The following preview takes the first three episodes of the fifth season of Netflix’s House of Cards into account. As for the rest of the season … I couldn’t possibly comment.
Almost every article you read on the fifth season of Netflix’s flagship political thriller House of Cards will pose, or at least reference, the following question: Has Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency made the program obsolete? On the surface, it seems like a reasonable consideration. After all, why tune into a scripted show about abuses of authority and the desperate measures taken to retain power when the same sort of drama unfolds daily in the very real “fake” media? When asked this very question by Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, Kevin Spacey, President Frank Underwood himself, opted for “relevant” over redundant as the optimal word. There’s a lot of truth in that also, especially as many Americans, having played watchdog since late January, know more now about governmental procedure, structure, and checks and balances than at any time since their high school history days. If ever we could fully appreciate a series like House of Cards, it’s now that the current administration’s incomprehensible ignorance, incompetence, and suspicious irregularities have forced us to brush up on our basic civics.
However, Spacey’s late-night interview pointed to a far simpler reason why fans will continue to binge the exploits of Frank and Claire Underwood. “We have better writers,” says Spacey. And that’s one thing our ratings-obsessed president can’t begin to deliver: quality viewing. While so many of us check the news three or four times each day just to make sure we haven’t missed the latest scandal, global embarrassment, or executive proposal that threatens our lives and liberties – or those of our friends and family members – the daily drama, from the repugnant Tweets to the self-incriminating revelations in interviews, absolutely reeks of reality television. Here’s a person, I’ve argued as a critic attacking budget proposals that treat the arts as less than an afterthought, whose admiration for beauty begins below the belt and ends just above the tip of his plunging tie. His presidency doubles as a 24/7 sitcom about either a guilty person acting stupidly or a stupid person acting guiltily, though the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Why, oh why, if that’s what we’re forced to consume each and every day in heaping platefuls wouldn’t we still have an appetite for a program that serves chilling performances, electric writing, and the promise of a brutal comeuppance on the near horizon?
The real threat to the popular vote-winning drama — the first original web-only television series to receive Emmy nominations — isn’t the shadow cast by our political realities but a more basic question: Can Frank Underwood’s desperate scramble to maintain power possibly match the intrigue of his ruthless, diabolical, and bloody ascent to the highest office in the land? That’s certainly not a new question. It’s the same one the series has raised since Frank first rapped his ring twice on the Oval Office desk, and the answers have been uneven. After a scintillating two seasons of cutthroat political maneuvering, manipulation, and murder — swapping the Shakespearean vibe of the original British mini-series for the gritty realism of modern television — the Underwood saga slightly rose and dipped in approval ratings as seasons three and four took us on the campaign trail, packed our long underwear for Russia, made us eye witnesses to an assassination attempt, and comped us box seats to the ascent of steely Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) as a formidable political force. “There is but one rule,” Frank explains to us, breaking the fourth wall, after killing Zoe Barnes in season two: “hunt or be hunted.” However, by the conclusion of season four, Frank is far from the only shark in our nation’s capital, and it’s now his pungent blood chumming the waters. All signs point to a confrontation, or several, that no presidential veto, pardon, or executive order will allow him to duck and dodge — an unfolding of events that will either validate the last two seasons or make them feel aimless and muddled compared to the series’ brilliant beginnings.
“We don’t submit to terror,” Franks tells us, sitting next to Claire, at the conclusion of season four as he watches live footage of homegrown terrorists beheading a hostage. “We make the terror.” It’s a pact between not just husband and wife and running mates but two clawing, deadly animals backed into a corner. It’s also a foreboding promise that makes the first episodes of season five an anxious watch. As the threats from former employees, current staff members, Tom Hammerschmidt’s crusade, the Conway campaign, not to mention the skeletons in Frank’s closet (or cabinet) mount, it’s business as usual for House of Cards, which means a moderate burn punctuated by cruel re-calculations, coldblooded revelations, and the occasional “damn” moment. These first few episodes, not surprisingly, are just the initial, seemingly inconsequential moves of a chess match, a much needed exhale after Frank infiltrates and hijacks congress to mandate a declaration of war against Islamic terror group ICO in the season’s opening scene. No show could carry that frenzied pace across 13 episodes, so for now we get the simmer before the boiling over, a conclusion that may or may not see a familiar face get thrown under the bus (or train), find the United States on the brink of war with another global power, and determine whether Frank and Claire will share a White House or adjoining prison cells.
In the penultimate episode of season four, opponent Governor Will Conway asks Frank, “Isn’t that worse than dying … being forgotten?” Fans of the original House of Cards trilogy may read more into that line than others, as the final days of Prime Minister Francis Urquhart were largely spent contemplating his legacy. But the Underwoods aren’t quite there yet. We’ve witnessed the rise to power, we’re watching the consolidation now, and, if any justice out there exists, we’re headed for one of the great falls in television history. It’s only a matter of when, how, and, most deliciously, who, and nothing in the early episodes of season five suggests that the show’s creative forces won’t continue down that devilish path as brilliantly as its British predecessor. “Nothing lasts forever,” Francis Urquhart once assured us. “Even the longest, most glittering reign must come to an end some day.” And boy do we want to be there when this house topples.