House of Cards Season-Premiere Recap: Nevertheless, He Persisted

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Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix
House of Cards

House of Cards

Chapter 53 Season 5 Episode 1
Editor's Rating 3 stars

Season five begins with Claire Underwood, cheekbones strong as the day is long, staring us straight in our less-cheekbone-y faces and asking, “It’s terrifying, isn’t it?” GIRL. You don’t even know.

Really, though: This season premiere is plagued by that feeling of you don’t even know, the sense that House of Cards is coming to us from some vacuum-sealed place where no one keeps up with the approximately 10,000 breaking-news alerts sending our phones into seizures every hour. This is not a show winking knowingly at reality, as it perhaps once was; it’s a show that keeps bumping into reality like a drunk stumbling around a bar, crashing into other patrons who are just trying to enjoy a chill happy hour. (Filming started last July — a.k.a. a few back-to-back forevers ago — and wrapped in February.)

While Claire works on this fear-mongering PSA about seeing something and saying something because terrorists walk among us, Frank puts on his “Kiss me, I used to be in Congress” pin, barges into their chambers, and hijacks the whole session, stealing the mic from the gentlemen from whatever states and theatrically chucking the Washington Herald, stuffed with its pesky allegations that Frank is a criminal. He marches into the room to the sound of a military snare, so no surprise that his strategy for changing the conversation is to feign disgust at being the center of attention when it is time to formally declare war against ICO.

ICO is the show’s fictional terrorist faction, and I get that it’s very difficult to come up with realistic-sounding fictional terrorist factions, but … really, ICO? Pronounced “eye-koh”? It sounds like something a focus group might name an online banking app. Anyway, you may remember them as the group to which two strapping, white 20-something American guys pledged allegiance last season. It was in the name of ICO that these two beheaded ordinary, Denny’s-eating citizen Jim Miller and kidnapped Jim’s wife and daughter, Melissa. One of these dudes is already dead. Josh is the one who is still alive and reportedly at large; he has this little chinstrap, Ed Sheeran–y facial-hair situation that makes him even less sympathetic than he was when we could only hear his voice on the phone.

Anyway, Frank grandstands a lot and generally acts like That Man Who Interrupts Everyone in Meetings. Even when Madame Speaker insists he yield the floor, nevertheless, he persists. He bellows, “I WILL NOT YIELD.” He was violating the very rules he manipulated to get access to the proceedings in the first place, a totally on-brand move. “YOU WILL ALL GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS COWARDS.” Honestly, no one in that room is going down in history as anything. Maybe they’ll be half a blurb in a “did you know?” box in the textbooks of tomorrow. If they’re lucky.

Frank goes to Jim Miller’s funeral and is remarkably clumsy about the whole situation. It’s pretty clear that the Millers don’t want him there: Melissa, angsty teen, interrupts her mom’s eulogy to say, “You killed my father, you’re the reason he died,” so, yeah, I’d say, not the best PR for Frank with two weeks to go until the election. Conway is also there and is also impressively graceless, staging a pissing contest with Frank just feet away from the grieving family. And when Frank does go talk to the Millers, he doesn’t even ask them how they are. Is that so hard to do? Have any of the politicians in House of Cards ever had a conversation with a regular person?

Melissa later whispers in Frank’s ear: “I hope you die.”

You might think, what with reality being so bonkers, it would be impossible for anything in HoC to strike a viewer as implausible. But so much that happens in this episode makes no sense, even in the context of our totally senseless world. Why is Claire on Charlie Rose with Tom from the Herald? Why would she even bring up Lucas Goodwin? (R.I.P., buddy.) Why would she be called upon to talk about national security? And maybe I’m naïve, but I find it hard to believe there is no one running for president in the HoC universe that cares, at least an itty-bitty bit, about the fact that a man was just beheaded.

Another thought: Wouldn’t Conway be more interesting if he weren’t all but twirling a mustache in every single scene? Cartoon villainy is so dull. His wife, Hannah, is much more intriguing: Although someone savvy enough to get to where she is wouldn’t be foolish enough to just post a video like that without running it by an entire phalanx of social-media and communications people on the Conway campaign, the fact that she still has these flashes of humanity, unlike her husband, makes her unpredictable and fascinating to observe. (Meanwhile, Claire apologizes to Frank for crying at a funeral.)

Frank wants to declare total war — not clear what that would entail, exactly — mostly as a diversion tactic from the Herald. (Another thing: Wouldn’t playing up the threat of war only make Conway, the candidate with actual military experience and a whole war-hero shtick, more attractive to the American people?) Frank has big dreams that include expanding the no-fly list and closing off our borders to people from the Middle Eastern countries where citizens are protesting him. Those meanies in the Middle East hurt Frank’s feelings, so now he has no choice but to lash out at an entire region, with zero thought to the global consequences of letting his ego dictate foreign policy. This is what I mean about the “whoops, we crashed into reality!” sensation: A president who wants to undermine the press and is willing to just lie, wildly, to keep everyone from reading the damning headlines? A president who deals with dissent by banning immigrants? It’s both too real and not-self-aware enough to be a thoughtful commentary on what’s happening out here.

Novel-writing Tom is still on hand as Claire’s sidepiece — her and Frank’s arrangement is just like that story on open marriage from The New York Times Magazine! — which, unfortunately for us, means we have to watch him aimlessly mosey around the residence, saying cryptic, not actually poetic or insightful stuff to Claire, and stealing what I’m pretty sure is that satchel of her baby teeth she found at her mom’s place in Dallas.

Later, we see Claire at a burned-out convenience store — her choice atrocity from a bunch offered up to her by Leann — and as she boldly tells everybody not to worry, the NSA is spying on all of us, someone calls her a war whore and throws a thing of paint at her. It’s okay: Tom is there to lick her wounds, literally. Why does Claire wear so much beige in this episode, by the way? Makes her seem so mousy, compared to her usual ivory or ebony color palette.

That’s all good and strange, but the oddest sequence in the episode comes when Claire insists on staging a one-on-one meeting with Josh’s mom. As we discover at the end of the hour, Josh isn’t missing at all! He’s already in custody, and Frank has been letting officers beat him up to extract information until it becomes convenient to announce his capture. Claire knows … right? She has to know — and knowing that she knows turns what was already a brutal confrontation into borderline psychological torture. She grills Josh’s mom for not knowing about the terrorist under her own roof, as if Claire doesn’t understand how possible it is to be blind to the darkest parts of the people closest to you. (Also, Claire just spent so much time with her mother, from whom she was so distant. Does she really not get how parents can miss the obvious in their own kids?) Because Claire clearly doesn’t need Josh’s mom to find Josh, I guess the sole purpose of this emotional horror show is to get Josh’s mom to beg her son to turn himself in on camera.

About that whole “Josh is alive” thing: not for long! Frank instructs his lackey to “get rid of the asset … get some good, usable footage of his killing and then destroy everything else.” Doug is there, his heart torn asunder, but he follows Frank out in silence, as he must, for his devotion to Frank is absolute, as pure and bright as the fire at the center of the sun that never sheds light on his Sadness Cave.

In other news, Aidan hacked into the NSA. You remember him, right? He’s the data scientist who tipped off the Underwoods to the Conways’ sketchy use of Pollyhop — that’s the fake search engine; wow, the HoC writers are not great at coming up with fake names for stuff. Anyway, this hack involves lots of photos of waterfalls. As my understanding of cybersecurity is limited to “put a Post-it over your laptop camera because creeps are always trying to catch you Gchatting in your underwear,” I can’t explain the significance of this just yet.

Frank calls the Millers, who have made it inescapably clear that they want nothing to do with him. I am relieved that Melissa and her mom are not charmed at all by the Underwoods. But now that Melissa is a single, wounded brunette, I’m afraid Doug will try to take her out for coffee.

House of Cards Premiere Recap: Nevertheless, He Persisted