As utterly bonkers as House of Cards gets, there’s something about its sumptuous cinematography, and the masterfully feline performances of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright that just keep me coming back for more. I wasn’t a huge fan of season four’s division of Frank and Claire, especially when the first two seasons or so had solidified the ‘Underwood’s vs. the World’ dynamic as something both morally murky and undeniably enthralling.
Season five sees the couple still in an uneasy position. Though their bonds are strengthened in the face of a common enemy – Joel Kinnaman’s Republican frontrunner poses a significant threat to the Underwoods’ position in the White House when it comes to the election – Frank and Claire find themselves tested in new ways through this new set of thirteen episodes.
Just so you know, there are spoilers within.
To be honest, the battle with Conway is one of the best parts of the season. As Conway pulls ahead in the polls, the Underwoods take voter suppression to the extreme, fabricating a terrorist plot to put armed soldiers on the streets, and create heavily policed focal stations for voting. Frank goes a step further, putting pressure on governors to shut down election day polling early, and transforming a country-wide election into a circus. Nine weeks pass, with two states – Ohio and Pennsylvania – unable to certify their results , creating an impasse between two candidates, neither or whom have enough votes to claim victory.
Under these bright lights, Will Conway begins to unravel. The Presidency has come so very close to being his, and yet it remains out of reach. Kinnaman’s downward spiral as he begins to lash out is terrific stuff. What seemed inevitable, to us as much as to him, is twisted and warped brilliantly. It helps that Spacey is back monologuing to the camera in almost every episode, divulging little footnotes and appendices to his political machinations, and welcoming us back into the privilege of his confidence.
Yet it seems like there was a missed opportunity here to have a new, dynamic president, with Claire as an opposition VP, and Francis on the outside looking in. With House of Cards having lost a bit of its edge since Frank supplanted Walker as the supposed Leader of the Free World, setting him back on the outside, forcing him to wheel and deal once more to regain power and discredit a new, complex, and thoroughly modern opponent could have been truly interesting. This, coupled with Claire’s role as a Democrat VP to a Republican president, would have certainly broken new ground for the show.
Unfortunately for the Underwoods, and for us as viewers to be honest, instead of kicking on into new territory, the writers dredge up the past again. So it is that the death of Zoe Barnes comes up once more, and investigations into the disappearance of Rachel Posner are once again on the agenda. And while it makes sense perhaps for these storylines to rear their heads again, in the end they pretty much just fizzle out. There are few consequences, even if the tensions wrought by Herald journalist Tom Hammerschmidt’s investigation do at least create some tension along the way.
The biggest threat comes from within the Party. Democratic Congressman Alex Romero begins pursuing an investigation into the Underwood administration that can only end with impeachment. Right up until the penultimate episode, it looks like the show is about to kick the Underwoods out of the White House, but of course there’s a twist. Only this time, the twist is facepalm-inducingy absurd, even by House of Cards’ standards. It’s all been planned, Frank suggests. He and Doug have been orchestrating this thing for months. The president himself is the leak! All he needed to do was push Cathy Durant down some stairs and resign, handing Claire the perfect platform for her own tenure as the first female president, and allowing Frank to pull strings in the private sector. After all, that’s where the real power is, apparently.
I have real trouble with the whole Cathy situation. The Secretary of State is threatening to testify, everything is lined up perfectly, and yet she just happens to ‘fall down the stairs’ in the company of a man suspected of murder, corruption, and a whole lot more? Were there no cameras? Was there no enquiry? At some point she’ll wake up…then what happens? ‘You will fall, Cathy,’ intones Frank. He looks at the camera, giving us a little side-eye, but House of Cards is better than this obvious absurdity. This is too sloppy for Francis Underwood. The same can be said of the deaths of Tom Yates (really? No one’s going to notice the disappearance of the famous author embedded with the Underwood’s for a year or two?) and LeAnn Harvey (a shame, she was a much-needed breath of fresh air).
Perhaps most noticeable is the complete lack of ideology. In fact, one of the characters goes so far as to note this of the Underwoods. They have no real explained goals beyond power. And while Frank might quote Gore Vidal as saying that power is an end in itself, that doesn’t quite cut it when you have a TV show trying to address relevant topics like terrorism, migration and the closing of borders, the Syrian crisis, Russian interference in Western democracy, and so on. Part of the reason that Conway feels so fresh is that the Underwoods’ lack of belief in anything apart from power has become somewhat stale. The show is still yet to answer the question ‘where do we go from here?’
If there’s a silver lining, perhaps it is that it is to be hoped Frank’s escapades in season six might lead to more episodes like the cultish Elysian Fields episode. In this episode, Frank ditches the White House for a weekend in the woods, making pithy remarks and wading into confrontational conversations with the nation’s richest elites. It’s a great episode, and marks a welcome turn of pace and change of scenery.
Another bright spark is Patricia Clarkson’s Jane Davis. Davis is an international liaison with a flair for manipulation that might even surpass that of the Underwoods. Clarkson’s performance is one of the standouts of the season, and that’s saying a huge amount in a show where the acting quality has always been absolutely top notch. But Clarkson’s soft delivery, her unflappable, gentle concern, make her character’s audacious machinations a joy to behold. She walks a tightrope between the genuine and the duplicitous, and Davis proves to be one of the trickier characters to figure out.
A few final thoughts on season five…
- Doug is wasted in this season. I love Doug, he’s one of my favourite characters, and Michael Kelly is superb. But he was kind of sidelined in this one, simply barking at people, and then took the ultimate fall (well, not quite as literally as Cathy) towards the end of the season. This would have been a perfect season to really tug at the threads of his and Frank’s relationship, or even get a new persepctive with Conway in the White House and Frank on the outside. Alas, Doug deserved better.
- I liked the relationship between Jane and Mark Usher. I wish that had been brought out a little more. There’s great potential there for season six, even if Usher’s suggestion of himself as Claire’s VP was easy to spot a mile off.
- The whole Claire and Tom thing made no sense. It was just bad, and a waste of a chartacter. Tom had been a useful window into the Underwoods’ lives, our representative in many ways, but this season he was a ghost at the feast without adding anything in that role at all. I really didn’t mind that they killed him off. In fact, I quite like the way that Claire did it…I just wish it had come earlier…it might have been more impactful that way.
So yeah, not a vintage season at all, but hell, I’ll be watching season six. Spacey, Wright, and co. are too good not to, quite frankly.