Spoiler alert: This column contains plot details for the entirety of Netflix’s “House of Cards” Season 5, which debuted early morning on Tuesday, May 30. Do not read until you’ve watched the whole season.
At this year’s unconventional White House Correspondents’ Dinner, host Hasan Minhaj succinctly observed how a different political climate makes for very different viewing of Netflix’s flagship drama series “House of Cards,” whose fifth season debuts today. He quipped: ”I’ve been watching ‘House of Cards’ just to relax. Oh, a vice president pushes a journalist in front of a train? How quaint.”
The fifth season of “House of Cards” premieres under such shockingly different circumstances from what it faced just a year ago that it’s hard to not read into its antiseptic, amoral portrait of a coolly power-hungry Washington, D.C. The show was created under the auspices of President Obama and functioned, like “Scandal,” as a kind of acidic corrective to the buoyant optimism surrounding his presidency. As the seasons went on and the stakes got higher, “House of Cards” seemed determined to expect nothing but the worst from its entire stable of Washington-insider characters.
Executive producer David Fincher set the stylistic tone of the series from the pilot, and the hermetic isolation of his D.C. interiors and unfussy Americana became more distinct as “House of Cards”’ storytelling moved past the model set by the 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name. But what is perhaps most distinct about the Netflix version of “House of Cards” is that unlike the BBC serial, which continued Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson)’s story in two more installments (“To Play the King,” 1993, and “The Final Cut,” 1995), our American political dystopia doesn’t end. The British series closes Urquhart’s story the only way the stories like his can end — Francis and Elizabeth Urquhart are consciously modeled after the doomed Lord and Lady Macbeth, with contemporary embellishments. But in our American “House of Cards,” there are no just desserts for the political operatives who grasp power simply for power’s sake. Frank and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) never have better angels and always win, in a story that will run for as long as Netflix can make it run.
In other words, it’s a nightmare. And yet it might still be preferable to reading the news. At least in “House of Cards,” Frank and Claire repeatedly demonstrate that they know exactly what they are doing. The fantasy of competent people in charge might be enough to be soothing, even when they’re murdering yet another hapless soul who crosses their path.
Season 5 of “House of Cards” is undoubtedly its weakest — weaker even than Season 3, which is when the show really got lost in its own plodding cynicism. The show has steadily killed off or disappeared the most endearing characters in its supporting cast — Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Rachel Brosnahan, Molly Parker, Mahershala Ali, Sakina Jaffrey, and Reg E. Cathey, just to name a few — and what’s left is what tyrants the world over find after they’ve “won”: a world barely worth living in.
This new season, which is under the auspices of new co-showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese, has taken pains to be relevant, and it shows in a few intriguing threads: Underneath some of the specifics, “House of Cards” Season 5 is a story about a president under active investigation and a roiling vipers’ nest of cabinet secretaries all trying to get each other fired. Frank and Claire pussyfoot their way towards totalitarian language and exploit the extant weaknesses of voting access to trigger a nationwide ballot-counting crisis. The Russian president, played by Lars Mikkelsen, is all too well-cast as a Putin-esque demagogue. Frank, aided by a splintered Congress, governs through unilateral executive orders. Wright, who has always been the show’s quiet anchor, emerges in this season less as a Clinton-esque figure than as a sharp-eyed Melania or a flaxen-haired Ivanka — which is to say that the show’s narratives lend themselves to being co-opted by either Democrats or Republicans, should the opportunity arise.
But the relevance doesn’t redeem the execution. Plot points take interminable hours to come to fruition, and if the show ever had any sense of fun before, it’s lost it almost entirely. There seems to have been about enough interesting ideas for maybe two to four new episodes — certainly the Season 5 finale, which makes Claire Underwood commander-in-chief, is soapy stuff. But the process to get there is hardly worth it, narratively. In a telling indication of weak plotting, Frank has to spend part of the finale explaining to Claire that he planned half of the season’s tribulations, in a bit of 11th-hour exposition that would impress a Bond villain.
At the same time, “House of Cards” continues to be adept at mimicking and critiquing media narratives, with a facility that tends to transcend the plot of the show. The artificial news alerts and canned punditry of “House of Cards” rings the most true of nearly anything else it does; and for once, the life-or-death stakes espoused by the show’s flawed journalists seem rather believable. Frank is a withholding guide to his confidant, the audience — a few episodes might go by before he finally turns to the camera and tells us what he’s really thinking. So, much of what the viewer understands about the plot comes through the filter of the show’s news media. As “House of Cards” carefully portrays, the mainstream media is a well-meaning institution riddled with exploitable weaknesses, just like democracy itself.
The show’s primary storytelling conceit is itself a mini media critique. Frank’s asides to the fourth wall are the only times he tells the unembellished, unadulterated truth. And yet the only other times he looks directly at the camera is when he addresses the American people through news cameras. The former is the unvarnished, unaccented truth; the latter is folksy, Southern rhetoric. And it’s not just him anymore: Claire begins and ends this season looking directly into the camera, and it is left to the viewer to assess the gulf between what she’s saying and what she’s really thinking.
And ultimately, what gives Claire and Frank their competitive edge in Washington isn’t their ruthlessness (really, the dead bodies harm their agenda more than help); it’s that they know exactly how to prod the attention-hungry media beast to get it to run in the direction they desire. The voter suppression narrative of the first half of the season is really just a Byzantine public relations gambit to make palatable the fact that Frank and Claire are plotting to steal the presidency, just as Frank’s manipulation of his own downfall ensures that Claire will emerge relatively blameless. The finale gooses its own metaphor with a few shots that echo iconic moments from the real-life Obama Administration. One is a situation room tableau where Claire has the same position and pose as Hillary Clinton does in a much-publicized photo from the night Osama Bin Laden was assassinated. The other is also from that night — Claire’s declaration of war, nearly the last scene of the season, looks almost identical to Obama’s address to the public announcing Bin Laden’s death.
These conscious reconstructions are interesting, but hard to interpret. In an administration headed by a television reality star, the “House of Cards” obsession with media is less insightful and more just paranoid: Here, it seems to say, these are all the things that could go wrong. “House of Cards” Season 5 is an opportunity to watch two very bad people steal the presidency, corrupt the systems of democracy, kill those who interfere with their plans, and revel in their ill-won spoils. It often feels like it stokes the very disillusionment and cynicism that it fears. The show’s distinctive atmosphere is a landscape of alienation — from power, from humanity, from joy — in which the president turns to the audience and describes how he will use them, the American people, as pawns for an upcoming scheme. There’s something unsavory about this show’s insistence on demeaning and terrifying us — on proving over and over again that the only way to win in Washington is to become Frank Underwood himself, puppeteer extraordinaire, a man without mercy or quarter or even basic principle. It’s strange to indulge in this show’s airless will-to-power politics in 2017. We don’t need more alienation and dissatisfaction, “House of Cards”: We already have that in spades.