House of Cards series 4 spoiler-free preview: Lord and Lady Macbeth are at war

"The idea of pitching Frank and Claire against each other is sound, and there are plenty of those grisly flourishes that get HoC’s blood pumping," says Jonathan Holmes, "but it all builds to one of the most deeply stupid twists I can remember..."

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The Oval Office has seen affairs, presidents in the closet and even cigars being inserted where cigars should not go, but it has never seen a divorce. In fact, only one divorcee has ever been president: Ronald Reagan, whose first marriage broke up 30 years before he took the oath of office.

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Thus for all their murder and Machiavellian scheming, the Underwood’s most historic scandal might actually be the most quotidian. Following the events of last series, their marriage is on the rocks. Knowing these two they’re going to be fighting over more than who keeps the bone china.

As House of Cards stretches on and gets further from its source material, it’s becoming ever clearer that the show lives on the strength of its villains. The Underwoods’ duel with Russian premiere Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) was the only high point of last series, while we can all remember the doldrums of Frank’s endless courting of grey President Walker – the John Major of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Robin Wright’s dagger of a First Lady, meanwhile, has been the greatest success of the reimagined House of Cards, an absolute equal to Frank’s unctuous conniving, but with her own weaknesses. Caesar’s wife is hardly above suspicion.

Thus the idea of pitching Frank and Claire against each other is sound – who can take on Macbeth but Lady Macbeth – and it’s undeniably thrilling to see them sharpen their claws on each other. It also gives us a chance to see more of Claire’s life and history outside of Frank (and even – gulp – meet her mother).

However, in truth the battle royale doesn’t quite work. Frank and Claire edge around each other, which means they don’t share enough scenes. There’s also something sad about boiling their relationship down to mutual ambition. They may both be amoral monsters, but their opaque love was one of the more intriguing aspects of the show.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of those grisly flourishes that get HoC’s blood pumping – a bottomless toybox of cruel people being cruel in surreal ways. Plus the supporting characters go through something of a cull, meaning there should be fewer occasions when you have to pause to look up the wiki.

It all builds to one of the most deeply stupid twists I can remember. When does ambition turn into lunacy? And how far can House of Cards push its gothic melodrama before it snaps into parody? If Frank manages to pull this one off, his monument will be taller than Washington’s.

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House of Cards series 4 is released on 4th March 2016 on Netflix