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‘House of Cards’ Season 4 review: Frank Underwood’s fast and furious romp, without Claire

"House of Cards" begins its fourth season on Netflix. (Credit: Netflix)

WHEN | WHERE Fourth season starts streaming Friday on Netflix

GRADE A

WHAT IT’S ABOUT President Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is prepping for the South Carolina primary, but even though this may be his home state, he still has cause for concern, in part because there’s a severe oil shortage, and voters are getting restless (or is the word “furious?”). First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) has walked out — if not quite out of the marriage, then out of the White House, and decamped back to her childhood home, where her mother (Ellen Burstyn) still lives. The Underwood campaign has lots of other challenges — while a mysterious political operative, Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell), is about to make it even more complicated. At least the president has his loyal chief of staff, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and security detail, headed by Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) to run interference, and a skillful communications chief, Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil), to spin the press. Now, about his opponent, Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) . . . . (Also of note: Big screen and TV legend Cicely Tyson joins the show in the fourth as a powerful congresswoman from Texas.)

MY SAY A man of many sayings, Francis Underwood had one choice epigram that’s stuck with him since the second season, if only because he has operated by this tenet so often: “If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table. . . .”

Tables might prefer otherwise; waiters, too, but obsessive fans of cherished series can certainly see the merits. “House of Cards’” third season was occasionally a yawner until such moments that it was a shot to the jaw, most notably the season finale. Frank in power was simply a different dynamic from Frank seeking power. The entire series was predicated on the latter, the third season mostly on the former. Latter was better than former. This table needed to be upended.

This table has been. With six episodes as evidence, no one — no one — can accuse “Cards” of temporizing any more. The glasses lie shattered on the ground, the silverware scattered. These episodes whiz by, only occasionally approaching — or exceeding — the limits of credulity. Besides, there’s nothing here that comes even close to trumping real world politics, for either laughs or implausibility.

These feel exactly right, in spirit and context. The oil shortage storyline might seem like a false note when set against what’s going on at the gas pump right now. But the writers couldn’t have known that a year ago, while it still works well within the overall plot.

Fans can guess how matters might hypothetically develop given the rupture between Claire and Francis, but we don’t want to get too spoilery here. Keep in mind that even hypothetical developments can still hold some nice surprises, and there are plenty here.

Foremost, the fourth season is a much deeper study of Claire — her early years in the Texas hill country, when the tea was ice cold and the landed gentry was as well. Burstyn as her mother is flawlessly cast: Almost but not quite an Amanda Wingfield from “The Glass Menagerie” who drifts through an empty house with only ghosts as companions, you see into Claire’s heart through her mother. The view is fleeting, like a fast cut, but it also humanizes her, and enriches her as a character. The fourth season, or at least the first six episodes, belong to Claire.

Meanwhile, “House of Cards” remains very much a study of power — how people get it, and the tricks they use to keep it. What’s been missing over the first three seasons is the “why.” Why does Francis covet power, and why does Claire? Those aren’t just interesting questions but part of an interesting story. “Cards” has begun to tell it in earnest.

BOTTOM LINE A fast and furious romp through the first six episodes that should keep bingers — and fans — happy. (Six episodes were made available for critics’ advance screening; all 12 episodes are available today for streaming.)

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