While reviewing the premiere of this season, I feared the real world’s political climate would be enough to overshadow anything that could be done on this show. I speculated that Frank and Claire Underwood would be harder and harder to root for because they embody real, horrible people with real, horrible objectives. I wondered if there was room for entertainment when this show no longer felt like a binge-worthy escape, but simply an extension of the daily news – with much more visual appeal and better acting, of course. Well, I was wrong; at least in part.
The chaos of this season was relatively tame, in comparison to both real life and the show’s previous work. The Underwoods, and just about every other character, were difficult to root for, or even truly give a damn about. And, despite the feeling that there were at least a hundred characters carrying out a thousand plot points at all times, there was very little entertainment value to be gained from these 13 episodes. (Even Claire’s first actual murder was too overly foreshadowed to feel truly compelling.) The problem, however, wasn’t because of how directly related to real life it could all sometimes feel – the battle between Frank and Will Conway went on for what feels like a decade, as if Americans didn’t already have enough election fatigue. No, the problem was in how unrealistic, and ultimately aimless, this story has become within its own universe.
In that same review, I also argued that HOC desperately needed a change in formula. Watching the Underwoods manipulate and murder their way to the top used to be fun. It was even plausible for a time, and fascinating to see how they would get out of each precarious situation completely unscathed. But how many effortless wins is too many? How many times can the exact same thing happen without any consequences? How do the people in the Underwoods’ inner circle (most notably Doug) continue to think they are the special ones? That they’re the exception to the rule and won’t be thrown under the bus when necessary? Honestly, these issues reached a breaking point back at the end of season three, but if the tides had turned for good during this season, their tardiness could have been forgiven. The bottom line is that this dire lack of consequence makes for both a counterfeit and dull story.
This was the season for the Underwoods to start losing. The minor setbacks they did encounter weren’t enough. Especially since they were nothing a push down the stairs, a toxic dose of herbs, a seemingly fatal car crash, or a good old bit of classic blackmail couldn’t take care of. Even the one person who’s been able to stay alive while actively working against the Underwoods (Tom Hammerschmidt) was unable to do any significant damage. He was initially introduced as a tenacious investigative journalist, but now, because the plot demands so, he’s hit yet another wall in his research. It’s just another example of narratives that continue to move in circles, and lead me to question what, exactly, is the purpose behind all of this?
The driving force of this entire series has been Frank and Claire’s lust for power and the measures they were willing to take to ensure Frank became president. That’s where the ultimate power was, or so we thought. In a whiplash-inducing twist of character, Frank tells Claire the true power has been outside of the White House all along. Huh? He resigned as president – which effectively took any pleasure whatsoever out of seeing him removed from that office – because, in order to truly own the country, he needs to be working in the private sector while Claire remains president. Now, it makes complete sense that HOC would have to start considering what’s next for the Underwoods after their long-term goal had been accomplished. But answering the question in this way demonstrates both rushed and lazy writing, and a complete betrayal of character. Which makes it extremely difficult to believe this was Frank’s plan all along; both he and the show come off as though they’re desperately grasping at straws during that overly expository monologue. From where Claire is sitting at the end of the finale, it would seem that the power is, in fact, within the walls of the White House.
Speaking of Claire, if there’s anything to praise about these 13 episodes, it’s Robin Wright’s performance. Though I don’t feel the same investment in her character as I once did, she still has the ability to give me goosebumps with a single cold stare, or with a smile that’s perfectly shielding her inner malice. As much as I enjoyed watching the majority of her scenes – particularly when she’s screening Frank’s calls, because that petty was just so delicious – she too was ultimately betrayed by the writing.
When Claire finally broke the fourth wall in episode 11, it was fantastic. The moment was much anticipated and exceeded expectations. Claire, it turns out, has always known about our existence, but she questions our expectations, which is so, very Claire. In just a few short sentences she established a relationship with us that was entirely different from the one we’ve had with Frank. It signaled a possible shake-up to the format of this show – and renewed much of my excitement for the series as a whole – and was then swiftly undercut by the closing line in the finale. “My turn” sounds precisely like something Frank would say to us, not Claire. This was the sourest of cherries on top of an already curdling sundae.
Will season six be different now that Claire holds all the cards? Maybe. But it won’t change the fact that season five was 13 hours of slow, repetitive setup just to get us there.
House of Cards S5
House of Cards - season five
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Paul Sparks, Neve Campbell, Derek Cecil, Joel Kinnaman, Dominique McElligott, Boris McGiver, Korey Jackson