The Death of the Age of Reason: House of Cards — Season Five
Spoilers for the entire fifth season of House of Cards follow.
House of Cards’ fourth season premiered three months before Donald Trump became the Republican presidential candidate. We were living in a different world back then, a quaint time when political theatre hadn’t yet become the full-on nightmare freak show it is now. Through four seasons, we saw the power couple Frank and Claire Underwood lie, cheat, steal, and kill their way to the top of the political heap. Frank became the president and Claire became the vice-presidential candidate on the same ticket as her husband. At the end of season four, in order to influence the election narrative, and to maintain control over the American people, they used fear as a political weapon. They targeted the terrorist group ICO — a stand-in for ISIS — and the fourth season ends with both Underwoods looking directly into the camera, making it clear they don’t submit to terror, they make the terror.
House of Cards creator Beau Willimon left the show after four seasons and a full deck of 52 episodes. The playwright and The Ides of March screenwriter set the show up like Macbeth in Washington D.C., with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright perfectly cast as the two leads. Season four featured some of the show’s finer moments, from Frank coming close to death by way of an assassination attempt to Claire taking her place politically by Frank’s side as the VP candidate. Yet, the season ended with a frustrating cliffhanger — the show’s own 2016 election hung in the balance, as the Underwood/Underwood ticket fought to keep power. Moving into season five, the show, overall, managed to keep the Shakespearian scope of the series alive, but Willimon’s presence is felt in the smaller moments we share with both Frank and Claire.
Back in 2016, it was far-fetched to think real life would out due the outlandish plotlines of House of Cards. But now, politics have quickly caught up with this high-stakes, political melodrama. What can the show possibly do that wouldn’t make it seem tame in comparison to what we see in the news just about every day? Season five has the sensationalized plotlines we've seen previous, while also lining up with the very real state of politics today.
The election plotline takes over a majority of season five — the Republican nominee for president, Will Convoy (Joel Kinnaman) never really becomes a major threat for Frank and Claire, though, which has been a problem with the show from the beginning, few characters are equal to Frank (we'll talk more about that later). Early in the season, the presidential election ends with certain states’ electoral votes called into question, all thanks to Frank and Claire’s meddling using orchestrated faux terrorism threats. The government grinds to halt as Constitutional Law comes into play — the Senate has the power to select the president and vice president. Early on, we see more reactions rather than action — the “action” was something that House of Cards did best. An all-important congressional vote is done behind closed doors with the result spurted out to Frank afterward. In season one, a crucial vote by Congress is handled as a thrilling, down-to-the-wire event. It becomes standard for season five to not be “in the mix” during crucial moments, which might be conscious decision, considering how the season ends. But, in all, characters talking about certain events that happen off-screen is not as thrilling as actually seeing these events played out on screen, especially when this season’s congressional vote leads to Claire becoming the interim president of the United States.
Season five is about Frank and Claire expanding their grasp. With Frank as the president, how much higher can he go? Here’s where we could’ve used Willimon’s signature writing. Frank’s masterplan feels more convoluted and less thought out than any other of his previous masterplans. The show could’ve benefited from more thorough Frank-breaking-the-fourth-wall moments. Not to say this season doesn’t feature some really good Frank monologues, but Frank’s decision to resign as president in the penultimate episode feels like it comes out of nowhere, and not in a way that falls in line with the smarter grand moves we’ve seen in the past. By the end of the season, though, the position in which we see Frank is actually one of the better cliffhangers we’ve seen on the show.
After the Underwoods win the second election — set up as to avoid another round of congressional voting that would select the POTUS and VP — they enter the season’s best arc. The walls start to close in as Frank’s past dealings with China come to light. Reporter Tom Hammerschmidt is continuing his investigation into Frank. He digs through Zoe Barnes' old notes and starts to piece together that Frank had something to do with her death (remember that season two train platform push?). Meanwhile, investigatory committees are set up, and people start testifying to whether Frank was involved with a back channel of money from China (remember Frank’s dealings with China from season two?). It’s hard not to think of today’s real-life political climate when the final stretch of episodes deals with congressional hearings and testimonies, White House leaks, a rigged election, and a president with no moral center. As Hammerschmidt says of Frank at the tail end of the season, “He has no ideology. No North Star.” It's thrilling to see a Watergate-like scandal play out like it does here.
The fifth season was filmed between July 2016 and February 2017, with the election of Trump occurring right around the middle of production. The show has never been this timely in addressing political news. Talks of impeachment linger here as evidence of Frank’s dealings mount. Even with the Underwoods as the leads of the show, it feels cathartic to see them falter. Former President Walker delivers a nail-in-the-coffin testimony that shakes Frank, and facing an inevitable impeachment process, Frank resigns. At its best, House of Cards both embraces its melodrama and becomes a roadmap to taking down a president, invoking Nixon and Trump all in one. It’s certainly strange how we got here.
Sure, Frank’s plan is a stretch. He was behind leak that gave Hammerschmidt information that eventually lead to pressure to resign. He kept this all from Claire, who is now the president of the United States. Why? Well, Frank thinks there’s a level above the presidency — a position that can work in concert with President Claire Underwood's administration. He thinks they are trapped inside the White House, he wants the “action” rather than staying behind closed doors. Claire’s character stumbles in season five — she falls in love with Tom Yates and has to kill him because he knows too damn much. But, in the final episode of the season, she is told by Frank that she must pardon him because he’s still under investigation and instead of listening to him, she makes the final move. She turns down his request and, in the final moment of the season, she looks directly into camera and says, “My turn.”
Frank has dodged and taken down every single adversary that has come his way, and because of his underestimation of Claire, it would seem like he’s finally going to pay for his past indiscretions. It feels like Frank may have met his match, finally. In its fifth season, House of Cards pulls off the seemingly impossible, being relevant in a time when politics is playing out like its own form of (unhealthy) entertainment. This season sees the end of one presidency and the beginning of another, as a woman becomes the most powerful person in the world. House of Cards is pure fantasy and in this day and age, unfortunately, it’s the kind of fantasy we need and would trade for reality.