It’s fashionable to say that politically driven shows like Veep and House of Cards have been made irrelevant by the Trump administration, because no scheme the shows’ writers dream up could be nuttier than whatever headline you read right before you clicked on this review. But that thought never occurred to me while watching the bugnuts fifth season of Netflix’s potboiler. I keep seeing the same joke recycled on social media: that the current White House is House of Cards as performed by the cast of Veep. But that doesn’t seem right, because it fails to capture the creeping dread and incipient chaos of 2017 that this show mirrors so perfectly, though coincidentally (it began production before last year’s election). The Veep characters are dangers mainly to themselves, and they tend to get humiliated or at least reprimanded when the karmic wheel comes around. They might not learn anything from their experiences — nor should they; drama is about people changing or failing to change, while comedy is about how people revert to type — but their destructive idiocy doesn’t trouble us, because there’s never any risk that the show’s fictionalized United States will end up isolated and despised as a result of Selina Meyer’s tomfoolery, or burn in nuclear hellfire sparked by a tweet. Reality has caught up with House of Cards’ black-comic political noir in its fifth season — the first without original showrunner Beau Willimon, the show is helmed now by Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese (who have been writers on the show since its third season). It’s actually a tad more reassuring than reality because here, at least, when the key players aren’t acting like petulant children with bodyguards, they appear to know what they’re doing.
House always seemed less ridiculous to international viewers whose governments have been corroded or dismantled by goons whose brazenness is another source of power; but the show’s warlord’s-eye view of governance seems less ludicrous now that every day brings new reports of abuse of executive power, naked corruption, boastful cruelty, and bottomless greed. The slowly unfurling Russia investigation, the reports of the First Family leveraging its influence for profit, and the widespread encouragement of violence against protesters and reporters are but a few developments that might’ve been dismissed as far-fetched had House of Cards introduced them earlier in the show’s run. In its fifth season, House of Cards’ plotting is goofier than ever. But it connects with reality in a more unsettling way, as if it is somehow feeding on the unease that accompanies its debut.
Jumping off from last season’s cliffhanger, the premiere finds the Macbeths of South Carolina, Frank and his running mate and First Lady Claire (Robin Wright), sweating a tight presidential race against Republican Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), a war hero turned governor of New York, and his loyal second fiddle, General Brockhart (Colm Feore). The country is teetering on the brink of second global war on terror, sparked by the beheading of a U.S. citizen by domestic terrorists who pledge allegiance to an ISIL-like army of fundamentalists. Anybody who’s spent even one episode in Frank’s company won’t be surprised to learn that he aims to leverage xenophobic panic into patriotic bloodlust. None of his plotting is really about the fate of the United States, no matter how righteously he fumes about the despoiling of our borders and his wish to liberate the citizens from fear. (Frank’s actually fine with fear as long as he’s generating it.) He wants to prove that he’s still the most powerful man on earth, win the election, and divert attention from the journalists and political enemies who are digging up his old bad deeds and want to see him investigated and impeached.
Spacey’s honeysuckle drawl and flinty-eyed leer are as amusing as ever. He’s almost always the broadest performer in any given room, but that’s part of the show’s design — a way of drawing us into the character’s almost omnisciently evil mindset. Watch House of Cards long enough and you start to think the way Frank does, studying the playbooks of friends and foes and deducing how to neutralize or destroy them. Spacey contracts Frank’s center of gravity, as if to make him seem prematurely old. He’s like an aging fighter who can’t dazzle his opponents with footwork anymore but still knows how to end a fight with a single, well-placed punch.
Around season three, when Claire became her husband’s equal in treachery, Wright’s Ice Queen Jackie performance became as riveting as Spacey’s (it was always subtler). They’re more of a team here than ever before, a power couple bonded by their desire to stay in the White House indefinitely, as well as by the knowledge that they’ll never find a mate more suitable than the one that (sometimes) sleeps next to them. Claire’s fourth-wall breaking close-up at the end of season four — the first such close-up she’d been given — hinted at a deeper self-possession. There are more where that came from. This new run of episodes does a great job of making us wonder if Claire could decisively turn on Frank or if she’s playing us as skillfully as she plays everyone else. Even her relationship with her side piece, novelist turned speechwriter Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), is plugged into whatever is roiling beneath Claire’s masklike face. Something’s happening here, and it’s not love; we won’t know exactly what until she shows us.
There’s a methodical madness to this new season that feels of the moment. It’s the underlying sense of slow-burn panic that puts it across — and not just on Frank’s side; mid-season contrivances put every major player on the defensive, including Frank, who’s spun one of those fiendishly elaborate movie-bad-guy schemes where if one element doesn’t go as planned, the whole thing will collapse like a you-know-what. It’s a grand unraveling, recounted with the twists and turns of one of those Frank Underwood historical anecdotes that invariably concludes with the same moral: Don’t underestimate me.
Frank is still a maestro of skullduggery. The show indulges his hambone theatrics in some of House of Cards’ most memorable confessional interludes. One is staged as a long, uncut take of Frank walking around a freeze-framed gathering, pointing at allies and obstructionists and describing them like a bitchy museum docent riffing on bad paintings. Another sees him visiting a series of tourist-friendly landmarks while holding forth on the cosmic wisdom of the coin flip — a montage that could double as an ad for Washington, D.C., if the goal were to convince everybody to stay away.
But there are also hints that years of winning have deluded Frank into thinking he’ll never really lose. There are even suggestions that both he and Claire have cast themselves as the stars of their life movies for so long that they’ve failed to really think about what kind of movie they’re in. Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s film noir classic Double Indemnity is the subject of a major sequence that puts a new frame around the Underwoods’ marriage and makes us wonder if Claire hasn’t been the show’s secret motor all along (though it’s too calculating to pull the trigger on that notion). Film noir often revolves around scheming, egocentric lovers who think they’re evenly matched when one is secretly smarter and more brutal than the other. Which one is the alpha, though? We used to assume it was Frank, but now that they both can confide in us with their eyes, we aren’t so sure. But even if one of the Underwoods is smarter than the other, that’s no guarantee that they’re smarter than the rest of the world combined. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck thought they could get away with murder, but they didn’t count on Edward G. Robinson’s insurance investigator, Keyes, whose nose for deception manifested itself as a little man gnawing at his belly.
Not since season four of Boardwalk Empire has a season of a fashionably grim, popular drama made me want to go back and reconsider every withering thing I’ve written about it. Cards seems to have freed itself of the obligation to obey even cursory rules of realism, save for certain parliamentary ones, and those are observed only so that we can follow along as Underwood plays chess with human pieces. What’s onscreen feels a little bit like Ridley Scott’s batty gothic legal drama The Counselor or Denis Villenueve’s kidnap thriller Prisoners, where a big part of the fun came from watching solid actors navigate drastic shifts in tone while making you believe in the emotional reality of things that can’t happen.
In that spirit, season five of House of Cards is a paranoid fantasy with dollops of Veep-like farce. One scene plays like a twisted hat tip to Game of Thrones, and there’s another where a man screws his lover on top of the podium in the White House briefing room. The cold openings are genuinely surprising: One is so tonally bizarre that for a second I assumed I’d clicked on the wrong series by mistake, and others zigzag so playfully from whatever the last episode led me to expect that I laughed out loud in wary admiration. There are unexpected time jumps, surreal interludes, and moments of tenderness and insecurity (mostly, though not always, between Frank and Claire). The subplots of key supporting characters — Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper, Kinnaman’s ’roided-up Mr. Smith of a governor, and Boris McGiver’s alternately cocky and morose Washington Herald editor Tom Hammerschmidt — connect with Frank and Claire’s arcs, not just through the crackpot intricacies of the main story line, but through their shared sense of helplessness in the face of the dark forces that Frank has unleashed.
I’m not saying that House of Cards has become great popular art all of a sudden — only that it was always a fun show, and that in its fifth season it’s so addictive, and knows itself and its audience so well, that I can’t in good conscience label it a guilty pleasure anymore. It’s a self-actualized spider realizing for the first time that it can hang upside down from the ceiling and savoring the change in perspective. So many shoulders to fall on, so little time.