Now in its fifth season, the Netflix original series ‘House of Cards’ increasingly feels like a show that’s running out of gas. The difference between this series and others in a similar situation is that the creators seem to know it. Season 5 is a mad rush to throw everything it possibly can at the screen to engage viewers.
This leads to some preposterous plotting, but I can’t say I was ever bored watching these episodes. In fact, most of the time, I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
When we last saw Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), he and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), were in the middle of a Presidential campaign against Republican opponent Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). Lest anyone forget what Season 4 brought us, Claire is Frank’s running mate and the Vice Presidential candidate – a fact that will lead to all kinds of different scenarios for the character as this new season unfolds.
The election takes place a few episodes into Season 5, and – thanks largely to Frank’s manipulation of voter turnout – ends with a couple of states having to stop the voting, not having an electoral winner. This results in neither Underwood nor Conway receiving the required 270 electoral votes needed and also meaning that the House of Representatives will pick the President. As you might imagine, this leads to all kinds of wheeling and dealing between Frank and members of Congress to get the needed votes. The Senate, on the other hand, votes for the Vice President, and here they vote before the House does, resulting in Claire winning. Since the January 20th date of swearing in the new President has passed and the House has delayed its vote for a new President, Claire becomes the acting President of the United States. Her new duties are extended when it’s decided that the House won’t vote at all, but instead one of the states where the voting was halted – Ohio – will get to vote again, with enough electoral votes in the balance to decide the Presidency.
It probably goes without saying that Frank emerges victorious and reclaims the White House. (What, did you think they were going to have him lose? Although, granted, that might have made for an interesting season.) The one thing I don’t like about how it unfolds is that the writers manage to turn Conway into a character as almost as unlikeable as Frank in the process. It seems as if in the world of ‘House of Cards’, no politician isn’t trying to cover something up, and it’s kind of a shame that the Conway character (and, yes, Kinnaman himself) winds up getting unceremoniously dropped from the series at the midway point of Season 5. So much more could have been done with the character.
No sooner has Frank started his first elected term as President (remember, he never was actually elected before now) than an investigation is launched into illegal activities he committed previously. Things are serious enough that impeachment talk is in the air and the outcome of this new plotline (which I won’t spoil here) leads to a rather predictable outcome/cliffhanger for the season finale. The reasons the show uses for getting there – particularly Frank’s justification for the actions that he takes – seem very much like a jump-the-shark” moment for the series. Where it goes from this point, I have no idea, but I don’t think the direction the show has decided to take with the characters is one that’s going to be all that much fun. The show-runners have written themselves into corner this season, and the only way out might be to get even crazier with storylines than these 13 episodes.
As for the supporting cast, most of the fan favorites are back, though a few actors (most notably Mahershala Ali and Molly Parker, who played Remy Danton and Jackie Sharp, respectively) are no longer with the series. The most interesting supporting character is Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), the eternally loyal Chief of Staff whose past demons continue to haunt him – and deservedly so. Other notable characters that return this year are Paul Sparks as Tom Yates, the novelist who’s also having an ongoing affair with Claire (which Frank knows about and approves), and Neve Campbell as Leann Harvey, who works as a consultant for Claire. Then there’s Boris McGiver as The Washington Herald‘s Tom Hammerschmidt – a character who’s been around since Episode 1 of this show. He continues to investigate the death of reporter Zoe Barnes (who fans know – or should know if they’ve seen every season – was killed by Frank Underwood) and finds himself close to finally cracking the case.
The two most significant new faces this season belong to actors Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson. Scott plays Mark Usher, a political strategist helping Conway with his campaign, until he switches teams and starts helping the Underwoods. Truth be told, Usher is most interested in helping himself, and given where his character is in the final episode this season, he may be plotting to get the Underwoods out of power and get himself into the Oval Office. Clarkson plays Jane Davis, whose background and motives are much more mysterious than Usher’s. Viewers learn that the two have a history together. (They seem to have been a couple at one point, but the show is rather vague about how they know each other.) It’s very hard to figure out if Davis is supposed to be good or bad, but it’s very clear that she tries to manipulate people – particularly the Underwoods – to meet her own ends. I suspect there may be a Mark/Jane vs. Frank/Claire showdown come Season 6, but we’ll just have to wait and see. (As of this writing, Netflix has not confirmed a Season 6, but the streaming service has been busy cancelling a lot of other middling shows, perhaps to pay for a few more seasons of this one).
I’d like to say that Season 5 of ‘House of Cards’ goes way beyond the realm of believability, but given the things we’ve witnessed in real-life national politics over the past year, it’s hard to make that claim. These episodes are pretty far-fetched when compared with the four seasons that preceded them, but the great acting work will keep viewers engaged and anxious to see what comes next.
The biggest issue – as mentioned above and without giving away the events of this season’s finale – is the question of where the writers can take these characters from this point forward. Is there anything left for them to do? Is there anything left for them to achieve? You know the old saying, when you reach the top, there’s no place to go but down. I think that may be the direction – both for the characters and for the series itself – that ‘House of Cards’ is heading.