When Netflix’s House of Cards premiered in 2013, the show was a novelty. It took us to the brightly lit corridors of The White House and gave us a sense of what goes on in the mind of people residing in it. Packed with delicious fine details, the show was rich in style and depth. From the shining kitchen sink to the elaborate diplomatic negotiations, House of Cards was as much about luxury and royalty as it was about ambition and moral ambiguity. Even if you are least interested in American politics, you won’t mind watching Claire Underwood’s sartorial elegance and her ice-cold glare. There was no grain of doubt that House of Cards wanted to impress you, but it did so without revealing its intentions.
House of Cards heavily relied on Frank Underwood’s twisted, freakish mind and his political ambitions, but it was the changing dynamics of the DC couple- Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (played by Robin Wright) – that was the heartbeat of the show. Without the undercurrent of their silent rivalry and many moods, I doubt that the show would have achieved the status it has.
That’s why it was such a breath of fresh air when you found that you alone don’t have to bear the responsibility of judging Frank. His more intriguing wife Claire was also there, watching and judging her powerful husband all the time. If all the chaos of diplomacy and politics swirling outside the White House kept you on your toes, it was the changing equation between Frank and Claire that drew you in, working really as a magnet. The last two seasons were more about the nature of their evolving relationship than the political storm outside.
With the absence of show creator Beau Willimon during the fifth season, some of the subtlety is gone from the show (spoilers alert). There was a time in early seasons when Kevin and Robin would use their facial muscles to show their hidden feelings. Kevin would put up a different face for different meetings. Claire would throw her mask away during romantic escapades and displayed vulnerability. Claire’s speech in Russia where she exposed the truth behind the death of gay rights activist Michael Corrigan was a check on Frank’s rising power. If you were hooked to Frank’s machinations, you relished Claire’s ability to introspect their choices. In one scene in season 3, Claire tells Frank, “We are murderers, Frank.” To which Frank bluntly replies, “We are survivors.” All that subtlety and moral introspection are replaced with verbosity and theatrics in this season.
You also realise that chemistry between Frank and Claire gets as good as the writing. Without revealing the plot, let’s tell you that the Underwoods are more powerful now. Their rise to the Oval Office came with little challenge. The season four ended with Frank and Claire creating an atmosphere of fear to tackle Tom Hammerschmidt’s damaging article in The Washington Herald. As soon as you get past two episodes of season five, you already know that it would require much more than an exposing article to control Frank-Claire’s rising power.
Don’t pin down your hopes on Republican candidate Will Conway who was much more promising during last season. Will is too weak an adversary for Frank’s incessant scheming. Your only hopes come from Romero, a fellow Democrat who reopens an investigation committee looking into the past crimes of Frank. As you finally expect to see Frank’s ultimate fall, the show throws another cliffhanger so that you will want to watch the next season.
Let’s look at the murder tally this season: Aidan MacAllan (was shot in the head), Tom Yates (murdered by Claire), Eric Rawlings (shot dead outside The White House while protesting) and LeaAnn Harvey (for now, we see her during a car accident). That makes it four. It’s not the body count, but how easily Underwoods bumped these people off that make you care less. Cathy Durant, who proved to be a formidable opponent to Frank and Claire’s scheming last season, is also reduced to a mere prop this season. Frank pushes Cathy downstairs. Can you really believe it how easy it’s for Underwoods to remove any sort of resistance on their way?
Also, you don’t care much for the new characters including Mark Usher, Jane Davis and LeaAnn Harvey (who was introduced during the third season). No matter how important they are to Frank and Claire’s scheme of plans, too little information is available about their personal lives. The characters of Zoe Barnes, Peter Russo, Rachel Posner and Lucas Goodwin (all of them dead now) were detailed and developed over a period of time. So when a Zoe Barnes died, you cared and you still want Frank to pay for her death.
Doug Stamper whose loyalty towards Underwoods is more rock solid than ever has become a predictable character. Going by this season, he’s all set to take the great fall on Underwood’s behalf.
The season is also trying to make too much sense of 2016 election that led Donald Trump to victory. All the elements including voter fraud, WikiLeaks, ICO (ISIS-like organisation), Russian interference in American elections and surveillance of citizens are an integral part of the story. Still, you would find that there is more cynicism in Cards world than in real one. Too much cynicism can be harmful to any show.
In fiction, you want to see men face consequences for their crime. If not that, at least you want them to be showing some mixed emotions of fear and defiance. All you watch silently is the slow and steady rise of Underwoods to more power. They are more powerful now. But to what purpose? And why should we care anymore?
Frank and Claire, during early seasons, were a joy to watch as writers didn’t shy from showing their vulnerabilities and strengths in the face of impending difficulties. With their acting talent, Kevin and Robin hold your attention, but you know they can be better. They are failed by some average writing going on here. You can still expect a rise and rise graph for Underwoods from here on with Claire in the White House and Frank working in private sector. With their joint political-private power, will they have the total control of the free world? It seems House of Cards isn’t going to fall anytime soon. That’s some reason for worry.
Yet, as the show is fuelled by the evolution of Frank and Claire’s relationship, it’s hard not to wait for next season (despite all the flaws of this season). The season ends with Claire taking the Oval Office. Will Claire pardon Frank for his crimes? With Frank’s final soliloquy, “I will kill her if she doesn’t pardon me” and Claire’s closing announcement as she stares at the audience, “My Turn”, the show once again ends up achieving something profound here. The final few minutes of the last episode build up a fair amount of tension between Claire and Frank. How Frank and Claire will deal with each other? Will they be a team or turn rivals or kill each other? That’s a reason enough to wait for next season.