House of Cards Season 5
Debuts May 30th on Netflix
Entire season watched for review
“One nation, Underwood.”
A morally bankrupt president. A corrupt, complicit staff. An election mired in controversy. But enough about real life — let’s talk about House of Cards. As Netflix’s binge-worthy drama enters its fifth season, it finds itself in the precarious position of having to compete with a current presidential administration that’s a little too close for comfort. For years now, one of the biggest draws of House of Cards was how outlandish it was; how over-the-top the show was willing to go in regard to its characters’ machinations. Now, with Donald Friggin Trump somehow the President of the Untied States, the plots and schemes of House of Cards don’t seem that far-fetched. There are two big differences, though, between Trump and House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood: one — as far as we know, Trump hasn’t physically murdered anyone; and two — for all his vile acts, Frank Underwood is actually competent. If Trump were as competent as Underwood, we’d probably be in even more trouble than we are now.
Season 5 begins on the eve of an election that will either keep Frank in power as president, with his wife Claire as his new vice president, or boot him from office to make way for younger, more charismatic Republican candidate Will Conway. Frank and Claire have done everything in their power to remain right where they are, including exploiting terrorist actions from the ISIS-like organization ICO. Yet for all their scheming, when the election arrives it looks as if Conway might seal the deal. That won’t stop Frank and Claire, though, who begin cooking up various forms of election fraud to stay in the White House. Meanwhile, intrepid reporter Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) is getting closer and closer to uncovering some of the Underwood’s nefarious deeds, as well as revealing the criminal enterprises of Underwood’s Chief of Staff/occasional hitman Doug Stamper (the ever-dependable Michael Kelly).
House of Cards had fallen into a bit of a rut by the time it hit its third season, but season four felt like the shot in the arm the series needed. Yet by the end of season four, showrunner and series creator Beau Willimon had stepped down, and now Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese are serving as co-showrunners. The fact that the show is in new hands is evident right from the first episode, as it becomes clear that Willimon was apparently the force that kept things focused. Season 5, in contrast, feels completely unmoored from itself, spiraling off into every direction possible. Worse than that, outside of the Underwoods and Doug, the characters have become ungainly and rather flat. There are times where you may find yourself wishing you had a flow-chart to keep track of just who the hell all the people in the Underwood’s orbit are. At first, it seems as if Conway (Joel Kinnaman) will make something of an impression and become a true foe for the Underwoods, but the character runs out of steam early and is all but forgotten by season’s end. Similarly, writer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) feels like a holdover from a completely different show, out of place in where the series is now. Neve Campbell does very good work with what she’s given here, essentially stepping into the type of role that recent Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (who does not appear this season) played in previous seasons. Season five also gets a little boost from the addition of a mysterious character played by Patricia Clarkson, and Clarkson is predictably strong, but one gets the sense that the show is keeping her motivations too vague for us to give much of a damn.
All the side-characters continue to feel adrift simply because this show still firmly belongs to Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as the Underwoods. Spacey continues to chew scenery with aplomb, his Dixie drawl and silent glances to the camera doing most of the heavy-lifting. Wright is the real MVP of the series, though, playing First Lady turned Vice President Claire Underwood with a chilly dignity, even as she commits terrible deeds. The season spends a large portion of time planting seeds that will drive the Underwoods apart, but it’s a bit too much build-up with a pay-off that arrives at almost the last minute. Still, it’s a hoot to watch Spacey and Wright work together, and a moment where Claire finally turns and addresses the audience the way Frank usually does is a real highlight.
Still, the shadow of the real world hangs over House of Cards. When the show dips into election shenanigans and even goes so far as to have a character float the prospect of closing the borders, it doesn’t play as satire or as a reflection of current events but rather as an uncomfortable accident — the show was in production far before the 2016 election, so when these scenarios were pitched and written they were likely thought of as complete fiction, rather than possible reality. It’s unclear how much longer House of Cards can go on at this point, not just because the series seems to have run out of story, but also because it’s difficult to keep engrossing yourself in the world the show is trying to create. Who needs to watch an entire series about a morally reprehensible administration when we’re currently stuck with the real thing?