Netflix releases Emmy-winning political staple House of Cards Season 5. Does it succeed in the middle of a beleaguered Trump administration?
Before we jump into my review of Netflix’s House of Cards Season 5, please allow me a brief interlude to reference this incredible scene from Christopher Guest’s This Is Spinal Tap…
Nigel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and…
Martin: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?
Martin: Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?
Nigel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?
Martin: I don’t know.
Nigel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?
Martin: Put it up to eleven.
Nigel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
Rest assured, there is a method to my madness.
I use this excerpt from that brilliant comedy to set the stage for a dramatically escalated House of Cards Season 5. On the onset, the series identifies a stark contrast between leads Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. She, as Vice Presidential candidate Claire Underwood, tapes a political ad with poise, grace, and precision. He, as President Frank Underwood, bursts into the House of Representative and gives the kind of speech no sitting president, especially one up for a hotly contested re-election, would ever give.
Your appreciation for House of Cards Season 5 largely depends on which avenue you prefer. Hint: the entire season follows a Frank Underwood-endorsed trajectory.
A Series of Indecipherable Events
Frank and Claire Underwood continue their insatiable quest for power. We last saw them amping up a terror campaign to scare their constituents into voting for them. Their competition, young Republican Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), provides everything they cannot: youthful energy and enthusiasm, a military background, and matinee idol good looks. In the real world, Underwood would lose in a landslide, but this is House of Cards. We must have Frank Underwood retain his power, so the bulk of the season dedicates itself to the myriad political machinations it takes to keep the Underwoods (one or the other) in power.
Because Frank and Claire did what they did over four seasons, things start coming back to haunt them. Underwood’s pre-election presidency is beset with controversy after controversy. Those who would bring him down have ample evidence, of course. Even after the election resolves itself, controversy continues to plague him. This series feels a bit like HBO’s Silicon Valley that way. The deck seems so incredibly stacked against our leads how can they possibly get out of this one? Well, that’s part of the fun of the series, and not…
Original showrunner Beau Willimon left the series after Season 4, and his absence looms large over Season 5. All the right elements are in place, but it lacks a sense of balance or pacing. Because events come back to haunt Frank, several storylines flail about at once, and the result feels disjointed. You’d have to have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the series to remember every event referenced here. In some ways, it’s fun to see prior characters like Underwood’s predecessor Garrett Walker (Michael Gill) return to the fold for one last stab at Underwood. Yet, I’ll admit to running to Wikipedia in search of what exactly happened three seasons ago. And then there are plot twists that just defy all logic, even for this series. To elaborate would spoil the material, but you’ll know them when you see them.
Robin Wright remains the reason to return to House of Cards. She continues to evolve the character in new and complex directions. Every season, I think this is the year that she’ll win an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Series. This won’t be her year, and I wonder if it will ever happen. Season 4 ended with Wright directly addressing the camera as Spacey does throughout the series. Yet, it doesn’t fit her as well. It feels forced and artificial. Maybe that’s the intent.
Kevin Spacey continues to deliver all the bluster required to play Frank Underwood. If the proceedings feel over the top, it’s not his fault. He delivers exactly what’s expected and sells the material. You can absolutely tell that Spacey relishes the role as he plays each and every moment with sadistic glee. As a result, part of the fun of the series remains with watching an actor wholly embody a role that will partially define his career.
The supporting cast delivers the standard effective and efficient performances. Neve Campbell fills out her role better here than in Season 4, and by the end of the season, Michael Kelly again proves why he receives Emmy nominations. Of the new blood, I vastly preferred Campbell Scott’s Mark Usher, a Republican-leaning advisor to the Conway campaign. Initially, I thought he felt flat, but I realized he’s giving an actual performance rather than playing to the soap operatic elements of the material. Patricia Clarkson is never boring to watch, and here she’s fun in a badly defined role. Perhaps Season 6 will explore this farther, but I struggled with her purpose and, in particular, her access to information and people in the series. She’s sort of a physical deus ex machina. As a result, she’s not really performing as much as she is moving the plot along.
House of Cards Season 5 continues to deliver the breathless pace and shocking turn of events that characterize the bulk of the series. For me, this season marks the first time that I haven’t been along for the ride quite as much as before. All the elements still remain. The acting registers good to great. The sets feel authentic. The cinematography provides a cold, crisp sheen to the material. Yet, the scripting veers dangerously into the sloppy.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is in the need to compete with the current Trump administration. Events exist within the series that are eerily resonant with current, real world political events. The election night sequence felt near-suffocating to those of us who try to remember November 8, 2016, alongside other infamous disasters in American history. It takes the fun out of a show that felt so much more fun under the Obama administration. With real life rivaling the Underwoods, should we enjoy this as much as we have in the past?
This series still remains worth watching, but it doesn’t register quite as strongly as in previous seasons. With Beau Willimon’s absence, the new team most definitely cranked the drama up to 11, nearly rivaling Scandal in incredulity. And that’s absolutely fine. If you like that kind of thing…
House of Cards Season 5 premieres tomorrow, May 30, on Netflix.