Warning: Spoilers Ahead
The newest season of House of Cards is like dating a Republican, it’s really White and stops being entertaining about halfway through. After the sexy excitement and political warfare, President Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty), and wife/Vice President Claire Underwood (Robin Wright, Forrest Gump) run out of Machiavellian schemes and start offing people randomly. I love House of Cards and will watch until its dying day, but this is not its strongest season. The first four or five episodes are action-packed, full of clever quips, evil manipulation, and badass plots, but the season loses momentum towards its boring end.
It’s great to be back with Frank and Claire as they fight for the 2016 presidency in high fashion. We’re reunited with Chief of Staff and loveable guard-dog, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly, Now You See Me), Press Secretary, Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil, Treme) Campaign Manager, Leanne Harvey (Neve Campbell, Scream), and Secretary of State, Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson, Criminal Minds). What’s so brilliant about House of Cards is that it seems like dystopian satire, when it simply holds a mirror up to American politics.
A rigged, Democratic primary with whispers of Russian interference? The first woman to become president used voter suppression and war propaganda? While these plots seem fairly benign in today’s political climate, House of Cards is more of a utopian world where education bills get passed, Democrats actually win, and we can straight chill with Vladimir Putin, AKA, Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen, Sherlock). But once conservative man-candy Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop) and his randomly British wife (Dominique McElligott, Leap Year), are out of the picture, Frank and Claire are left with little to do.
Does the Underwood power couple bomb Syria and take out ICO (ISIS)? Or do they just go around fucking and murdering people? Since this is the Underwoods, of course they do both, but honestly, Syria and casual sex are so last year. The end of the season leaves a bit to be desired, but the first half with the Conways is so edge-of-your-seat thrilling, it’s definitely worth watching. Will and Hannah Conway are amazing, they’re the couple you love to hate, livestreaming their emotional, lovey-dovey, White family bullshit all over social media. They’re like a car crash with brain matter all of the road, so gross but you can’t turn away.
Will and Hannah (a British woman played by an Irish woman) have the stereotypical, dead marriage and it’s really entertaining to watch it crumble. Unlike the Underwoods, who we root for, not matter what, watching the Conways crash and burn is so satisfying. Imagine watching President Drumpf, Paul Ryan, and the NSA all losing their jobs because they said mean shit—it’s a dream come true. Will Conway is a great character, forever held in the past, flashbacks of soldiers dying around him, forced to live in the present in real-time. This Republican douchebag who treats women like shit is one of the strongest parts of this season, which tells you a lot about the sub-par writing. Will Conway is unlikeable but he’s so complicated and pretty he could be in the next Fifty Shades. The other plot points, by contrast, are either too complicated or too simple to keep our attention after Will concedes the presidency to Frank. So what happened to one of the most binge-worthy shows on TV?
New writers. They are the main reason this season repeats problems from season three. Widely-hated, season three writers, Mellissa Gibson and Frank Pugliese, take complete control of season five, because series creators, Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott left us after season four. The creators’ absence in season five cannot be ignored, as the new writers pull the same shit that pissed off season three viewers. While season four was one of the most well-written seasons of the series, this season reminds viewers how vital the original creators were to the show’s characters and plot lines. As one brilliant writer reminded us in this season three review, “As President Underwood bluntly states, ‘There’s only one chair’ behind the President’s desk. Because of this, Claire is essentially relegated to the role of cheerleader, suddenly powerless and adrift, and the series suffers along with her.”
As you might remember, season three is the infamous season where women were treated brutally and someone forgot to tell the new writers that the show shouldn’t suck. Season two opened by Frank killing feminist badass Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, 127 Hours), leading into season three where Frank goes Chris Brown-light on Claire and subjugates her to the role of dutiful wife. Claire tries to gain some semblance of power as an American UN Ambassador, but is taken down by a Republican Congressman, and only gets the position as a gift from Frank. Claire isn’t the only character forced to the margins as Underwood, Chief of Staff and all-around badass, Doug Stamper spends the season in the hospital. After his ex-girlfriend/hooker Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan, Patriots Day) tries to kill him, Doug is disenfranchised, emasculated, and depressed the entire third season.
The worst season in House history ends with Frank abusing Claire physically and emotionally. Not only did season three Frank put down Claire, he put down women. Frank took down Claire, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker, Deadwood,), and had Rachael killed. He used women as means to an end, exploiting their failures for personal gain.
“Without me—you are nothing” he screamed at Claire, in season three, choking her.
“Frank,” Claire countered, “I’m leaving you.”
And with that line, season three gave Claire a mere 30 seconds of feminism in a show that used to feature gender equality. Even then, initiating a break-up due to domestic violence isn’t exactly a paradigm of feminism, it’s just common fucking sense. Fate is not so kind to Doug’s prostitute, ex-girlfriend, Rachel, who gets offed in the desert. As our season three writer so aptly stated about Rachel, “After trying to better herself, helping new friends achieve goals they never thought they could, and raising the money to buy herself a new identity so she can start over fresh, she finds herself tied up in the back of Doug’s van, piss-covered and begging for her life. She ends up buried in an unmarked grave in the desert with nobody the wiser.”
The same writers from season three that brought on this misogynistic violence are in the driver’s seat for season five. Luckily for these writers, they are coming out of a very strong season four, one of my favorite seasons in the series.
Season four restored important parts of the House of Cards universe that season three so hastily crushed. Last season, there were attempted assassinations, blackmail, badass vengeance, and actual gender equality. We were introduced to the hot, narcissistic, GOP front-runner who calls his wife weak for questioning his douchebaggery (Will Conway). We got to watch a 2016 election where the NSA went rogue and First Lady, Claire Underwood could run for Vice President. Last season even introduced Neve Campbell, Scream’s badass Final Girl as Claire’s campaign manager, Leanne Harvey. Thankfully, season four Frank reverted to his logical self, treating Claire like the equal she is. Claire and Frank lived together but afforded each other freedom and respect. Claire got to have sex with the semi-hot, bearded, fiction writer from season three, Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire), and her dignity was restored.
Season five picks back up with President Frank and Vice President Claire in power, with White House Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper, Press Secretary, Seth Grayson, Campaign Manager, Leanne Harvey, and Secretary of State, Cathy Durant. Refreshingly, Frank continues to give Claire the equal respect she deserves. Claire can still fuck the novelist and Frank is given the freedom to sleep with men. Yet unlike previous sexual exploits, there are no Underwood threesomes this season. In a sea of casual sex, Frank having a one-night-stand, Doug sleeping with the wife of a guy he killed, Claire is the one who develops feelings for someone.
And it’s not Frank.
In a shocking turn of events, Claire ends up falling for the bearded novelist, even letting him spend the night, and cuddle with her. I’ve never been a big fan of Tom. He’s every hipster writer you’d meet in an MFA program, sleeping with someone’s wife, telling stories of “hardship” that just reveal White privilege. (Sorry, your parents’ divorce is not a tragedy). But he is good to Claire, at first. He does end up fucking random White House staffers prompting the oddest bit of dialogue in the entire season.
Frank threatens Tom in his fierce, Southern lilt, “Don’t … cheat … on my wife!”
But Tom listens to Claire, really listens, unlike Frank who treats every conversation with Claire as a State of the Union address. To Frank, Claire is a political ally and little else. He only tells Claire he loves her after finding out she’s in love with Tom.
“How can you be so stupid as to fall in love?” Frank chides Claire.
Claire is supposed to be a Jessica Jones-type badass, cool to the point of sociopathic, not someone who ascribes meaning and sentiment to sex. Yet we have to remember, season five Claire is a very different Claire. After being physically abused by her husband, forced to kill her mother, and being publicly shamed for abortions, Claire cannot bear being her former self. The new Claire lets herself feel real, human emotions, and even falls in love. New Claire cries at funerals, lets a man get to know her, and says those horrid words, “I love you.”
But this new Claire is still Frank’s wife, so we know this won’t end well for Tom. Just like Zoe Barnes, Tom is a liability for Claire, and his novel full of their torrid love affair is enough to take down the Underwood presidency. While it’s difficult to understand jeopardizing her power to be with a lowly writer, appreciation of art is a core part of Claire. It makes sense that she would fall in love with another artist, one who offers her an escape from the reality of her life. Though her relationships with Frank and Tom are pressing issues to Claire, the rest of the country is still reeling from a brutal televised terrorist attack.
Just to review, season five returns after the threats of an ISIS-like terrorist organization ICO, the Islamic Caliphate Organization. In calling the terrorists ICO, the writers avoid giving ISIS the power of being recognized as a “state” instead of an organization. American ICO terrorists abducted an American family named the Millers in season four, demanding millions of dollars, a ceasefire on the mass murders of Muslims, an exit from Syria, and the return of their leader, Yusef Al Amadi. Although the Underwoods try to work with ICO, they only want to speak with GOP frontrunner, Will Conway. But Frank won’t give the power to Will and he doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.
Although Yusef has promised Vice President Claire that he would help, the conference call with the terrorists goes horribly wrong (as expected). At the end of season four, Conway is making progress with the terrorists, but Frank cuts that short.
“You will release the daughter and the mother or you will never hear from me again and you will lose the chance to hear from your leader,” Frank demands.
Securing the release of the daughter and mother, Frank gets a small victory (though Conway made that happen). Season four ends with Frank and Claire using the abduction of civilian James Miller by terrorists as a means to consolidate support. At the end of season four, we watch two American ICO terrorists hover over James Miller with knives, masks off. “We do this in the name of the Islamic Caliphate, in the name of Yusef Al Amadi, in the name of god …” Overlapping the terrorist statement we hear, James Miller say, “I love you,” to his family.
President Underwood and VP Claire look on, emotionless, as Cathy, Leanne, Seth, and Tom are visibly shaken. Leanne (Neve Campbell) seems to the most disturbed, covering her face and cringing, a rare expression of emotion for the stoic and closed-off character.
Season four ends with Claire and Frank staring right at us.
“That’s right,” Frank starts, “we don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.”
Season five opens to Claire staring at us. She’s wearing a pale gray dress, with buttons similar to a Civil War Soldier.
“It’s terrifying isn’t it?” Claire states, “Tell us what you see … pick up the phone. We’d love you to let us know… In two weeks time you’ll … decide what kind of country you want to live in … no matter who wins we’re going to need to work together … My name is Claire Underwood and I approve this message.”
Claire isn’t breaking the fourth wall like Frank usually does, she’s on camera giving a press brief. We turn to a Congressional forum where Republicans propose an investigation on President Underwood for crimes committed as Vice President. This task proves difficult, because after declaring war on ICO, the Underwoods are untouchable. The young Republican rambles on, holding The Herald in his hand, waving it like a flag. Frank sits down, calm and collected. Frank is wearing his Congressional pin and therefore allowed on the floor as long as he has no interest in the debate. Frank nods at a Democratic ally who yields his time to Frank. Frank marches up to the podium and grabs the newspaper out of his enemy’s hands with a triumphant smile. The floor shows a rumble of Republicans and Democrats in suits shouting in support and derision.
Frank takes the podium and shouts, “I do not care! I do not care about your investigative committee! I am on my way to the funeral of an American patriot … a good man, a husband, a father, who was beheaded on American soil. This chamber chooses to debate me?! I will not yield! One of the murderers who killed Mr. Miller is still out there. I demand that every member of this House take a stand like FDR and Wilson, I demand this Congress declare war against ICO here and abroad. I will not cease! I will never cease!”
After stealing the floor on a technicality, and demanding a vote, Frank has complete control of the room still screaming, “I will not yield! I will not yield!”
We’re on the edge of our seats, assured that the powerful President is back. Frank has recovered fully from his assassination attempt and he’s not taking any shit. While one terrorist, Zach Harper was killed for the murder of James Miller, second terrorist Josh Masterson is still at large. American news stations air footage of anti-Underwood protests in the Middle East, with no country specified, where Underwood is burned in effigy. The search for Masterson is futile as Frank has him captive, and orders his death.
The Underwoods travel calmly with campaign manager, Leanne. The use of Frank’s propaganda echoes the Bush Administration’s successful strategy for reelection in 2004. Frank’s Southern accent even pronounces “terror” the same as Dubya, by saying “tara.” At the funeral, Will Conway is outraged, as he sees the political capital the Underwoods gained by letting an American get killed on national television. But his wife manages to calm him down, reminding him to show some respect for the dead.
As the ceremony continues for James Miller, Claire breaks down into tears. She may have cried in the show before but I can’t remember a single instance. The repressed memories of her mother’s recent death come boiling to the surface, and she sobs. She cries for her mother, though she wasn’t always there for her, Claire loved her deeply. Claire cries for the young girl who just lost her father. The young girl who watched her father’s throat slit on national television. As Claire lets herself grieve, we see how different she has become.
As the ceremony concludes, James Miller’s daughter takes the podium and blames Frank for her father’s murder, as well she should. “You killed my father,” she shouts, “You’re the reason he died!” The young girl then whispers to Frank, “I hope you die and Claire becomes President,” in a tone that suggests foreshadowing of Claire’s imminent rise to power.
Usually, that sort of bad press would take down a president’s chance at reelection. But this is America. These things don’t matter anymore. Nothing matters. The President can say anything, do anything, and fire anyone who gets in his way. And besides, the Underwoods have the rogue NSA agent on their side, Aidan Macallan (Damian Young, Californication). Aidan still works for the NSA but he blows them off to help the Underwoods.
In-house novelist, Tom, is still staying with the Underwoods, and wanders around taking things from Claire’s bedroom. Back at Conway headquarters, Conway rips his wife a new one for being a “terrorist sympathizer” in an online chatroom. Will stares down his wife in his dress shirt, slacks, and tie, “Are you trying to lose this election? Do you understand what this looks like?” Their son is having nightmares, afraid of the terrorists but this doesn’t sway Will. Conway looks at his wife as if she’s crazy for feeling sympathy for the mother of the terrorist. Conway deals with his impending presidential loss, his loving wife, and the existence of his children by chugging hard liquor. Will represses his failing marriage and the strained relationships he has with his children. Much like the brutal deaths he saw while deployed, he represses his current pain. But repression is a dangerous defense mechanism as the pain resurfaces as anger and at times, violence.
Then we see our first Black character since Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) left D.C. Remy drove off with Jackie, both no longer allies of Frank. The only Black character, post-Remy is Sean Jeffries (Korey Jackson), a young reporter trying to get a job at The Herald. It’s refreshing to finally see a non-White character, as the show is turning Whiter than a Friends reunion. Both Conway and Underwood’s staff is now 100% White, with the only exception being a secret service agent at the bottom of the pecking-order. Though Sean Jeffries is a strong, independent man that will eventually rise through the ranks all the way to the White House, it’s simply unacceptable to have one person of color in an all-White cast. True, we see Sean’s girlfriend who is also Black, but they are given such peripheral roles, that no, it doesn’t count. We have to wonder who’s responsible for the mostly White casting.
Claire tries to do damage control but gets called, “war whore,” and is splashed with paint. Although Claire isn’t hurt, her dresses are beautiful and it’s hard to watch them get ruined. I don’t know where Claire shops but I need all of her dresses. The first episode ends with Frank and Claire comforting the American people clinging to the gates of the White House, shaking their hands, and saying softly, “You have nothing to be afraid of.”
In episode two, rogue NSA agent Aidan, needs to hack the telecom switching center, deleting everything that could implicate Frank in Zoe’s murder. Aidan manages to hack Frank’s evidence away, as Wi-Fi and cellular data goes down all over D.C. No television, no GPS, and no flights. There’s a lot of pissed off lobbyists in D.C. trying to make flights that will never take off.
Frank addresses the nation through the television, the monitor still blank, and states that ICO made the cyber-attack. This lie is immediately accepted, as most war declarations are, and the support increases for the Underwood war on ICO. Suddenly I’m back in college watching the newly reelected George W. Bush lie on T.V. and it works. Congress is impressed by Underwood’s rhetoric as he has them believe the NSA hack was ICO. In attempts to repress the gains Underwood makes, Conway takes his family trick-or-treating because, well, it’s Halloween. Nothing can stop Conway from getting what he wants, except, well, the press. Frank has military guards sent in, surprising Will and his family. The military rushes in, giving Conway flashbacks to his deployment days. Then, on live television, Conway gives the Underwoods exactly what they need, an outburst. Frank and Claire watch the live outburst from the White House, drinks in hand. A reporter accosts Will, “What’s on your mind?”
“What’s on my mind?” Conways responds, “You see what’s going on. This is all him, the man who has never served, wouldn’t know what a real war was if it jumped up and bit him in the ass! A declaration of war?! He’s putting American lives in danger! War is real! You don’t screw around! This is what happens when you throw around a word like ‘war’ all hell breaks loose!”
Man-candy Conway, stands there, camera and lights in his face, looking like a mad man as he speaks the truth. He earlier spoke of funding infrastructure not war. “Give me a bridge, not a war zone,” he declared. The pretty governor looks like a CW hottie and sounds like Bernie Sanders. Maybe Republicans aren’t so bad after all? Or do Conway’s ideas merely seem sound in comparison to Frank’s “travel ban” and “war on terror?”
Every single word out of Conway’s mouth is true, but his anger, his PTSD, it’s all one big weakness that Frank can exploit. As Will finishes his diatribe against war, Frank casually asks Claire, “Nightcap?” “Why not?” she says, smiling in victory. We pan out to see two pumpkins carved with the faces of Claire and Frank, the new face of terror.
Episode three is one of the most exciting episodes of the season, as we open to the day before the election. While Francis is ruling through fear, Conway sits down to have a live 24-hour Skype sesh with the general public. Again, echoing Bernie Sander’s inclusive town hall meetings, Conway fields calls for 24-hours straight and his wife has never been prouder. But there is one call for which Conway has note prepared, the call from Frank. President Underwood calls Will towards the end of the 24-hours, seemingly just to gloat.
Will finally gets the chance to question Underwood why he was left out of the hostage negotiation. Frank tells Will that the terrorists found him weak, that Frank had to take control and the last-minute call grabs the headlines. While Conway is polling well-above Underwood, Frank has plans. Secretary of State, Cathy, alerts Frank of an ICO nationalist named Mohammed Kalabi. Kalabi will be instrumental during election day, when the Underwoods will construct voting centers, and send in the National Guard to scare voters into an Underwood vote. Democrats using Republican tactics? Why can’t that happen in real life? As great fictional journalist, Will McAcovy (Jeff Daniels) of Newsroom once said, “If liberals are so fuckin’ smart, then how come they lose so goddamn always?”
Convinced of their victory, Frank and Claire go back to watching Double Indemnity, an old black and white murder mystery, an election-night ritual.
So who wins the election? Republican soldier, Will Conway or Machiavellian Democrat, Frank Underwood? That’s one spoiler I’m not going to give away. The fourth episode is thrilling, surprising, and entertaining. Claire comes into her own, becoming more expressive, powerful, and shockingly sinister. While this season was disappointing after episode four, it’s definitely a drama worth watching. It’s clear that the greatest dramas have conflict and the higher the stakes, the more interesting the story. And in this season of House of Cards, the stakes have never been higher. In today’s political climate, it feels good to escape, to watch utopian TV that tells us Democrats can win and women can be president. There are amazing characters, killer plot twists, and hilarious one-liners. All in all, it’s a good season, despite the final few episodes.
House of Cards creates a utopia, but we must not forget what that word means, “the place that cannot be.”