As Frank Underwood ascended in the White House, from Majority Whip to Vice President to President on House of Cards, Claire Underwood ascended with him, the co-conspiring anti-hero accomplice. From the beginning, their relationship worked as a convergence of two calculated Alphas in which Frank seized control and needed more and more, and Claire, though equally corrupt, was too frequently left absorbing his heat. The real intrigue in Season 5 lies less in Frank’s stubborn, corruptive obsession with power—and the inevitable Trump administration parallels—and more in Claire, the terror that’s been gradually rising up.
House of Cards at first succeeded in eliminating the civic aspect of politics and stripping the field to its basest and ugliest form; in seeing the political world for what we knew it to be, it was easy to delight in the absurd salaciousness of Beau Willimon’s fantasy. It’s fun to watch one man’s attempt to be the most dominant person in a room and to form conspiracies about real life with a certain remove, a pleasure that was certain to bite us back. Daily life has since stripped many of us of the power to view television like this without being forced to morally consider the darkness portrayed, even when we reach the point where it’s tiring to have to make such connections.
This series is still obscene in its dramatization of government, and of characters who position Washington as a place where terror is the new normal and politics is a means to no discernible end. That its theatrics both consciously and accidentally conspire with reality is unavoidable and, as the show continually suggests, it’s also this country’s fault. We are watching a president and his wife be monsters in a visually desaturated setting. House of Cards loves to drive home the point that we’re crudely attracted to destruction and suffer in many ways because of it.
The drama starts up again with the Underwoods stoking fear. “It’s amazing how ready people are to be afraid,” says Frank, whose goal is to take America to war, by exploiting “heightened threats” that he largely orchestrates. The Underwoods excessively hit us over the head with the politics of fear, starting with a premiere that takes place two weeks before the election and a national manhunt for Joshua Masterson, the young ICO terrorist recruit who assisted in a beheading at the end of last season. Claire’s eventual siege of leadership is foreshadowed early, as the season opens with her broadcasting a message to the American public: “My husband and I want to protect you.” She’s a proxy for Frank, only on the surface. (Deep spoilers ahead. Stop here to avoid your life being ruined.)
Frank’s desperation is meanwhile threaded with more entitlement and menace than ever. He’s ruling with no remorse and intends to keep it that way. So he positions himself as the only man with solutions—his way into re-election is as a warmonger. He’s still performing (in every sense of the word) grandiose speeches that sound like he’s threatening to destroy the world with pollution in front of the Planeteers. From the first episode, during his takeover of a House meeting (“I will not yield!” he repeats), this season seemed to embrace jumping the shark. It’s possible to appreciate such self-awareness at points and still be annoyed by its volume.
The soap aspect of House of Cards has been its biggest lure and, increasingly, its biggest flaw. How can you not be sick of a show so ridiculously on the nose? How can you not indulge? Season 5 is a full-on soap opera that’s hard to watch and at multiple points funny because of how much the script and performances lean into the high melodrama, which, more than any other season, I found myself wondering if viewers could stand. That feeling especially applies to Kevin Spacey’s stylized fourth-wall sermons, now a touch more exaggerated.
In Episode 4, while he and Claire are plotting in the White House, he offers a succinct, cutting characterization of the American people. “They’re like little children, Claire. Children we never had,” he says. “We have to hold their sticky fingers and wipe their filthy mouths.” In Episode 9, there’s a more ostentatious version. It’s one of Frank’s direct-to-camera speeches and I wouldn’t believe anyone who said it wasn’t filmed after the election. Looking into the camera, he admonishes the American people directly: “You made this bed America. You voted for me. Are you confused? Are you afraid? Because what you thought you wanted is now here? And there you are staring back slack-jawed, bewildered, wondering if this is what you actually asked for. This Democracy, your democracy elected me.” The first speech feels like a crafty observation and the second, a less elegant lecture.
Maybe there are people who can binge on this show without their minds dipping in and out of actual political events, but that seems futile when the storylines involve a rigged election, election night anxiety and foreign involvement, terrorism, poll hacking, end of the world fear, coup and impeachment talk. On the other hand, Frank is cunning, speaks in villainous Southern snippets and sells dreams, and his dangerous motives aren’t nearly as visible or telegraphed to the public as Trump’s; his communications director Seth Grayson is not a Washington version of Michael Scott like Sean Spicer.
What Frank wants is a State of War declared between the United States and the ICO (the show’s version of ISIS). What he ultimately needs is more a feeling. Either way, he won’t cease because the presidential race is too close between himself and the sexy Republican alternative Governor Will Conway. We’re told that either side can’t afford to be complacent. As part of a preposterous series of schemes, Frank tries to persuade governors to assist with voter suppression, engineers a cyberattack and blames it on ICO, exploits a terror threat and bullies his way into rigging the election and winning. The plotting between Frank and Claire so often involves justifications of what they “have to do,” what they “had to do” and what “has to be done,” as if there’s no alternative to brute force.
For two weeks, there’s a temporary portrait of what it’s like to have Frank and Claire command together, when Claire (as VP) becomes Acting President. Of course, Frank can’t help but be the puppet master and undermine her decisions. It’s obvious this dynamic doesn’t work for Claire. You can see how capably corrosive she and Frank are (and thus fit for the job) when compared to Governor Conway and his wife Hannah, who want power but aren’t nearly as effective at stealing it. By the end of the longest election cycle ever, Frank wins and it’s no surprise.
Nothing meaningfully compelling happens until the final episodes, when there’s a shift in reality. As part of her rise, Claire force-quits her relationship with speechwriter Thomas Yates, her live-in boyfriend who wants to be more than an Oval Office sidepiece. Through him, her desire for real passion and intimacy shows, but it’s impossible for her to savor because her infatuation with power is always strong enough to override love. She’s not above ending her own pleasure, fatally, in favor of moving ahead in the White House, since Yates knew way too many secrets about the Underwoods to truly be trusted and because that’s what the Underwoods have to do.
Whether you enjoy the drama this time around or not depends on your ability to willingly revel in all this corruption (I found myself going back and forth). Frank finds a way to resign from office and, in theory, still come out on top, in part by pinning the murder of Zoe Barnes on his overly loyal Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (who complies). And so, Claire is the new President, and Frank has chosen (he thinks) to relinquish his seat to her in hopes that they’ll work together, her inside the White House and him in the private sector (that part involves a weird secret society), so he can armchair rule from the outside.
But Claire has a better idea. She and Robin Wright have waited long enough. It’s her transition from co-conspirator to most powerful woman in the world that makes this season tolerable. When it ends with Frank in a desperate position again (begging to be pardoned by Claire and living in a hotel) and a vendetta against his own wife, the non-peaceful exchange of power is complete, and this is where the intrigue sets in—the envisioning of an alternate reality (where a woman is President) that might once again allow us to fantasize outside of our own political world, perhaps leaving room for a better Season 6.