The Good: Good performances, especially by Robin Wright
The Bad: Tone, Unfortunately meandering plot, A bevy of unlikable characters
The Basics: The fifth season of House Of Cards has a glimmer of true intrigue and showcases wonderful actors, but continues to lose footing as President Frank Underwood strongarms his way back into the Presidency.
One of the consequences of being a long-running television show is that it is hard to maintain the fanbase and interest over years and years of production. In the case of House Of Cards, it is difficult to get excited about the fifth season of the show, which aired today on Netflix because the series is a dark look at American politics. House Of Cards was once a cautionary tale of what could go absolutely wrong with a self-serving villain at the top of the U.S. government; now, it is competing with reality. In some ways, the fifth season of House Of Cards suffers for that; the writers and executive producers did not seem to have a clear idea of what to do with the show after the hole they wrote themselves into tat the end of the prior season and what has happened in American politics since.
Ironically, the fifth season of House Of Cards begins at a position that should have a lot of inherent interest for the fans. At the climax of House Of Cards season four (reviewed here!), Francis Underwood's crimes were laid bare by Tom Hammerschmidt and the U.S. was dealing with a domestic terrorism situation that President and Claire Underwood were looking to exploit. How President Underwood could possibly survive the events of the first season (reviewed here!) becoming public is inherently intriguing. House Of Cards Season 5, despite potentially having less of a "hook" to it, begins at a place that has a lot of potential to it, but the season has to maintain and progress the story through the inevitable election storyline and then create a new hook for the sixth season.
In order to give the season any real dramatic tension surrounding the election of Francis Underwood to the Presidency, House Of Cards essentially neglects the bombshell of the past revelation and plays out a whole new level of political conspiracies. The fifth season of House Of Cards delays the results of the Presidential election and creates a crisis that is initially resolved using the Constitution . . . which allows Claire Underwood to temporarily assume the powers of the President.
Two weeks before the Presidential election, Claire Underwood is taping P.S.A.s for Homeland Security when President Underwood addresses Congress directly by appearing within the House Of Representatives. There, Underwood demands war be declared on ICO and the U.S. The Conway Campaign struggles to maintain momentum, while Hannah Conway makes a statement that could be construed as sympathetic to the domestic terrorists. After the funeral for the American who was killed, Claire Underwood has a conversation with the mother of the surviving domestic terrorist. Claire appeals to the terrorist's mother to have her son turn himself in.
Of course, Underwood has already caught Josh and when his usefulness expires, he has the FBI stage a death during "capture." As the investigation into Frank Underwood picks up prior to the election, Underwood has to influence the governors of swing states, including former Vice President Matthews. Claire is in New York when one of Frank's old classmates from the Sentinel lets her know that Tim has gone missing. Claire begins to worry that Ken might run off his mouth about Frank and Tim's relationship back in the day, while Seth Greyson offers to flip Stamper to the Congressional committee.
As Election Day looms, Underwood's staff begins to suspect that Conway's military heroism was manufactured. On Election Day, a terrorist threat is manufactured in Tennessee after low voter turnout is predicted in all of the polls. When Ohio also suspends its voting, the results of the election remain undecided for weeks. In the interim, Conway and Underwood work hard to influence Senators and House members in order to ratify the President and Vice Presidential elections. Ironically, Leann is able to deliver the votes that make Claire Underwood Vice President. With the Presidential contest unresolved, Claire Underwood is made temporary President.
But the election in House Of Cards is essentially over by the fifth episode of Season Five, which leaves nine episodes for the season to develop its next main plotline. While there are a few episodes in the middle of the season that explore a period of limbo which put Claire Underwood in the office of the President while Conway comes unhinged and his Vice Presidential running mate is essentially promised the post and uses his military contacts to orchestrate an attempt to influence the election. Ultimately, the fifth season of House Of Cards brings new adversaries into the political arena to combat the new Underwood Administration.
The latter half of the fifth season of House Of Cards finds the Underwoods dealing with a hostile Democrat who wants to replace Womack as Whip, an up and coming reporter who is slowly wooing Seth Grayson, and Conway's final campaign manager and a businesswoman who has assets and agendas all around the world. Jane Davis is introduced as a new major adversary who is playing political games on the level of the Underwoods with an agenda that appears to be motivated entirely by her own desire for profit.
House Of Cards has a tough tone for Season Five. More than in any prior season, it is obvious that the two lead protagonists in House Of Cards - Frank and Claire Underwood - have no friends. In the fifth season of House Of Cards everyone who surrounds the Underwoods is restless or flat-out hostile. While the show does an excellent job of illustrating why Frank Underwood is actually a better choice than Will Conway, who starts to come seriously unhinged and volatile, the only truly joyful portion of the season is the brief episodes while Claire Underwood is President. In fact, the ideal selling point for the sixth season would be to have a time leap in the story to eight years out as Claire Underwood prepares to assume the Presidency on her own.
In fact, tone is the real killer in the fifth season of House Of Cards. Unlike something like The West Wing (reviewed here!), where the characters are always working to build something, the characters in House Of Cards in the fifth season never seem to actually be working toward any agenda other than the maintenance of their own power. Seriously, when my business slowed, I mentioned to my wife that I thought it was time for me to apply for the Rural Internet Access program. That program was one that was part of The West Wing, but it was written in such a compelling way and with such clarity that for a time, I mistook it for something in reality. There is no analogous program or even idea in House Of Cards, something which becomes highlighted when ex-President Garrett Walker makes a reappearance and actually comments on how he wanted to do great things for the United States.
As a result, House Of Cards drags some through its fifth season. The show fails to hit and truly compelling notes; Claire does not assert her authority and independence in the brief time she is President to help make the de facto argument that women can handle the role for a U.S. audience and the Underwoods seem like a broken couple yet again. House Of Cards is most interesting when Frank and Claire work as a team together; in Season Five, Frank is just back to doing his own thing without ever listening to Claire's good advice. So, the fifth season of House Of Cards is very unsatisfying.
In the fifth season of House Of Cards, the essential characters are:
Francis Underwood – President of the United States, he is beseiged on all sides as he fights for re-election. When voter turnout risks his chances of being elected, he manufactures a crisis in order to delay the results. He wins his first election for President by getting damning quotes from his opponents. But as soon as he is inaugurated, he has to wrangle a new upstart Democrat and fend off constant attacks by Tom Hammerschmidt. He stops listening to Claire Underwood and in ignoring her advice, he inadvertantly sets Garrett Walker off,
Claire Underwood – Polling better as Vice President than the President is, she manages to get confirmed before it becomes clear Congress will not elect a Presidential candidate. She assumes the Presidency during the uncertain time and she turns to Tom for companionship when Francis is distant from her. She is approached by Jane Davis during a crisis manufactured by a powerful General. She tries to both advise Frank Underwood and secure her political future,
Katherine Durant – The Secretary Of State, she has reservations about the President's declaration of war against ICO and his attempt to make more radical travel restrictions. She is made deeply uncomfortable by Underwood's actions, especially when there is a new Middle Eastern situation brewing (thanks to Jane Davis) that can actually be prevented. Against all odds, she remains loyal to the Underwoods during the most trying times,
Thomas Yates - Speechwriter for the Underwoods and Claire's paramour, he starts to get sloppy and restless. After having an affair on Claire with the White House tour guide, he struggles to find his place with Claire. He wants to write and seems tired of having to keep his relationship with Claire Underwood entirely under wraps,
Doug Stamper – Having an on-again, off-again relationship with the widow of the man who died so the President could get a liver donation, he frequently feels marginalized. He is still the most loyal member of Frank's staff. He drinks on Election night when it looks like Underwood might lose the election. He does not trust Seth Grayson and he works to keep Rachel Posner from resurfacing as an issue. He finally comes clean to the widow and gets an unexpected response,
Leann Harvey – She acts as intermediary with Aiden and has strong feelings for MacAllen. She fights and negotiates for Claire to get the Vice Presidency. She works to protect the Underwood Administration, but when MacAllen goes on the run, she is pushed out of the Administration's staff. When MacAllen sends her sensitive information, she comes back on Stamper's radar,
Aidan MacAllen - Very nervous about the NSA taking his algorithms, he is convinced by Leann to infiltrate the NSA to alter his algorithms and use the NSA to disseminate new information. He creates a massive cyberattack in order to destroy his algorithm. Terrified by how his work has been used, on election night, he jumps ship and goes into hiding. He ends up in Indonesia before being captured by the Russians. His return becomes a priority for President Claire Underwood, but his extraction is delayed until later. Upon returning to the U.S., he is unable to live with all he has done,
Conway – Experiencing tension with his wife, the Republican Governor of New York and the Presidential candidate for the Republican Party, he starts to crack. When his Vice Presidential runningmate references his war record, he has to use his military experience to carry his campaign. He does a twenty-four hour live-stream in order to try to differentiate himself from the Underwoods. When the election results are delayed, he becomes twitchy and starts to illustrate that he is not cut out for the Presidency,
Jane Davis - A businesswoman with contacts in every part of the world, including in places where the U.S. has no functional presence, she manages to get herself into a government bunker during a key crisis to get President Claire Underwood's ear. She wants Claire as President and is part of conspiracies worldwide intended to advance her causes and bring her profit,
Tom Hammerschmidt - The former editor of The Washington Herald debates with Claire Underwood on Charlie Rose. He continues to run a specialized team of reporters at the Herald, which now seems dedicated to trying to bring down the Underwood Administration. When his efforts fail to keep Frank Underwood from getting elected, he starts getting flash drives packed with damning information on Underwood's schemes,
Mark Usher - A Republican political operative, he joins Conway's campaign at the very end. When he starts to see that Conway is unfit for duty, he prepares to prop Conway's Vice Presidential candidate up to take over. When Underwood learns of that plan, Usher jumps ship and helps Frank win back the Presidency. He joins the Underwood Administration as a senior advisor, though he is playing Romero and Davis against the Underwoods as well,
and Alex Romero – An upstart Democratic congressman leading a progressive block, he has no love of Frank Underwood. He worked with Mark Usher in the past, but does not respect Usher or Romero. His ambitions lead him to make a deal with Underwood and, when he is betrayed, he leaves the Democratic party.
House Of Cards features an exceptional cast. Kevin Spacey, Michael Kelly, and Neve Campbell all give good performances. Colm Feore is criminally underused in House Of Cards Season 5. Patricia Clarkson erupts into the fifth season in a role that might be the first one I've ever seen her play where I did not like the character she was playing. Clarkson's Jane Davis is slimy as they come and Clarkson is masterful in the role.
Robin Wright and Jayne Atkinson rule the performances in House Of Cards Season Five. Wright is incredibly presidential as Claire Underwood. Atkinson manages to play both skittish and competent in ways that most actors could not manage.
Ultimately, their performances are not enough to make the dreary fifth season of House Of Cards enjoyable to watch. Yet another season of House Of Cards passes where none of the characters are likable and nothing actually happens save that the tenuous political administration it details desperately maintains power.
For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
"The Return Part 4" - Twin Peaks
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Season 3
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Season 4
Sense8 - Season 2
Dear White People - Season 1
Legends Of Tomorrow - Season 2
"The Pyramid " - Doctor Who
The Walking Dead - Season 7
Thirteen Reasons Why - Season 1
Grace And Frankie - Season 3
Iron Fist - Season 1
Love - Season 2
Santa Clarita Diet - Season 1
A Series Of Unfortunate Events - Season 1
One Day At A Time - Season 1
Travelers - Season 1
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"Finish Line" - The Flash
"Nevertheless, She Persisted" - Supergirl
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1
For other television reviews, please be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.