Minor Spoiler Warning for Season 5 of “House of Cards,” as well as all previous seasons.
In the four months since President Trump’s inauguration, the United States in an almost constant cycle of political debate and conflict with scandal after scandal sending shock-waves across the country and the world. For its first four seasons, “House of Cards” was viewed as a frighteningly realistic, yet still hyper-fictionalized take on the political system of the United States; the actions of Francis (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood always seemed to be slightly out of the realm of reality, but now it seems as though the real world has caught up to fiction. Obviously, I’m not implying that President Trump has pushed a reporter in front of an oncoming subway train, but the day-to-day scandals and drama of Washington DC in “House of Cards” don’t seem to be that different from those emerging from the real life “swamp.” After a seemingly endless election in our world, viewers are treated to yet another long-winded and exhausting campaign that changes our favorite ruthless politicians forever.
Over the five seasons of “House of Cards,” viewers witness the rise to power of Frank and Claire Underwood; they do whatever it takes to maintain this power, even if they must lie, cheat and yes, kill. This season picks up just a few weeks before the 2016 Election as the Underwood campaign uses a domestic terrorist, as well as ICO (a foreign terrorist organization that is clearly meant to resemble ISIS) to position themselves as champions in the fight against terrorism. Meanwhile, Republican candidate Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) must dodge scandals and jabs from his opponent to make it to Election Day. Chaos erupts as the Underwoods, with the help of Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell), utilize the public’s fear of terrorism to interrupt the election, setting in motion an excruciatingly long period where the future of the presidency hangs in the balance. This bold move by the Underwoods shows just how far Frank and Claire are willing to go in order to maintain their power; that being said, it’s clear that they aren’t untouchable as this corrupt move has the potential to backfire and elect Conway. While the real election wasn’t nearly this dramatic, this aspect of the season does serve the purpose of showing how fragile our elections are; the results have been brought into question many times throughout history with the 2000 Election being a prime example.
Season 5 gives a handful of characters the chance to step into the spotlight and demonstrate their conniving ways. Not to dip too far into spoiler territory, but this is a big season for Claire as she has her eyes on the presidency; in many ways, she surpasses her husband in terms of badassery and being downright terrifying. Her quest for power and independence causes a rift to form in her two romantic relationships; of course, she still must deal with Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), who is such an annoyance and just may be my least favorite character in any television series because of his blandness and uselessness when it comes to the overall story. Claire butts heads with plenty of people, but also forms new alliances, including one with new character Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson), who is one of the major standouts this season. This isn’t to say that Frank is obsolete, but rather his story takes several interesting turns as he must navigate through new issues to hold onto his presidency; Frank is portrayed in a far different light than ever before and he is actually shown to be vulnerable this season, which is refreshing as it showcases the fact that he isn’t immortal and can absolutely fall victim to the scheming of others.
Other stand out characters this season include Will and Hannah (Dominique McElligott) as viewers are given a front row seat to their tumultuous personal life, as well as their seemingly perfect public personas. At first, the Conways seem like a young couple with no problems, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that they are far from perfect and if they wish to win the White House, they must keep their issues on locked up. They utilize new character Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) to navigate the roadblocks that the Underwoods set up, but it is clear that the Conways aren’t able to fully trust him; while I find the character of Mark to be somewhat intriguing, he comes across as rather dull compared to the others. While the Conway story does fizzle out later on in the season, it is definitely interesting to see the campaign through the eyes of two different, yet similar families.
This season also features a growing sense of urgency as Frank’s actions are being investigated by persistent journalist Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), who finds himself getting closer and closer to the truth about the death of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). While this storyline receives far less screentime than other subplots, I still found myself in an odd place where I was rooting for Tom and wishing for him to expose the Underwoods, while also wanting Frank and Claire to destroy everyone in their path. Of course, this is an impossibly difficult task for Tom as Frank and Doug are experts at covering their tracks, but this conflict between the White House and the press does mirror the real world in several unsettling ways. Will the truth of what happened to Zoe and Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) ever see the light of day? This storyline does give Doug the chance to step into a more proactive role as he finds himself at a crossroads when it comes to his own future. I’ve never really enjoyed the character of Doug, but his unwavering loyalty to Frank might just be his defining characteristic and it allows for some truly great material to be explored.
All in all, Season 5 of “House of Cards” isn’t perfect, but it does bring back a sense of danger and ruthlessness that has been absent for a few seasons. Frank and Claire both get their hands dirty this season, but they aren’t the only ones. This season proves that there really aren’t any good-natured characters in this series; everyone operates in a morally gray area and everyone has their own quest to gain power. This season features fantastic performances from the cast, with Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Patricia Clarkson, Joel Kinnaman and Jayne Atkinson being the standouts as Frank, Claire, Jane, Will and Cathy respectively. This season also features guest appearances from several notable characters including former President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill), Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelson), journalist Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) and the epic Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney). Season 5 may not be the best season of the series, but it does return the show to its roots and sets up the next season perfectly with the fate of the Underwoods up in the air. “One Nation…Underwood” was Frank’s vision, but it seems like his power is crumbling. It appears that the time has come for a queen to sit on the throne. All 5 seasons of “House of Cards” are currently streaming on Netflix and the 6th Season is set to be released sometime in 2018.