House of Cards season 5 review: Frank Underwood offers hope in the era of Donald Trump
House of Cards
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Joel Kinnaman, Paul Sparks, Neve Campbell, Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott
It is said that the most dreaded time of the day at the White House comes in the evening. They call it the ‘5 o’ clock dump’. It is when Donald Trump’s advisors – press secretaries, intelligence personnel, personal aides, and the like – relay to him the day’s biggest headlines. They tend to be negative.
In House of Cards, the first original series produced by Netflix, now in its fifth season, President Francis Underwood doesn’t have to worry about the clock chiming five. His troubles last the entire day, and extend well into the night.
The presence of his wife gives him strength, as it has for decades. They’ve been in this together, looking into each other’s eyes, sharing cigarettes (and concerned looks), silently acknowledging their sins, and even more silently forgiving them.
Their quest for power has created a strange dynamic between husband and wife, president and vice president – one which we aren’t necessarily supposed to understand. There is love, yes, but it comes at a cost – a terrible cost. Understanding what goes on inside the heads of Frank and Claire, trying to make sense of their ambition, clouded as it is by vengeance and sheer evil, is perhaps a task best left for a later time. Maybe season 7. Not just now.
Their story, it seems, rather terrifyingly, has only just begun.
Season 5 is a change of pace. Quite literally. There is a lot of waiting around in empty rooms, which often look like they’ve been hastily abandoned by their previous occupants. There’s a foreboding sense of paranoia, a lot of cautious looking over the shoulders, and a lot of uneasy pacing about. More often than not, this wait is for horrible news. The lies and deceit have added up over the years. The ego, which once seemed unbounded, is now on the verge of implosion. Things have never looked this ominous for Frank and Claire.
This is also the first season without creator and showrunner Beau Willimon, who in his departure, also took with him some of the show’s subtlety. Granted, House of Cards has never really been a subtle show, what with the central character never missing an opportunity to break the fourth wall and gloat into the camera.
It has, however, always been shrewd, like Frank, crafty, vain, and deceitful.
But this time, the characters tend to say what’s on their minds more readily. The messages that were previously conveyed through silences, and masterful performances, are now told to us. It’s almost as if the show has developed some of Frank’s insecurities.
“They’re like little children, Claire,” he says, referring to the American people, the ones who’ve elected him into office, and the ones who haven’t. “We have to hold their sticky fingers and wipe their mouths, teach them right from wrong, tell them what to think and what to feel and what to want.”
This narcissism, this blatant condescension – it’ll soon get old. That is the concern – especially with what is happening in the real world. This trick will run its course, and like most things, Frank Underwood’s time in office will come to an end.
And where the previous seasons were about Frank’s rise to the top, this one is about his (failing) attempts to stay there. There are two reasonable reactions a mountaineer can have after successfully scaling Mount Everest. He could take a breath, perhaps shed a proud tear, and consider the next challenge. Or, he could begin planning his descent, because the journey back is often overlooked, and almost always as deadly as the one to the top. Frank, upon achieving his dream of heading the White House, finds himself unraveling, dizzied by the height, disarmed by the loneliness.
He is surrounded by people whom he considers tangential to his ultimate plan – whatever that might be – each of whom is expendable. Their drama, their individual subplots are often just as intriguing as the main narrative. Two new additions to the cast, Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott, play advisors so shady that they give the monumentally crooked Doug Stamper cause for concern. It’s all very enjoyable, this backroom bickering. Not to mention the intensive investigation the journalists of the Washington Herald are conducting on the Underwoods. It’s classic House of Cards.
But leading up to this season, the question on most everyone’s minds, understandably, was how they would acknowledge the Trump presidency. They could have gone one of two ways: They could have easily chosen to ignore him, and continued the Underwoods’ story independent of the world outside. Or, they could have – and this is what they ended up doing – chosen to address Trump directly. The drama is, after all, ripe for the taking.
But there is one mistake that we make in comparing Frank Underwood to Donald Trump. We assume that they operate on a similar level of deviousness, we believe they’re equally cunning, equally calculating. But democracy, a wise man once said, isn’t about politics and policy. It’s about appealing to the majority.
Pitting Trump against Underwood – perhaps the only one who could bring him down, House of Cards offers something wholly unexpected. While it seems that we live in a world without consequences, in storytelling there are rules. There are good guys and bad guys. Crime does not pay. There is a comfort in knowing this.
Season 5 of House of Cards offers hope.
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar
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