Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson open up about the elections, deaths, and more
WARNING: This post contains spoilers for season 5 of House of Cards.
And with that badass, breaking-of-the-fourth-wall sign-off from new President Claire Underwood (you read that right), House of Cards wrapped up its fifth season, which somehow managed to feature the series’ most WTF moments to date.
Let’s recap: Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) stole the election; they convinced the overly dedicated Doug (Michael Kelly) to falsely confess to killing Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara); Frank pushed Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson) down the stairs, putting her in a coma; LeAnn (Neve Campbell) was set up to be killed by Frank; Claire poisoned Tom (Paul Sparks), who died as they had sex; and most shockingly, Frank resigned, leaving Claire as the new president.
You get all that? With so much to discuss, EW talked with executive producers Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson, who this season took over for creator Beau Willimon as co-showrunners. The duo weighed in on the many twists and turns, as well as teasing a potential season 6.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First season in charge, and you guys didn’t hold back. Were you purposefully trying to put your stamp on the show, or is this just how the story unfolded as you were writing?
MELISSA JAMES GIBSON: Season 4 ended with the Underwoods on the edge of fermenting chaos and fear, so we needed to pick that up and pay it off. Since we ended on such a pitch, we really felt like there was a lot we owed. So in trying to explore that, for us, we particularly dug into moving the battlefield into the American psyche, basically, having the fear and chaos play out in the imagination of the American people. That was the engine behind where the story went.
FRANK PUGLIESE: We had conversations about how to approach some of the promises made in previous seasons. We’ve been around since season 3, and it’s coming into season 5, so there’s a trajectory, and there’s some stories laid out that we’re responsible to, and there’s some expectations that we had to match. In a way, season 5 is the culmination of a lot of story lines crashing into each other. So for us, it was an amazing opportunity and a great moment to be able to take over the show. But to what Melissa’s mentioning, an example is the promise of terror and the idea of how to approach that. We came up with, “What would it be like to have a politician who takes advantage of it and manipulates it and plays it out in the imagination of the voter?”
GIBSON: So if the American psyche becomes the real battlefield, that notion was terrifying. Frankly, I feel like we’re all living it a bit right now.
At what point did you decide to end the season with Claire as president? And what excited you most about going in that direction?
PUGLIESE: The show at its core is about a marriage. It’s about this relationship, so no matter what, over the years, it’s something the show has always explored — the nature and evolving nature of their marriage.
GIBSON: The shifting dynamics of that power relationship. And it felt like we were building to a place where we had to pay that off and circumstances led her to lay down that claim.
PUGLIESE: One of the themes of the season is her relationship to her own ambition. I think there’s something about her finally embracing her ambition and wanting to be different from Francis and equal to Francis. If you look at the season and how that plays out is in the relationship to the direct address to the camera or both of their relationships to the audience. I know something we wanted to explore was how that changed in regards to Francis and his needs, but also, how she emerges and how she speaks to us. Hopefully, by the end, you see that they’re different, but equals.
GIBSON: Because she’s not the clear victor in that. He has played a role in placing her there and defined a new power beyond the power. So she gets to 10, and he all of a sudden says there’s an 11 [laughs].
Let’s talk about Frank. His resignation might have been the biggest shocker of the season, considering all he’s done to get there. In a good way, I feel like it’s hard to tell if he really believes in this plan or if he’s just scrambling. What went into his decision and how should we read it?
PUGLIESE: I think we can leave that up to the audience to decide if it was a grand plan or if it’s a plan in the moment. It’s Francis’ nature to sort of stave off threats, but to also create chaos with the ability to take advantage of it. The thing that was great is that the show has always been a bit of a meditation about power. So maybe it’s convenient, maybe it’s part of a bigger plan, maybe it’s an opportunity that presented itself to Francis, but he starts to realize, like Melissa said, the power behind the power. In a sense, the show pivots a bit, because it’s not about who’s in the White House, but who ends up owning the White House. So he winds up finding a bigger ambition, in a way, for himself.
GIBSON: Francis, by nature, is always a few steps ahead of the game, but at the same time, he’s a master improviser. And I think both of those skills were called upon.
PUGLIESE: And there’s something about his character starting in season 1, he’s really more powerful and threatening behind the scenes as an insider. It’s a place he’s more comfortable with and is actually in a sense more powerful at. So there was something great about him deciding to go back there with a bigger prize in mind.
So is that the role you see for him next season?
PUGLIESE: I think what’s next for him is probably a question for everyone, which is where does the real power lie when it comes to American politics? So it seems like there’s a really fun and dynamic opportunity at play with that question.
GIBSON: He lays it out in his pitch to her: This way, we’re going to be able to control all of it, from the outside and the inside. That’s his vision of it, and what she will be willing or not willing to do in that regard will be one of the questions we will dig into.
PUGLIESE: I don’t think he’s ever going to let go of his relationship with the White House… it’s something he wants his hands on. What that looks like and what that’s like is going to be an interesting question for the show.
We’ve seen so many ebbs and flows in their marriage, but with Claire now in power and having not pardoned Frank, what will that do to the relationship moving forward?
PUGLIESE: There’s a sense here where they both need each other symbiotically, but they also turn out to be each other’s biggest antagonist in a way. There’s something about if your biggest antagonist is the person you actually also need most that gives us a pretty exciting path to follow.
GIBSON: But either way, their destinies are inextricably entwined. That’s the premise of the show, and they are just wrestling with that relationship.
Let’s step back before his resignation. With the election, inadvertently, you had some real-world similarities, even though the season was in motion before then. How did you decide this is how you wanted to play out the election, particularly with stretching it out so long?
GIBSON: We really wanted to explore pushing at the seams of democracy. What would happen if all three branches of government are basically pulled into the chaos of the Underwoods’ making? What will democracy be able to sustain? There was a little bit of real-world echo.
PUGLIESE: What we like to do on the show is explore what’s possible. We want to always root it in what’s possible, so to take it to this extreme, we had the idea of “What if someone tried to steal an election or change the results and put the electoral college into question?” And from that point on, it was like, well, once you do that, you sort of create a governmental and constitutional crisis, so there’s a ripple effect there that seemed like great story and something to play with. Part of that was all about exploring stuff that was possible and in the air that people had been talking about for a few years, which is how you might be able to hack or manipulate an election.
It was a rough year to be an Underwood employee, whether it be Doug, Seth, LeAnn, or Tom. Although, that’s nothing new.
GIBSON: [Laughs] It’s a dangerous job.
Let’s start with Tom. Obviously, we’ve seen Frank get his hands dirty, and while Claire is certainly aware of his actions, this was the first time we’ve seen her go to this level. After building up the relationship between her and Tom throughout the season, why did it culminate in the way it did?
GIBSON: Well, as you know from watching the show, often times, anyone in the Underwood world has to make a choice between their ambition and their humanity. And that was ultimately what Claire had to face. Is it possible to have a real human love relationship in the context of what she needed to accomplish? For a number of real reasons, but also emotional reasons, the answer was no.
PUGLIESE: It also falls into line with her coming to terms with her ambitions and what she’s capable of. So part of that trajectory was doing something like this. She makes a pretty profound choice when she does this, and it has a lot to do with the person we end up seeing at the end of the season.
GIBSON: It’s the ultimate price to pay. There isn’t anyone else who it would have been more costly for her to have this happen with. Now, her hands are as dirty as Francis’.
PUGLIESE: And with some of the other characters you mentioned, it’s season 5, and there have always been these Machiavellian aspects of the court, like who is positioning themselves closer to Francis and Claire and the price they pay for it. But, there is stuff like with LeAnn and other characters that have been going on for seasons, so there’s definitely some season 5 storytelling where prices have to be paid.
GIBSON: To be a character on House of Cards, you’re basically always fighting for your life [laughs].
We asked Neve if it’s possible LeAnn survived since we didn’t see her body. She wasn’t sure how to answer that. What would you say to that theory?
PUGLIESE: We are just starting to talk about the next season.
GIBSON: All will be revealed in due time.
PUGLIESE: It’s part of TV writing to have really exciting options…
GIBSON: And to back yourself into a corner.
And as the Underwoods would say, “Poor Doug.” He survives the season, but he’s agreed to take the fall for Zoe’s murder. He’s already done and had so much done to him for the Underwoods; did you consider having him reject this plan? Or is he too committed to them at this point?
PUGLIESE: I think what Melissa said is perfect: You want to back your characters and story into a corner and see what happens. I’ll just say this, some of the stuff you’re talking about is not so absolute when it comes to Doug. He is now in a corner, and we will see what he does to get out of it.
GIBSON: And Doug is always navigating being punished, punishing himself. For the last couple seasons, he has been really grappling with his own humanity, what he deserves, what he should fight for, and where his loyalty should lie. And you’re right, he’s the most loyal soldier on the show.
PUGLIESE: It’s Underwoodian in a way that Doug is haunted by what he’s done, and it’s exactly that haunting that Francis and Claire take advantage of. What he does with that, if he realizes that, and what he does with the realization is a good opportunity for the show coming up.
Was it important to you for Zoe’s death to still be such a big factor, considering how important Zoe originally was to the show? It was one of the big original sins.
GIBSON: Any interesting show has a really good memory. You’re right, that was a major inciting incident, and I think one of the questions we were trying to explore this season is these young women aren’t disposable, she doesn’t just go away with no repercussions for anyone. So yes, as storytellers, it felt important to explore that.
PUGLIESE: And I don’t think Francis should get away with it so easily.
The fifth season of House of Cards is now streaming on Netflix.