via AVClub

by Drew Howerton, senior executive editor

Warning: this review contains some spoilers for the fifth season of House of Cards

At the end of House of Cards fourth season, the Underwoods have nearly consolidated their power. Frank and Claire have been renominated by the Democrats as President and Vice President, respectively. Frank, by refusing to negotiate with terrorists, has undermined his Republican opponent Will Conway and put himself in a position of strength. As Frank and Claire look directly into the camera, we know that united, they are a force to be reckoned with.  

But by the beginning of the fifth season, things begin to look bleak for the Underwoods. Frank’s adamant refusal to negotiate with terrorists has left a father dead, beheaded by a radicalized teenager who has sworn allegiance to ICO (The Islamic Caliphate organization, a thinly veiled ISIS stand-in.). To distract from the issue, Frank demands that Congress declare war on ICO. At the father’s funeral, Frank is ridiculed and condemned by a grieving family; a reminder to him that he was not elected by the public and is largely unpopular. “I hope you die and she becomes president,” the daughter whispers to Frank. Frank, hoping to overcome this humiliation and look tough on terror, launches a widespread and painstakingly long manhunt to find the radicalized teen. However, while the Underwoods are waging war on domestic terrorism, they are fighting another war with their opponent, Republican presidential candidate Will Conway, who has made gains in the polls by questioning Underwood’s ethics and calling for investigations into the president. 

As the election looms ever closer, Frank issues an executive order that increases the amount of troops in cities and limits the number of polling places. Done under the guise of public safety, this is actually meant to discourage Republican voters from casting votes for Conway. Chief of Staff Doug Stamper forces freelance hacker Aidan Macallan to launch a cyberattack on the NSA, which is blamed on ICO in order to instill fear in the public. On the long-awaited election day, Frank and Claire learn that they are down in the polls by a wide margin. The Underwoods and their minions fake a terrorist attack at a polling place, which closes voting for the day and halts the election, meaning neither Underwood nor Conway is elected president. Nine weeks pass, and the Twelfth Amendment is eventually invoked, meaning the presidential election is decided by the House, and the vice presidential election is decided by the Senate. Frank and Conway tie in the house, and Claire is easily elected vice president, becoming Acting President of the country while Washington grinds to a halt. It is this election that sets the stage for the rest of the season’s descent into chaos.

The turmoil of season five is a mix of commentary on modern politics and a delightful escapist view onto the inner workings of our government. The corrupt election in the show mirrors fears that the 2016 presidential election was influenced by outside parties (and interestingly enough, the election in House of Cards also takes place in 2016). However, all resemblance to real life goes out the window when the election must be decided by the House and Senate, which has only happened once in the nation’s history (that election was in 1824, between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, who coincidentally enough, was a Frank Underwood-like individual). The contested and confusing election is an interesting addition to a show set in a modern Washington, serving as a ‘what if?’ situation in an era of otherwise mundane and sometimes unremarkable elections. 

Once again, Kevin Spacey’s performance as Frank Underwood steals the show. Frank schemes and blackmails, desperate to grasp onto his power as his approval ratings plummet and even his closest allies admit defeat. Frank’s Declaration of War Committee, created to discuss his demand for war against ICO, has instead taken to investigating his abuses of power, including his corrupt deals with China and his scheme to remove former President Garrett Walker from office in order to ascend to the Oval Office himself. Frank is also threatened by Tom Hammerschmidt, the editor of the Washington Herald who is investigating Frank’s connection to the death of political reporter Zoe Barnes. Spacey’s Frank becomes unhinged and paranoid as his power begins to crumble. Even when Frank later becomes president with Claire by his side, the damage to his administration and image are irreparable, leaving Frank vicious and bleak as he delivers lines such as “You do the same thing every day until you are dead.” Spacey depicts a man desperate to cling to what power he has, casting Frank as a man who is in denial of his own strength.

However, Frank is pushed to the side by his wife, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). As Frank’s many schemes crumble around him, and Hammerschmidt and the Declaration of War Committee closing in, Frank is forced to resign from the office in a Nixon-like turn of events, elevating Claire to the presidency in a stunning turnaround that surprises even Claire herself. Claire has some really great character development in this season, especially considering that she has been largely a pawn in all of Frank’s plans despite their shared hunger for power. After her failed stint as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and her time spent in Frank’s shadow, Claire commands real power as she gathers allies of her own, and it’s awesome to watch her character finally have potential. Probably her most powerful moment is at the end of the season. Frank has forced Claire into a corner, telling her that if she will not issue a pardon for his crimes, he will reverse his decision to resign the presidency and deny her the power she wants. Claire accepts and tells him that she will pardon him, but in a speech delivered after the killing of an ICO leader, Claire does not issue Frank’s pardon, infuriating him as he calls her over and over. Hanging up the phone, Claire looks into the camera and breaks the fourth wall, telling the viewers, “My turn.” My only problem with Claire’s development is that it happens over the course of an episode and a half. Claire’s ascent to the presidency is kind of rushed and feels kind of lame, because when she finally gets to be a real commanding character, it’s done in a lazy and kind of ridiculous fashion. 

While Frank and Claire deliver impressive performances throughout the season, other characters come into their own on a case-by-case basis. LeAnn Harvey, a campaign manager with her sights set on the role of Chief of Staff, has a very wonderful and emotional arc with Aidan Macallan as he flees the country after helping the Underwoods commit election fraud. LeAnn also hits it off with Doug, the current Chief of Staff, as they both navigate the damage that the Underwoods have done to their lives. However, other secondary characters don’t get this attention. Press secretary Seth Grayson gets some great moments where he schemes to take down Doug and Frank in order to secure a role in Claire’s incoming administration, but Seth takes a backseat after Claire is sworn in. He is left out of the loop and eventually ousted in favor of somebody more seasoned, and it is implied that he’s pretty much done. Seth was one of my favorite characters and it made me really happy that he was finally scheming on his own. Instead, he becomes deadweight and it is implied that he won’t be coming back. After all, the Underwoods don’t give second chances. At least Seth gets to have some fun on his own. Will Conway,  the Republican rising star and presidential hopeful, basically disappears over the course of an episode and is never given any closure. Frank becomes the president in a pretty corrupt way, and instead of vowing to take down Frank, Will is never heard from again in the season despite supposedly being his fiercest critic. 

Newcomer characters to the season are also a big problem for me. They show up at random with backstories that are told instead of shown and their development is carelessly rushed. Will Conway hires Mark Usher, a seasoned campaign strategist, to help win the election, and Usher instead plays Conway, becoming a vital ally to the Underwoods. Except, he just sort of shows up, and only tiny bits of exposition reveal that he was hired in the first place. I like Mark, because it turns out that he’s playing Frank too in order to have a role in Claire’s administration, but it doesn’t make any sense that this character who is supposedly an expert campaign strategist but provides no proof just shows up and is suddenly one of Frank’s closest allies. The Underwoods have built a reputation as people with a very small circle of confidants, but instead they gain the trust of a brand new character over the course of a season. Another newcomer is Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson), the Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade and a shady individual with lots of contacts in the Middle East and all over the world. Just like Mark Usher, Jane quickly becomes an ally to the Underwoods despite coming out of nowhere. Why didn’t she lend her services to the Underwoods in season two or three? Why wait until now to help the Underwoods, when she says herself that she’s been in Washington for a long time? Oh, and not to mention that she has a vague history with Mark Usher, which is also told instead of shown. Sean Jeffries (Korey Jackson), a Washington Herald reporter, probably has the worst development of all the new characters. A style reporter who is brought on to investigate Frank Underwood, Sean instead feeds information to Seth Grayson in hopes of getting inside the White House. But in a matter of episodes, Sean goes from a nobody reporter to becoming the Deputy Press Secretary without any explanation. While all of these new characters add interest to the show, their backstories aren’t really explored and their development is rushed in order to put them in place for the next season, making them feel annoying instead.

As mentioned a bit earlier, season five has interesting parallels to real life politics, despite being filmed in early 2016; a hotly contested election, a president with low approval ratings who is under constant investigation, conflict in Syria and tension with Russia all closely mirror actual events of this year, and while unintentional, it’s all a bit eerie. At times, it feels heavy handed and obnoxious, like the show is trying to mock the current state of politics, and I had to remind myself that when the show was filmed, none of these events had happened in real life. Claire, with the help of Mark and Jane, successfully takes down the leader of ICO in a series of events that closely resembles the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 down to the cinematography of the show. However, House of Cards puts its own spin on all of these events, asking the question: does life imitate art, or does art imitate life?

Overall, House of Cards fifth season manages to deliver some of the best political drama of the entire series. It has been a really long time since a TV show really has made me gasp or yell at the screen in confusion or rage, but the twists and turns of House of Cards manages to take me on a roller coaster of chaos and confusion. It’s too soon to tell, but from the events of this season, I’m assuming that the show is going to wrap up after the next season. If that’s so, season five could very well just be the peak of the show. 

Season five of House of Cards is now streaming on Netflix