This House of Cards review contains spoilers. It is based on the first six episodes.
It’s impossible to watch the new season of House of Cards without the shadow of the current U.S political situation — and the turbulent election that got us here — hanging over it. Even though the show started production on its fifth 13-episode run (the first with new showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese at the helm, replacing creator Beau Willimon) before last November’s election results — and the tragicomedy that has unfolded ever since — stunned the nation and the world, the serpentine storylines that the show is unfurling this year seem like they’re ripped right from the headlines of a parallel universe just this side of ours. House of Cards has always been about political machinations, betrayal, lust for power, high crimes and personality clashes, but now it doesn’t seem as funny.
Well, that’s not completely true: even with the thick miasma of dread and vague impending doom that hangs over the season (at least the six episodes we got a chance to view so far), the show still excels at providing viewers with laugh-out-loud moments that one just doesn’t see coming (my favorite — aside from Kevin Spacey’s endlessly amusing eye-rolls and side glances at the camera — was the visual Halloween joke at the end of episode 2). But even as developments this season become wilder, more ridiculous and seemingly less realistic, the show’s crazier turns evolve into a laugh-or-cry scenario with every fresh twist of events in real-life headlines.
When we last left President Frank Underwood (Spacey) and First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), Frank had maneuvered things so that Claire could become his Vice Presidential running mate for re-election as well. As season 5 opens, the election is too close to call: Republican candidate Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) remains a formidable opponent even as he shows signs that the strain is getting to him. The Underwoods, of course, don’t trust the democratic process (“The American people don’t know what’s best for them,” says Frank cynically at one point, and one is almost inclined to agree) so they are manipulating the aftermath of a domestic terrorist attack to their advantage. Throw in a bit of voter suppression to go along with fear and you’ve sadly got the makings of a successful re-election, albeit at the cost of putting our democracy in a coma.
Or maybe not: at this point, Frank is so unpopular and his actions are becoming so brazen that it feels as if the First Couple in Crime are finally teetering on the edge of disaster. But they’ve got just enough weapons in their arsenal to temporarily stall their march toward defeat — all while throwing the American system of government into the deepest, darkest chaos it’s ever had to withstand. Meanwhile, ghosts from the past continue to circle the Underwoods as well, and the show draws its primary vein of suspense — and believe me, it’s hard to stop watching once it gets going — from wondering how long they can keep their high-wire act going.
The show is at its best when it barrels along at its nuttiest, but even over the course of the season’s first half things start to get repetitive or feel unnecessary. Several episodes feature meetings with members of Congress — with Frank or Will doing their best to cajole their votes after the election gets thrown to the House, sort of — that begin to have a sameness to them. Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) remains so creepy that it’s hard to believe anyone would sleep with him, but we’re still seeing him pursue his obsessive affair with the widow of the man who Frank replaced last year on the liver transplant list (I had to look that up to remind myself who she was). Perhaps the worst subplot of all is Claire’s continued dalliance with official Underwood biographer/speechwriter Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), a dull wallflower who starts acting like a near-crybaby when the First Lady can’t spend enough time being his girlfriend (he actually asks her if that’s what she is at one point). Yates just doesn’t seem either smart or alpha enough to keep Claire interested, and the relationship seems beneath her.
Speaking of Claire, Wright once again proves herself the show’s MVP and continues to create its most fascinating character. As loyal as she seems to be to Frank and to their continued stay together in the White House, uncertainty is slowly oozing up from the foundations of whatever their relationship really is: could Claire eventually abandon Frank and move forward with ambitions of her own? Signs seem to point in that direction, but Wright brilliantly plays it as restrained and enigmatic as she has since the series started. She makes an effective counterpoint to Spacey, who’s thrown caution to the wind and hurled huge chunks of ham at the screen with it, preening and bellowing as outrageously as Frank does when he threatens and harasses every elected official within reach of his monstrous, grasping ego.
Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson are nice additions to the cast, while Kelly, Neve Campbell (campaign manager LeAnn Harvey), Jayne Atkinson (Secretary of State Durant) and Boris McGiver (crusading reporter Tom Hammerschmidt — yes, another reporter named Tom) all continue to turn in strong supporting performances. Kinnaman is good as an increasingly frazzled Conway, although one wishes that he could have been the one character with either the fortitude or personal decency to provide a true foil to the Underwoods. Everyone on this show is either cynical, scheming, outright evil or too weak to do anything about any of it — surely somebody in government has to be on our side, right?
I’m not sure if I want to know the answer to that.
House of Cards Season 5 is streaming now on Netflix.