Previously, on House of Cards
In the final moment of season four’s finale, House of Cards teased us with the possibility of Claire finally breaking the fourth wall, just like Frank. She stared deep into our souls but, regrettably, never truly addressed us. In the first few seconds of season five’s premiere, HOC once again teased us with this hope. A collective gasp was happening around computer and TV screens everywhere when Claire looked directly into the camera and said, “I’ve been meaning to talk with you.”
As the camera pulled back, revealing that Mrs. Underwood was merely filming a fear fostering, If You See Something Say Something ad (camouflaged as a heartfelt PSA, of course,) those gasps turned to sighs. Our collective excitement deflated. Despite a few standout moments – Frank’s theatrics in Congress, Claire’s meeting with Josh Masterson’s mother – that deflated feeling permeated throughout most of the premiere.
Perhaps the best way to describe this return is with the word underwhelming. All the essentials of a typical HOC episode were present – scheming and plotting, an undercurrent of secrecy, a healthy dose of political jargon, and a whiff of melodrama – but it all just felt like more of the same. There was an element of excitement missing; no fresh hook to reel us all back in, which has become a bit of a necessity for shows that go a year or more between seasons. At most, the episode managed to get the ball rolling on a few, potentially season-long plot points. The investigation into the Underwood administration, the possibility of an actual war, the effects (both good and bad) of the Underwoods’ open marriage, and the upcoming election all hold some promise.
By now, however, it’s fair to say HOC fans have come to expect more than just basic setup from this show’s premieres. I mean, remember the opening of season two when Frank murdered Zoe? Or how about when Doug Stamper was miraculously found alive in the first episode of season three? The attempt at a big, WTF moment for this episode seems to have been the discovery that Frank was holding the domestic terrorist, Masterson, as his prisoner all along. But the reveal came with a sense of predictability rather than surprise. The Underwoods’ machinations are starting to feel routine and a bit mundane. I do wonder, though, would I feel the same way had the season aired prior to November of 2016?
Instead of playing like an episode of scripted television, this premiere felt more akin to watching the news (albeit with a much higher production budget.) Congressional drama, the necessity of looking “tough on terror,” an investigation into the presidential administration, and dangerous immigration reforms; is this HOC or real life? Well, now it’s both. The Underwoods’ decision at the end of season four, to lead by fear, feels far less dramatically chilling now, too. What was once a universe where we could escape, where we could marvel at the outlandishness and improbability of a president getting away with pretty much whatever, has been overshadowed by life itself.
It’s not as though HOC has never presented real world parallels in its past. They’ve always been there, just heightened enough to make for great entertainment. As of late, however, it seems impossible for fictional political chaos to be more bizarre or frightening than the real world’s political chaos. And I’m not sure if that leaves room for the entertainment aspect. Or, it at least causes some major problems for the Underwoods’ characters. Though there have been attempts to encourage our sympathies for and soften the edges of the duo, they are, at best, antiheroes and, much more accurately, horrible monster people. The problem now is twofold. Either the Underwoods are going to turn people off, because they don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to watch fictional monstrosities on top of all the non-fictional ones. Or, the Underwoods’ once ruthless villainy is just going to pale in comparison to the horrors of real life.
Yes, it’s a grim take, and it might be slightly unfair to judge HOC in this manner. The show was technically here first, after all. And, to be clear, the world wasn’t a peaceful or perfect place prior to November of 2016, either, but it’s unreasonable to think the context and lens in which most people now view pop culture hasn’t changed. It’s only human nature for us to perceive something as commentary on the world around us, even when the subject matter wasn’t meant as a reflection of it.
So, what’s the solution to this situation? If the Underwoods turn even more sinister, will real life seem less insane? No, definitely not. But staying the same isn’t necessarily working, either. HOC season five will need to refresh its formula one way or another, and quickly. Since it’s feeling as though rooting for the Underwoods is only going to get more difficult as time goes on, perhaps the best way forward and one that’s been a long time coming, is for the Big Bad Duo’s power to finally start dissolving. Not only does it make a lot of narrative sense at this point in the series, it might even offer a bit of catharsis to some viewers.
Who knows? Maybe this premiere was just the calm before the storm and this season is actually about to blow us away. Here’s hoping we can trust Frank when, at the end of the episode, he tells us “You have nothing to be afraid of.” It would be a shame for a show that’s so beautifully filmed and showcases such an abundance of acting talent to go to waste, all because of some orange buffoon in Washington.
House of Cards S5E1
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Paul Sparks, Neve Campbell, Derek Cecil, Joel Kinnaman, Dominique McElligott, Boris McGiver, Korey Jackson