house of cards

House of Cards’ New Showrunners on Murder, Intrigue, and Real-life Parallels in Season 5

Claire Underwood. Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

This interview contains spoilers about the entire fifth season of House of Cards.

When Frank and Claire Underwood promise terror, they mean it. House of Cards opens its fifth season today with the president and First Lady (and running mate) waging the war on terror they pledged, rigging an election, and laying the groundwork for more murder and chaos.

By season’s end, three characters have died, while we meet two new political operatives — Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) — who both know how to get under everyone’s skin. Vulture spoke to new showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson about their transition from writers to bosses and the action-packed season. Warning: Many spoilers follow.

You’ve both been on the show for a while. How did you find the experience of showrunning and becoming your colleagues’ bosses?
Melissa James Gibson: It was exciting and humbling and great, in a nutshell.

Frank Pugliese: We’ve been here when we helped come up with and create the seasons conceptually and as far as the scripts go. But to carry on and keep going with that and be able to be on set and work with production and have a dialogue between the sets and the script and the story we’re telling — it was pretty awesome and a really good learning experience. I think it helped make the show better.

MJG: We were lucky to enter into a very well-oiled machine. That was hugely helpful.

FP: Melissa and I, coming out of theater, we’d always been used to the collaborative process so we approached this in a collaborative manner and just wanted to heighten and invite people’s strengths. Why not take advantage of that? At the end of the day, when they understood that we were all there to just try to make the best episode of TV possible, that part got easier. The hard part is just managing the time.

The Underwoods waste no time this season. So much of what they orchestrate and what happens mirrors real-world events. Many people are going to think these events inspired you, but I know you wrote the show long before the presidential election.
MJG: Yeah, that’s what’s so crazy. We were shooting episode ten and eleven on Election Day, so the season had long been broken and conceived and written, actually.

FP: Yeah, it was almost six months before. We had most of the story told and most of the scripts written. I mean, in a way, if there are any similarities, it’s because as writers and in the writers room, we were present and connected and tapping into things that were happening around us culturally and politically, which seems to be the same things that got Trump elected or worked towards Trump getting elected. So in a way, we’re responding to the same conditions.

MJG: We’re responding to the Zeitgeist.

FP: The show exploring nationalism and populism is something we started playing with starting in season three — the idea that a politician or a president might take advantage of that.

In the first episode, there’s discussion about an immigration ban, which was one of the first things President Trump tried to do when he took office. It’s so odd to watch that in fiction after it just happened.
FP: The thing that’s scary is that Melissa and I, before the season started, we had conversations about stuff we wanted to play with. And one of them plays off of where season four ends — someone taking advantage of terror and seeing how it plays out in the imagination to other people. So a lot of times we’d be like, what’s the worst thing Francis Underwood can get to do? How would he take this to the extreme? And the fact that some of that stuff is happening in the real world is scary.

Now I watch it and I think but that happened already, or it very well could. It’s not heightened TV anymore.
FP: We spend a lot of time imagining what could happen — we have some pretty great consultants and experts that visit and work with us, and sometimes we talk about what’s possible. Whatever we do, whatever we did last season, we wanted to make sure it was actually as outrageous as it seemed. And so, a lot of these people have sort of a predictive feel. I mean, we’re a little bit in touch with what could happen and I guess some of it happened.

Robin Wright’s been doing interviews out of Cannes where she’s saying that the presidency has basically ruined season six — Trump’s been stealing your ideas for season six. Do you think that’s true? Is it going to be much harder to compete with reality? FP: We don’t have to worry about Trump that much in a way because at the core, our show is about a marriage, a very unique marriage, and also our drama comes from the characters you met, the stories that have been told, the trajectory of that story, the continuum of that story, and we pull the curtain aside and let you in on some of the inside of it all. And that’s where a lot of our drama comes. That’s not gonna change if Trump was there or not.

MJG: I think two things: She’s being funny. But, yeah, the world on the show is all about overt and covert. And Trump is all overt. So, it’s a little different. Certainly, any show, any work of art, but also our entire lives and culture are reacting to a new reality. There’s no denying that. It’s all filtered through a new reality.

Let’s talk about how the season unfolded. They promised us terror. They give it to us. They rigged an election. It’s also interesting to me that you follow through on Claire becoming vice-president, and a lot more than that later.
We left the season with the Underwoods promising to foment chaos and fear. And that’s where we pick up season five. Frank and I, talking before this season, for us, there’d be the literal way to go. Which is to have them enter an actual war. But the other possibility was to think about how this could play out in the American psyche. It seemed promising to have the battlefield be in the imagination of the American people. And what can the Underwoods do to wage war there? That was the real starting point for us.

FP: We’d had discussions about how to explore Claire Underwood’s ambitions, and ambitions that she’s kept to herself, and where and how would she finally voice them or come to terms with them. And so the vice-president is actually an interesting way in because it’s one seat from the president, and it seemed like a place for her to explore some ambition she’s had for herself, maybe kept in check for a while. And she embraces those ambitions.

MJG: At the end of season four, they come to an agreement where it seems like power-sharing is going to be possible. And I think one of the questions we really delve into in season five is: Is that sustainable?

By the end of the season, Claire is president and she has essentially become Frank. I was shocked when she killed Tom. The three of them seemed like a happy family for a while. Do you agree that Claire is the new Frank?
FP: I don’t know if she’s become Frank.

MJG: Yeah, they’re different people.

FP: She’s pretty much ready to take him on on an equal playing field. She’s found a way to get herself to a point where she can take him on. In a way, they’re each other’s worst antagonist, and yet they need each other desperately.

MJG: She hasn’t become Frank, but she’s become his equal in every possible way. She’s done the deed now herself. Her hands are just as dirty as his. And I think it puts them on an equal footing going forward.

FP: And also, there was this trajectory to this season when it comes to the direct address and the complicity applied with the direct address. That used to be Francis’s domain, and now we played with that a little bit. And it’s also changed for Francis, and there’s also a way that Claire does it and Claire does it differently than Francis. And they had different reasons for doing it. The way they do their direct addresses or how they address the audience, you can see how they’re not exactly the same, and yet they’ve become equal somehow.

I noticed there was a lot more of that direct address this season than last. Why did you use that device more?
FP: Well, his complicity. He’s always asking the audience to come aboard and sort of validate him somehow.

MJG: And it implicates them.

FP: As a politician, it kind of makes sense in a way. We also wanted to put up the notion of: How do you test or how do you push that complicity? How much will the audience take? How much will the voter or the populace take? Can you be with him now? He’s actually pushing how far he can go with this complicity himself.

MJG: Right. How far are we all willing to go? And claim not to be fully involved. And I think that has relevance and reverberations in our real world as citizens.

FP: We made a specific choice to sort of dramatize those direct addresses and give them a journey in a way — see what happens to them and how they change. It became part of the storytelling.

MJG: The degree to which he engages in the direct address relates to how much he needs the audience to be on his side and onboard. I do think that’s part of what informs it.

Do you think it’s less so with Claire? She’s not doing it so much out of that need for approval?
FP: She has a different relationship to the audience or the people and what she needs from them.

MJG: She’s a character of fewer words. She keeps her cards, so to speak, under wraps.

FP: She’s more guarded. And she does a lot with a look.

Let’s talk about Tom. Was there a debate in the writers room about would happen to him? That he was killed was shocking, but how she does it is, too.
MJG: Oh absolutely. We thought long and hard about it. As storytellers, it really came down to: What is the greatest sacrifice she could possibly make in order to serve her ambition? That act seemed to be the thing with the highest cost.

FP: A lot of people did not want to see him go. And that’s a good thing in a way.

MJG: It was painful; it was painful for all of us. It was painful to write and it was painful to shoot.

FP: To me, it’s an indication of how high the stakes were when it came to his character. But in the House of Cards world, you enter into the world and we watch if you’re going to be corrupted or not. And a lot of times, the price you pay for that is your humanity or a form of humanity. And Tom was asking for Claire’s humanity. So he seemed like the one that had to go for her to succeed in this world.

I believed that she cared for him.
MJG: Absolutely, she did.

FP: That’s the scariest thing in the world, that she cared for him tremendously.

MJG: That’s why the cost couldn’t have been higher.

So who came up with the way he was killed?
FP: We spent quite a few weeks exploring how that could happen.

But then she enlists Mark’s help and I was thinking, No, don’t do that.
FP: Yeah, but now Mark is in it forever, if you think about it.

MJG: He’s implicated.

FP: He’s an accomplice and he’s in. She initiated him.

Speaking of bloodshed, we also said good-bye to Leann, which I guess you could see coming. She’s no longer useful and knows too much.
FP: Look, another thing about this show that’s great is when you see the intrigue of the court and the maneuvers in the court of the people trying to get close to Francis and Claire — when you look at that, some people succeed and some people fail, but they all try. She did too.

By the way, how is Cathy (Jayne Atkinson)? We never saw her again after Frank pushed her down the stairs.
MFG: Did you just ask how is Cathy? That’s great!

FP: You’ll find out.

Jane is a great new character. But I have no idea whose side she’s really on. She seems to be forging an alliance with Claire, but then we see her plotting with Francis. She’s just manipulating everyone, right?
FP: That’s fantastic what you’re thinking. That’s what we want you to think.

MJG: Yeah, same with Mark too. Can you trust whose side are they on? Who he’s working with?

The series begins with the Underwoods seemingly more united than ever, but then Claire makes a decision. She promises to pardon him in her first act as president, but she doesn’t. And then won’t even take his calls. Is the end of the Underwoods?
MJG: We don’t know what she’s going to do or not gonna do. What we see her do is not pick up the phone.

FP: She decides not to do it at the speech. She’s becoming aware of who’s trying to control her — Francis as well. So she has her reasons for doing it. It’s not an arbitrary choice. She’s protecting herself. She’s gonna make sure she’s got things in hand.

MJG: They’re both fighting for things to proceed on their terms. And sometimes their terms are different.

HoC’s Showrunners on Murder and Real-life Parallels in S5