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This post contains no spoilers for House of Cards season 5.
In the world of House of Cards, nothing makes sense. Up is down. Black is white. The left wants a travel ban. The right is fighting against voter suppression. The corrupt incumbent candidate is a southern Democrat from South Carolina while his more upstanding opponent is a Republican from New York. Presidents, first ladies, committees to investigate corruption, and other Washington insiders move swiftly, with purpose. Most shocking of all is that in the world of House of Cards, our politicians are good at what they do.
How effective the show’s mirroring and distorting of our political landscape remains disputed. House of Cards has always been a polarizing show, perhaps never more so than in its current and fifth season. People that dislike it continue to dislike it, while those who adore the show continue to fiercely defend it. These opposing views are fitting, as both the world of the show, and increasingly, our own reality, have presented us with a view of government where compromise no longer feels like an option. It’s a “you’re either with us, or you’re against us” mentality.
But whether you enjoy the “ripped from the headlines” approach to storytelling, the noise and implausibility of the current administration has not completely ruined House of Cards. In fact, it’s set the series free.
Kevin Spacey has been insisting in interviews lately that the show actually predicts the future, rather than copying the present. But House of Cards is supposed to be an unhinged version of the real political establishment. This has in essence given the show permission to push the envelope as far as it will go this season. “Think House of Cards is getting boring compared to what’s on the news every night?” the producers seems to be asking. “Just you wait and see.”
With the shackles of conventional Washington logic now tossed aside, showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese (taking over for series creator Beau Willimon, who departed after last season) have pulled out all the stops. There’s a twist at the end of the very first episode, and although things don’t get really unpredictable again till the last few, the story moves along steadily. This may be the most binge-worthy set of episodes the show has offered, with very few lags in pacing (a frequent problem for Netflix shows) along the way.
For anyone wondering if the series retains its essence without Willimon, you can put those worries to rest. Tonally, House of Cards stays put in its usual sweet spot somewhere between Washington soap opera and political noir.
Leads Spacey and Robin Wright are rejoined this season by recurring cast members Michael Kelly, Neve Campbell, Paul Sparks, Derek Cecil, Boris McGiver, Dominique McElligott, and Colm Feore. Joel Kinnaman is compelling in the role of Will Conway, Frank’s opponent in the race for the White House. New additions include Campbell Scott as an adviser to Conway and Patricia Clarkson as “Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade.” Some other familiar faces pop back up too, but sadly, longtime fan favorites like Remy Danton (Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali) and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) are noticeably absent.
As for the leads, they’re typically excellent, with Wright more than earning the equal paycheck she fought for and won. Her turn as Claire Underwood is not only the subtlest performance on the show, it’s also the slyest. While Frank charges into every room he enters, Claire slithers. There is not another political operative as skilled as her in the entire series, and there’s no other woman like her on television.
Spacey, in contrast, cannot help but chew every piece of scenery he gets his jaws on. His performance this season, like every other, is big and memorable. To many of the show’s critics, his larger-than-life Frank is a caricature. But a loss which Frank goes through at the beginning of the season is evidence of some remaining humanity. Spacey imbues his black soul with just the right shade of raw sentiment to make President Underwood captivating.
House of Cards is always at its best when the show and Frank are focusing on wheeling and dealing. Luckily there are no diversions this season like Claire’s dying mother (Ellen Burstyn, in a rather thankless role she still did a great job with) or, God forbid, Doug Stamper’s drinking problem. (Although there is another creepy Doug romance—seriously, do they have to give all the worst storylines to the solidly workmanlike Michael Kelly?)
It’s odd that Frank’s assassination attempt last year, which breathed new life into the show after an uneven season 3, basically went on to serve no practical purpose down the line. But the show still manages to pull together most of the loose threads from season 4, while also setting up a clear arc for a season 6.
Besides the campaign, the primary concern of season 5 is terror, specifically the ISIS-like Islamic Caliphate Organization, or ICO. Witnessing Frank’s fearmongering, as he declared war against this radical faction of Islamic militants both home and abroad, I could not help but get chills thinking back to the Republican National Convention when speakers yelled and screamed, giving way to mass hysteria regarding terrorists and national security. Watching this season of House of Cards, I was reminded of how simple it can be to play into people’s panic and uncertainty.
Bernard Boo at We Got This Covered writes that Frank Underwood is, “far less terrifying and fascinating than his blowhard real-life counterpart.” I disagree. If there’s one thing that I have figured out about President Underwood, it’s that he’s an intelligent and skilled political operative who resists being easily defined. In an age where the political ground we stand on is shakier than ever, I enjoy House of Cards because if nothing else, it gives us a window into what’s happening behind the scenes. Its twists and turns are reliable and entertaining, rather than alarming and confusing.
The Underwoods and House of Cards are as fascinating in season 5 as they’ve been in any season before. Netflix’s flagship original series continues to be one of its best, and at this point, its morally compromised characters are a welcome departure from the shady politicians we’ve been seeing on CNN every day.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.