House of Shards – A Review of House of Cards Season 5

 

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Shattered. That how I feel about it. Not emotionally. No. I was just trying to think of a semi-clever pun to put on the title of this post. But the painful truth is House of Cards season five is a mess. It goes without saying, spoilers ahead.

Coming off the coattails of season four, the best in the show’s run so far, expectations were certainly very high for the most recent instalment in the series. The election cliffhanger, combined with the threat of terrorist group ICO, and that chilling ending where Claire finally breaks the fourth wall with Frank, plotting all sorts of new revenge, made the last 12 months feel like an eternity. I was counting down the days until Netflix’s release date, eagerly anticipating how the Underwood’s fate would unfold. Would they survive? Would they be caught out? Sadly for me, and probably many others, season five offers no clear answers. What it does offer are snippets of ingenuity and excitement, stuck in a muddy goo of convoluted writing. To take a show that has grown steadily over the last four years, becoming more and more tense with the stakes constantly increasing, and to leave it in the mess it’s in now is truly disappointing.

Firstly, the good bits. As has happened before the production quality, cinematography and score are all excellent. Netflix clearly cares about making Cards one of the best-looking shows on television. The moody lighting in the corridors of power, and its ability to make the United States capital look like a palace of sin and debauchery has not lost its touch. The supporting cast, with some old and some new faces, do a fantastic job at bringing characters we have come to know and love (and sometimes hate) to life once again. Kevin Spacey’s performance as the most heinous and corrupt president ever portrayed on screen is stronger than its ever been. His menacing glares, his little winks and nods to the camera, and most importantly his self-serving fourth wall speeches remind me why the show was so effective during the first season. Robin Wright’s Claire is as cool and collected as ever. She oozes control when confronted by the many players in the dirty game of politics. Her emotional poise, although at times strained, never truly falters, even during a surprisingly naked moment when killing a person she has come to love.

As for the others, Boris McGiver’s Tom Hammerschidt hasn’t lost his touch as the grizzly old-fashioned journalist, hell-bent on finding the truth we witnessed so many years ago. Michael Kelley as Doug Stamper excels in constantly bringing a new side to the personality of a truly despicable man. Some of the more recent faces such as Damian Young’s Aidan Macallan and Neve Campbell’s LeAnn Harvey have clearly found a memorable footing in the show, and fit perfectly with this dark world of Washington. Then there are, of course, the Conway’s, who, although disappointingly underdeveloped this season, still show how strong the cast can be when given poor dialogue and motivation. But holding onto a strong cast and finding new talent is the bread and butter of one Netflix’s biggest shows. So why did season five leave such a bad taste in my mouth?

The problem I think can boiled down to one simple analysis. Season five didn’t know what it wanted to set out and do. The clarity of season four was formed by the upcoming 2016 election, the fictional one that is. Watching the Underwoods and Conways duke it out over several episodes; plotting and conspiring to bring each other down over every primary and caucus, was a joy to witness. The Conways PR friendly family image, juxtaposed with the strained and withered relationship Underwoodwoods went through added much glee when the two men repeatedly confronted each other. Then, of course, there was the revealed relationship of Claire’s hateful mother, as well as Frank’s shooting at the hands of an old enemy, reporter Lucas Goodwin. The personal plots both Underwoods brewed for each other when their marriage was on the rocks added a whole new dimension to this power couple. And to top it all off you had an insurgent new terrorist force, blowing up the middle east and radicalising homegrown citizens. Season four upped the stakes to the point where waiting a whole 12 months just to see what would happen next became an agony for die-hard fans.

Where season five fails so spectacilarly lies in how anti-climatic the election becomes. We are treated to a prolonged and overcomplicated narrative in the first five episodes where the Underwood’s plan to disrupt voting centres under the veil of a terror attack. To start with my hopes were high. There were scenes where Frank addresses all 50 governors about the attacks, traipsing around each of them, talking to us directly, while everyone is frozen in motion. Moments like these remind me how much I love to hate this president. But for all of the effort to construct an interesting and original way to rig the election, the momentum wears off quite quickly. Governor Conway’s obsession with winning, combined with a newly revealed PTSD, turns him into a whining and quite frankly boring personality. Coming from such a strong arc in season four, Conway is turned into a dribbling baby. I share his frustration with not winning the election, but the resolution the writers decided to go with makes his appearance in season four seem all for naught.

Then there is the second arc the writers went with, wedged in at the halfway point. After trouncing Conway the Underwoods begin to deal with all of the many loose ends they’ve picked up in only a handful of episodes. Threats of impeachment, committee hearings recommending prosecution, everything is thrown at them in the form of a murky narrative soup. We are introduced to too many new faces too quickly, not giving us any time to really begin to understand their private motivations. Personalities like Mark Usher, a former Conway campaign advisor turned bluecoat, for the Underwoods, is meant to be a convincing sly fox. His slick voice and debonair tailored outfits, along with an ability to play both sides perfectly, should have made him one of the most interesting characters we’ve seen yet. In fact, one of my favourite moments from the season was when Underwood is taking the presidential oath of office after a much prolonged inauguration ceremony. Once Spacey gives one of the longest diatribes yet to the camera we see a comfortable looking Usher turn to the camera and wave. A very nice touch. Sadly that was about as fascinating as he became for me.

 

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Moments like when political campaigner Mark Usher waves to the camera act as examples of the many tiny but brilliant flourishes season five has to offer. The overall disappointment lies in how poor the two main plotlines are compared with the show’s previous years. New characters are fine to include, provided we are given more time to understand them before they become part of the narrative furniture and taken for granted by the writers. 

 

LeAnn Harvey’s relationship with computer hacker Macallan is also stretched beyond belief. Throughout several episodes there is a confusing back and forth between the two of them, particularly when Macallan is kidnapped by Russian officials and then escapes with the help of some offscreen US official. Harvey’s motiviations are as confusing as the American constituion after Underwood rigs the election. I could never tell if she truly wanted to be loyal to the Underwoods, or to some other ulterior motive, but her death in the final episode was a complete waste of a character that started with such promise. The speech writer Thomas Yates does what he can as a marginally effective personality, but the days of supporting Claire with her mother’s illness and eventual death are long gone. Now he leans against any wall he can find in the White House until he is unceremoniously killed by Claire, during a rather raunchy moment between the two of them. There is also the bizarre re-introduction of the Civil War reenactor Eric Rawlings (Malcolm Madera) who briefly becomes a lover of Frank’s and then is cast out. And last but not least is the Democratic Congressman Alex Romero, played by James Martinez. This attention-whore feels completely forced into the second arc of the season, and we’re given next to no time to truly sympthaise with his intetions. He chairs a committee that begins proceedings into President Underwood’s past, but unfortunately we are forced to listen to a pointless back and forth between himself and Usher. Such scenes should provide clarity and give us an insight into what conspiracies they develop over time. But Romero is used almost like a prop when he appears on screen, and Frank’s once chilling speeches when both men come into contact feel bland, almost perfunctory. The same can be said for former President Walker’s appearance. His shocking testimony during an on-air committee also leaves little punch as the dramatic consequences are swept aside by the very next episode.

The death count seems to only go up and up for season five as well, but sadly for me, it has reached the point of ridiculousness. Underwood was chilling because he was prepared to kill when there was no gurantee he could get away with it. The death of Zoe Barnes, a direct homage to the original British show, was shocking but also compelling in how we wondered what lies Frank would tell to cover it up. The same went for Stamper’s tragic turn when he murders the former prostitue Rachel Posner at the end of season three. But here, things become more than far-fetched. Bodies are cleared away without hesitiation, the Secretary of State is pushed down a flight of stairs and suddenly becomes an off-screen ghost. The Underwoods desperation to hold onto power feels more like desperation from the writers attempting to keep the show together. And what’s worse is how underwhelming their dark actions appear now.

I wasn’t going to mention the real, and equally tragic, election of Donald Trump, when thinking about this review, but his presence is undeniably felt throughout. The producers of the show have very wisely decided not to emulate or reference the recent chaotic months of Trump’s presidency or his dismal campaign; but it’s impossible to deny how tame House of Cards now feels when compared with actual reality. A lot of fans, including myself, felt concerned about how the Underwoods would compare to a real-life tyrant sitting in the White House today. What actions and manoeuvres could they do that wouldn’t appear too boring compared to the real life situation America is facing? I don’t envy the producers many meetings discussing the direction of the show after Trump’s victory, but sadly for all of us, life has imitated the art instead of the other way round.

All shows, even the best, can have a poor season. Game of Thrones seasons three and five were a disappointment compared with the others; The West Wing also struggled during its fifth seaosn when main writer Aaron Sorkin left, and the less that’s said about Mad Men’s later years the better. But House of Cards was different. It’s topicality was what made it so fascinating. The introduction of Russian President Petrov, or the appearance of ICO took real life personalities and events and twisted them under the thumb of Frank Underwood. With glee I watched him deal with fictional events that mirrored our recent history. But now, with a Trump presidency and all of the dangers that come with it, Cards has lost its way. The best shows always recover and prove to their audiences why they still matter: good storytelling is good storytelling. But after this cacophany of new characters, muddled plotlines and out of place scenery (I heard myself shouting outloud “What were you thinking!” when Elysium Fields showed up) I simply feel let-down by this recent helping from what deserves to be a truly great political thriller.

The writers know the reaction this year has been tepid, and they deserve another chance to build on what they’ve just about managed to keep from falling completely apart. Who knows, maybe a Trump impeachment would be the best thing to happen to them. However, with the resignation of Frank as president and his wife now clearly dominating the Oval Office, I can only hope we don’t fall out of love with the Underwoods like so many of their fictional colleagues have by now.

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