TV Review: “House of Cards” Season 5 – The House Wins

Written by Jeremiah Greville June 12, 2017

House of Cards Season 5 - The Underwoods

House of Cards is a show about corruption, whether it’s the kind that comes with absolute power, or the taint on one’s soul as they lust after it. What would you do to achieve power? What would you do keep it? For Frank and Claire Underwood, the answer is ‘almost anything’. And that makes for riveting television, as we get to tune in and watch them scheme their way to the top. Season 5 has recently premiered on Netflix, bringing with it thirteen new instalments in the Underwood saga. It’s the best the series has been in years. Who knew dirty politics could be such clean fun?

House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as Frank and Claire Underwood, the amoral, power-hungry, Machiavellian masters of the Oval Office. Season 5 sees the Underwoods—now a joint ticket as president and vice-president—campaigning for re-election against Republican idealist Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). Michael Kelly, Neve Campbell, and Boris McGiver all return to bigger roles this season, while newcomers Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott, and Korey Jackson add fresh voices to the cast. It’s difficult to discuss any season—or character—of House of Cards without significant spoilers, but I’ll try to keep them to an absolute minimum.

“Underwood 2016. 2020. 2024. 2028…”

Though it’s pedantic to the point of cliche to mention how similar House of Cards is to the current administration, it nonetheless has to be addressed. It’s absolutely flabbergasting that we live in a time of American political conflict that rivals the very show meant to outdo it. But this is where we are now. The biggest entertainment draw for Washington politicians and reporters in the past month hasn’t been a new season of House of Cards, but the Comey senate testimony hearing. And as someone who follows both political and entertainment news, I’m hard-pressed to blame them. The Comey statement and testimony were riveting. The glut of daily Trump administration leaks has been extraordinary. And through it all, yes, American politics has remained entertaining—more so than ever.

house of cards

But the similarities stop there. Politics and entertainment make for interesting bedfellows, but should never be confused for one another. House of Cards is a riveting, high-stakes fictional television show. The real-life controversies surrounding the current U.S. Administration are more important, more dangerous, and more life-changing. They are terrifyingly—perhaps edifyingly—real. I write this not to downplay the power of fiction or entertainment, but to remind us all where the line is. House of Cards is a show about a corrupt administration, but in the end it’s just a show. While it echos real life, it will never replace it.

“…2032. 2036. One nation. Underwood.”

However, since House of Cards Season 5 finished production well into the Trump presidency, there are several subtle references to the current administration. When Frank turns to the camera and says, “this democracy, your democracy, elected me,” it’s a pretty clear condemnation of the recent election. But apart from a general sense of betrayal among the American people, there’s very little else to tie House of Cards to modern politics. The evil conspiracy of House of Cards is entirely its own. And to the show’s credit, this is the best that conspiracy has been since the second season.

House of Cards - Frank Season 5

The Underwoods have been in control of the White House for two seasons now with little political danger or upheaval. Seasons 3 and 4, subsequently, have lacked the momentum and edge of the first two, and the show has suffered. Season 5 luckily—finally–changes that. While the first half focuses on the election between the Underwoods and Conway, the second half deals with significant ramifications from previous events in the show. At long last, the Underwoods are forced to confront the evil they’ve done and created. Their calculated responses to these renewed threats have made this one of the best seasons yet.

“This is where the real power is.”

Newcomer Korey Jackson brings the biggest dose of personality House of Cards has seen in some time. His fresh-faced confidence and ambition in the face of corruption is uniquely compelling, and mirrors the Underwoods on a smaller scale. Patricia Clarkson, meanwhile, is the strangest addition to the show. Her mysterious role as Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade is never fully explained. Her position seems to give her insights and power even the President doesn’t have, yet her uneven demeanour with the Underwoods raises many questions. This is, of course, all intentional, but the mystery surrounding her saps Clarkson’s scenes of momentum and subtext. Of all the new characters, she fares the worst.

House of Cards - Claire Season 5

Boris McGiver returns as aging newshound Tom Hammerschmidt, and sees his role greatly expanded. He’s an atypical face to see so often on a TV show, but is one of the most important characters in House of Cards. This season, his investigation took him deeper into the Underwoods’ web than ever before, and he’s shaping up to be their biggest threat yet. McGiver’s performance is reliably solid throughout. However, Michael Kelly is the once again the supporting cast member who steals the show. While his personal struggles were front and centre last season, this time we get a glimpse into the Chief of Staff’s darker triumphs when he’s off the clock. The moments when he bends but doesn’t break are some of the best moments on television.

“No. History is earned.”

But in the end, House of Cards will always be about its stars. Kevin Spacey, with his implacable accent, continues to embody the most iconic role of his career. And Robin Wright shines as a politician every bit his equal, often stealing scenes with a single look. While Claire Underwood has always been given narrative focus, Season 5 is the first time she rivals Frank in pure political power. Wright doesn’t miss the opportunity to act the hell out of every scene she’s given, and ends up stealing the show in more ways than one. Her performance is so bewilderingly natural that it’s amazing to think she also plays an Amazonian warrior in the new Wonder Woman movie. Two entirely different characters, and she disappears completely in them both.

House of Cards - The Lovers

While I’ll remain tight lipped on the finer points of House of Cards‘ fifth season, there are some plot points that do bear mention. The Underwoods have one of the most notoriously open marriages in all of television, and their relationships with their respective lovers is one of the highlights of this season. Despite Clarkson’s screen presence, this season never truly loses momentum, whether it’s following Will Conway on a televised 24-hour marathon, or Frank among a bunch of robed figures in an elaborate pagan ceremony. House of Cards has always been about the blurry line and causal relation between hubris and self-destruction. And nowhere is that more clear than in the fifth season.

“My turn.”

House of Cards is one of the finest political dramas ever made. The acting is superb, the writing is compelling, and the story is both classically Shakespearean and doggedly current. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright continue to deliver two of the finest performances of their careers. And this season as a whole finally course-corrects the missteps of the previous two. The political manoeuvring is back. The endgame is in sight. Yet House of Cards is in no danger of toppling any time soon. You can check out Season 5 on Netflix now.

My Rating. 8.5/10

house of cards

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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