd shaking hands.
"You should resign to save our country," she says belligerently.
Just when you think things couldn't get more hostile on this Underwood 2016 campaign stop, they get ugly in a cosmic and existential way. This, too, is the stuff of Greek tragedy — and the gods are very, very angry at the man named Underwood.
I really can't say any more without spoilers, except to add a footnote for Baltimore-area viewers that this game-changer of a scene was filmed at Goucher College. Of course, it's not Goucher College in the series.
Outside of Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), the women of "House of Cards" have generally been no match for the ambition, guile and mendacity of Francis J. Underwood (Kevin Spacey). 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.
3. Episodes 5 and 6 mark the return of some familiar faces to the series.
Seeing the two characters who return interact the way they do with Frank is fantastic. Their movements and actions with him are straight out of a sexually bent, Jungian-charged nightmare. Think of a hellscape by the 15th- and 16th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch, and you are almost there. It is "House of Cards" are its darkest dark night of the lost soul.
OK, here's one hint as to the identity of one of the characters. If you remember the last Netflix trailer for Season 4, you might recall a scene shot from behind a woman in a white dress as she mounts Frank. That woman is not Claire. She is one of the two characters in Episode 6.
The two sequences with Frank and the returning characters are my favorite scenes so far in Season 4, right down to a bit of Oedipal eye gouging just as you think you are about to see two people making love. I said it was dark, didn't I? And I love it.
Those who wanted to see Frank pay something for his sins will feel at least a little better by the end of Episode 6, I promise.