House Of Cards has never existed in a bubble. There have always been glances at real-world politics, such as the very Putin-y Russian president Petrov or the terror network ICO, which is just ISIS with different letters. It’s often just served as a more absurdist version of what’s happening today. Where, then, does it go now? We have Trump in the White House, a man whose propensity for political calamity might see him considered “a bit OTT” if he were fictional, and in his trail a slime of corruption, Russian sneakery, war with the press, nepotism, the firing of anyone ‘disloyal’, and nuclear war flirtation. What has he left for the scriptwriters? Civil war? Secret lizard people? House Of Cards now risks either becoming ridiculous if it tries to outdo real life or sedate if it doesn’t. It opts mostly to go high where Trump goes low, keeping the crazy-twist count small, with the odd lurch in the other direction. It’s probably entirely the correct choice.
One of the show’s best seasons.
The series stumbled in Season 3, seemingly unsure of what to do with Frank and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) once they’d grabbed the most powerful office in the world, but made hay in Season 4 by turning their lives into a desperate game of Risk. They were assaulted on all fronts by people keen to relieve them of their power, forcing them into more and more risky methods to fend them off. That only gets worse this season.
We open with an election looming. Frank, conscious of his dwindling popularity, is trying to stir up fear over the threat of ICO. If he can terrify the electorate and convince them he can save them, the presidency could remain his. Opposing him is Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), the anti-Frank. Wholesome, naive, open (mostly). Add to the mix the fact Claire, nominee for Vice President, is more popular than her husband and you have the potential for a spectacular battle, which the season fully exploits. If there’s a key word for the season it’s “pressure”. How each character deals with the strain of the election is surprising and darkly delightful. Some crack, others harden, and not necessarily the ones you’d suspect. The series’ big pull from reality is the grubbiness of the presidential campaign. Each time Frank, Claire or Will try to usurp the other it’s not by using policy or anything of substance, but by dredging up embarrassing, ultimately inconsequential scandal. Politics’ slide into the gutter is a boon to House Of Cards.
This has never really been a show about politics. None of its players wants to be in charge in order to improve things for anyone but themselves. Policy is rarely mentioned, the public virtually unseen. Power is simply a status symbol to be possessed, to grab and lock behind glass, away from the sticky fingers of others. The presidency is the One Ring and all the main players are Gollum, fixated on a treasure that can never be theirs to keep. What maintains House Of Cards is adding new players to the game and this season we’ve a pair of doozies. Patricia Clarkson is Jane Davis, an ICO expert who knows everyone and never forgets anything. Her scatty, chummy exterior is clearly a front. Campbell Scott is political advisor Mark Usher, of whom Frank says, “You always know where he stands. Usually on someone’s neck.” You can rely on Clarkson and Scott with any material, but they’re given gold here, each fully a match for the deviousness of the Underwoods.
This show is always at its best when people are trying to outwit each other, which is why later episodes in this season are a little disappointing for relying on easy outs. There’s some nonsense about webcam hacking that relies on people talking to themselves about their darkest secrets while sitting at their computers, and more turns to violence, always a disappointingly blunt last resort for this show. Those are blips, though. The show gives no impression that it’s running out of ideas. It keeps discovering new rules to the game, and new ways for its characters to cheat them. The fictional central relationship is showing serious strain, but its potential for creating addictively dark drama is not. One of the show’s best seasons.