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.