Kevin Spacey charges into the fifth season of House of Cards acting like Frank Underwood’s darkly comic knuckle-rapping ruthlessness isn’t a tired joke, that the spectacle of a transparently corrupt president striving for power by any sinister means necessary — making a mockery of truth, justice, and America in the process — might mean something. Whether Frank is railing against enemies who dare to investigate his undeniable murk, or pushing along a conspiracy to steal an election by manipulating fears of terrorism or executing voter suppression schemes, Spacey seems invigorated by the material, and perhaps, our moment. He’s certainly buffed and honed Frank to a shine while grounding it, scuffing it, by playing to mortality and age. He’s an All-Star Survivor, but a gray one. So Richard Hatch. His extracurricular work as an E-Trade spokesman actually enhances his impish performance. Actor and part are now blurring, turning House of Cards into a political satire that can be seen as an allegory for other shady American cultures and degrading powers. Frank is now so innately meta, he doesn’t need to make asides to the camera to generate winky effects. He’s transcended the gimmick — Trumped it, if you will.
As Claire Underwood, Frank’s model-perfect femme fatale first lady, Robin Wright is equally possessed and slow burns her way through the season toward going full diabolique and flaming on with enlightened Frankness. The season keeps finding ways – a visual; a plot – to suggest Claire and Frank are one and the same or becoming so; this is their Persona year. Claire’s been stealing this thing for a while now, and her arc this season basically converts this perception into literal plot, culminating with game-changers that expand the thematic possibilities.
Together, Spacey and Wright power a microwave year of House of Cards that reheats our interest for the franchise. The whole point of the story seems to be about capturing our imagination for more story. There’s a dynamite scene when these cornered, weather-beaten scorpions vow to apply all of their seductive, stinging powers to swipe victory from the jaws of seemingly certain defeat, and more, keep American “one nation Underwood” (wah-wah!) for the next 14 years and occupy the White House for the rest of their lives. It’s a funny-chilly thought that amuses and discomfits: you want what they want because they’re so damn entertaining, but you feel terrible because of the evil they represent. They’re Bizarro versions of Hamilton’s future makers and culture changers singing of being young, scrappy, and hungry. The middle-aged, establishment Underwoods – dark side incarnations of that same striving as well as an embodiment of The Man – sneer back as those punk burrs: Go ahead, take your shot.
Sure, go look for Trump in House of Cards. You’ll see him if you squint and especially if your worldview is as steel blue as the David Fincher-minted visual tint. Yet Frank is much too competent to be a Doppelgänger Trump. That’s part of Frank’s wish-fulfillment pleasure, then and now. Where once Frank offered catharsis for gridlock government – he may have been despicable, but dude got stuff done – now he assuages our yearning for mere dysfunctional functionality. Trump wishes he was Frank. Frank is his metaphysical, Platonic ideal.
Now, more than ever, House of Cards takes place in its own generic-mythic America and within its increasingly unique alt-history, and sands off the political ideologies of its characters to focus on the timeless, accessible themes of power. (We remember that that House of Cards is engineered to be an international product. Its spiritual portrait of Ugly Americanism reminds me of The Young Pope, and how I’d love to see those programs do a crossover episode.) If season 5 resonates, it’s because our world has bent toward the show’s fiction, not versa. And if House of Cards trolls anyone, it trolls those of us who view Washington drama as guilty pleasure reality TV or an anti-hero crime serial with some hideous male you love to hate. You know you wanted this, it says, and now you have it.
Personally, I’ve always enjoyed House of Cards as absurd — and absurdly tony — poli-sci soap opera. Season 5 works hard to deliver, thanks to an eager-to-please new creative administration. Creator Beau Willimon stepped down after four years in office. Replacing him is the team of Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese, scribes since season 3, and they launch their term by playing to the base, with tried and true policies amped to the max. They focus narrowly on key assets (Frank and Claire), core themes (power and marriage), and riotous sensationalism (sex and murder). Unlike last season, which started with Frank and Claire apart and coming together, season 5 returns to the pattern of starting them as partners and then challenging their alliance, but with grander stakes, bigger shocks, and more meaningful betrayals. (One example: Claire’s ongoing, Frank-sanctioned affair with journalist-turned-speechwriter Thomas Yates, played by Paul Sparks, a story line that reaches a psycho climax.) And the writers do themselves the favor of telling an election story, a ready-made suspense narrative – and then contrive a way to tell it again, in a different form.
Picking up where season 4 left off, the first several episodes play out the final days of the presidential contest between the Democrat ticket, Frank & Claire, and the Republican challenger, New York governor Will Conway (The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman), a handsome war hero whose mad social media savvy, attractive Irish wife (Dominique McElligott), and promise of reform have made him massively appealing. I guess it would be wrong to tell you what happens on Election Day or how it sets up the next section of the season. But it begins in episode 5 with a prologue that plays like a Schoolhouse Rock civics lesson played like one of Spacey’s E-Trade commercials, sending Full Meta Frank on a quickly cut tour of different Washington D.C. presidential memorials, narrating bylaws and contingencies of election procedure. The writing then plays out the scenario in its world to the extreme, making the season a cousin to Designated Survivor, ABC’s post-apocalyptic West Wing serial (it’s the spiritual antithesis to House of Cards), which extrapolated Capitol arcana into potboiler What If?
The early emphasis on Underwood vs. Conway puts some key supporting characters on the margins, including Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Frank’s loyal but tortured Mr. Fix-It, Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil), the beleaguered yet sly press secretary, and last season’s newcomer LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell), the Underwoods’ conniving campaign consultant. But they all come on strong in the second half, offering familiar pleasures, seasoned with a shocker or two. The season brings two new characters into the fold: Campbell Scott’s Mark Usher, a cunning political operative aligned with the Conways, and Patricia Clarkson’s Jane Davis, a savvy, career under-secretary aligned with the Underwoods, and one of them in particular. I see the reactions to these characters are mixed; I found them to be spark plugs for a sparky season.
In telling an increasingly engrossing, constantly evolving story about a wild election that pits stability against change, age versus youth, House of Cards spins a yarn that’s as much about its own durability and surprising dynamism than anything else. As such, the season repositions House of Cards into a franchise that might be able to speak to any number of cultural narratives — generational conflict, gender inequality, the business of showbiz, and House of Cards itself.
There’s an inspired sequence that captures this transfiguration. It finds Frank and Claire in the White House screening room on election day, watching the film noir classic Double Indemnity, waiting on updates about the renewal/cancellation deliberations that will determine whether they’re granted a new season or replaced by younger, hotter talents. This is the Underwood’s election day ritual, actually, and at certain points, they act out the scenes from the film, with Frank playing the Fred MacMurray part and Claire playing that of Barbara Stanwyck, reciting lines word for word, mimicking the tone. Frank is hot to play this game, and Claire indulges. Yet as the complexities and tensions of the present begin to subvert the nostalgia, she tries to pull away, but he insists they persist, and their make-believe begins to take on darker shades.
The scene is shot so that Frank and Claire stand in front of the screen, their bodies lit up by the projector, the images of the film super-imposed on them. It’s a nutty bit of business that’s a brilliant thing unto itself, illuminating their history, relationship, and characters, and foreshadowing many twists of the season, Claire in particular; the spectacle of her both conforming to the femme fatale image and resisting the frame sums up her conflict and arc. The scene nudges us to see them as actors who played parts to get ahead, then became trapped in them, denying them different, more nourishing riches, Frank in particular; the new season hits hard a key idea of his corrupt, closeted character, that he’s sold out his humanity, his sexuality, and much more to win the part of Most Powerful Man In The World. But the white heat of that projector beam burns away Frank and Claire altogether, making us see them as actors, as Spacey and Wright, and the Hollywood narrative they represent: accomplished, talented Hollywood vets, who have made the transition from film to TV, from big screen to small, and have found new success at an exciting time, and more importantly, steady, ongoing work at middle age, a perilous career passage for any actor who aspires to be a Hollywood lifer. All good things do come to an end, and all bad things deserve to be canceled. Or impeached. But this year, House of Cards glows with wicked fun thanks to its blazing stars, and earns my vote for another year.
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