Overview: After formally declaring war on ICO, President Frank Underwood must fight off enemies of all sorts to secure the office of the Presidency. 2017; Netflix; TV-14; 13 episodes.
This review may contain spoilers.
Act I – We are the Terror: This year, Netflix’s flagship television series, House of Cards, lost itself its original showrunner, Beau Willimon. With a show that had already spent four seasons depicting the contemporary political climate as theater, as a historical battlefield, and as reality television now without its main showrunner, one could argue that it really doesn’t have anything more to offer. However, luckily enough, Willimon laid the groundwork for House of Cards’ fifth season in President Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) final lines of Season Four: “We are the terror.”
Season Five takes those lines and determinedly rolls with the message to depict politics as terror, or in other words, chaos as political. The fifth season (now the third season of House of Cards focused on the 2016 Presidential election) ups the ante and makes all aspects of the show a mess for every character to find their way out of. One of Frank’s early decisions in the season is the manipulation of media and government officials to create the illusion of terrorist attacks in key voting stations that he knew were going to go to his opponent, Governor Conway (Joel Kinnaman). Frank even lets his decisions regarding the war on the terrorist group ICO be dictated by how well it would affect his chances of winning votes.
Frank gives many orders like these throughout the season, and even blatantly says that he’s “creating chaos,” and it manifests itself in the stakes of the season as well. Due to the chaos, Frank himself is left vulnerable to many opponents trying to take him down. The Presidency, its government position and its meaning, becomes a free-for-all, as Frank does pretty much everything he can to stay in power. The season itself is messy and hard to keep track off, but the few comprehensible storylines do provide the strength of the season. The President backed up against a wall, fighting for the Presidency.
Act II – Enemies on All Fronts: The fifth season is a bubble just about to burst. It features a multitude of characters and storylines that are never streamlined or held in focus, and instead are just painted in broad strokes.
All 28 main cast members are given a serviceable amount of screen time, but showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese never give enough time and thought to a scene to attach any sort of emotional weight to the motivations of the characters that actually matter. Plotlines like the inner demons of Doug Stamper and the relationship between LeAnn Harvey and fugitive Aidan Macallan never get anywhere because the showrunners spend a lot of screentime running in circles around the same point, never developing the characters’ storylines beyond “I am remorseful” and “He means a lot to me,” respectively. However, by the end of the season, nothing has come out of it. It has added nothing to the character or the overall season. Simultaneously, characters such as Mark Usher and Jane Davis are either poorly defined or being kept mysterious until their deeper motivations can be revealed at a later date. Either way, it just adds to the problem of screentime being focused on the plot over the character.
In contrast to this, the third season (which is arguably the best season) spent the bare minimum effort on developing the plot. Instead, the season, fundamentally, was just a series of loosely-connected vignettes centered on the President’s first year in office. The plot was very much in the background, while the characters drove the season, which allowed for a season that enriched the audience’s understanding of Frank, Claire (Robin Wright), their relationship, and even Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). Season Five could’ve returned to that approach, but for whatever reason, the season noticeably chose the spectacle and craziness of trying to mirror and exaggerate the current political climate of the United States, which has never been the true draw of House of Cards.
Act III – The House Collapses: In many ways, Season Five unfortunately displays all the bad aspects that season one had and tried to avoid. Season Five commits the same mistake of keeping Frank’s cards close to chest (metaphor intended) by not letting the audience in on his big plan, just to make the finale a big revelation. This error in approach just made Frank’s storyline and motivation this season harder to comprehend, just as it did in Season One, but without the saving grace of a satisfying ending.
While season one was very “plot over character,” it was never neglectful of character and character motivation. The same cannot be said for Season Five, which tends to go against previously established character behavior and development. The most glaring example of this in the first few episodes is Governor Conway. The fifth season turns the strategically arrogant, narcissistic governor from New York into an anxious, easily-manipulated, and unwise candidate who eventually loses the election due to poor decisions. His downfall is noticeably untrue to the character, for his anxiousness, impulsiveness and PTSD are roughly established during this season. A more true to character downfall would’ve been through his arrogant and narcissistic use of social media and search engines, as established in season four. Season Four already depicted him losing on a smaller scale due to that and it already established that the Underwood’s know how to manipulate him through that, so it wasn’t very satisfying to see a primary antagonist storyline be resolved through means that are out of left field.
Different characters suffer from this problem, but the most egregious is the mishandling of Frank Underwood’s character. Frank Underwood, as depicted in the first and second season, is a politician gunning for higher office, and ultimately, more power. That’s his primary motivation throughout the first two seasons, and if judged in terms of that, the ending of season five makes sense. Frank gives up the Presidency, for he realized that there was a higher power outside of the Oval Office. Fair enough. However, season five neglects the deeper motivation behind Frank’s character that was established in season three. Frank Underwood wants power to build a legacy. Frank wants to be immortalized through his work and be respected for all-time. The ending of season five neglects this, for he can’t attain this by working behind-the-scenes of the Presidency. If Frank’s sole goal was power over the United States, he would’ve stayed in Congress, for it has been established multiple times that even as Congressional Whip, Frank had the power to sway the trajectory of the country. It’s a disappointing, ill-conceived direction to take the character in.
Overall: “People stack so easily,” said Frank Underwood in the David Fincher-directed second episode of the first season. The show has definitely come a long way since then. Gone from House of Cards is the delivery of sordid spectacle that only emphasizes the cold and drab emptiness of Washington, D.C., and now replaced by empty spectacle.
Featured Image: Netflix