Deep into the twelfth episode of this epic season, Frank Underwood has the viewer in the palm of his hand. Enchanted and repelled, we are on the edge of our seats, clinging to his every word as he muses on the nature of power, ideology and entertainment. The personal touch Underwood affords his audience causes us to root for this villain and so when he turns his gaze away from us and towards his fellow politicians in this crucial scene, there is a sharp intake of breath as the tension reaches its unbearable crescendo. At this moment – as at so many others in its eleven-hour long season – House of Cards has achieved the most monumental of televisual ambitions, detaching the viewer completely from their ordinary life and engrossing them so deeply in the Cards universe it is as if they are literally by the President’s side. After all, as Frank wonders – with all the foolishness and indecision in our lives, why not a man like him?
“the most monumental of televisual ambitions”
With the departure of showrunner Beau Willimon and the fear that the reality of American politics might overshadow the series, the success of the fifth season of this Netflix drama was far from assured. Cards has always been an inconsistent beast and whilst the fourth series was a return to form, many doubted whether fiction could once again prove stranger and more compelling than reality. That the show is as captivating as ever in Trump’s America is a testament to new show runners Melissa Gibson and Frank Pugliese’s direction and the stellar performances of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Whilst the first half of the season – focusing on the election campaigns that begun in Season Four – slightly outstays its welcome, the second half – where attention turns to the aftermath of the election – sees the show really hit the heights. Here Wright must take particular credit. Whether she is revealing the darkest depths of Claire Underwood or showing a rare glimpse of genuine emotion, she does so in a way that indicates she has become completely at one with her character. Moreover, Wright directs the final two – and best – episodes of the season, further enhancing her reputation as one of the most talented women in Hollywood. There is little that hasn’t already been said about Spacey’s performance as Frank Underwood but it is worth noting that he is brilliant once again, delivering razor-sharp dialogue and continuing to capture the subtleties that have made this such an iconic role. It speaks volumes of both leads that outstanding performances have come to be expected of them but it is thrilling to see them delivery so emphatically in a way that positively screams ‘Emmy Award.’
One criticism of Cards has always been its slightly one-dimensional secondary characters and whilst the show contains the most interesting supporting cast since the days of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes, this problem is not entirely resolved in its fifth instalment. Election rivals Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) and Ted Brockhart (Colm Feore) have their moments but are generally underwhelming whilst the much-maligned Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) delivers his most jarring performance to date, given little to do other than wonder aimlessly around the White House and deliver pretentious dialogue. Nonetheless the addition of two powerful characters brings fresh impetus to the series with Campbell Scott portraying election guru Mark Usher and Patricia Campbell bringing the mysterious Jane Davies to life. Both characters quickly become essential members of Team Underwood but we are forced to questions their intentions and loyalties as part of a broader circle of distrust. Throw fiercely loyal Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), shady Director of Communications Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) and Campaign Manager LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell) back into the mix – all whilst journalist Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) continues to investigate the ghosts of the Underwood’s past with increased success – and we are left with an overflowing pot that is close to boiling point as these characters battle to prop up or bring down the Underwood administration.
“The stakes are raised, the knives are out and the deck is wobbling”
One question that fans had going into the season is whether Claire – who stared into the camera at the end of Season Four – would join her husband in breaking the fourth wall. Whilst this question is answered in a way that should satisfy viewers, the fifth season ends with many other questions left hanging in the air. We are sixty-five episodes into this series and still the writers are discovering new and authentic angles from which to explore these characters that leave us questioning everything we thought we knew about them. No character’s true intentions are fully visible amongst the tangled web of political deceit, leaving fans a long twelve months to speculate about exactly what just happened and what will happen next. From its terrific opening scene to its nail-biting conclusion, House of Cards Season 5 does not yield. The best series since the first, it perfectly captures the darkness and tension that drew us into this universe in the first place. The stakes are raised, the knives are out and the deck is wobbling. Even after watching thirteen episodes in a matter of days, we are left crying out for more.