I usually can’t wait for House of Cards to return. The original Netflix show has maintained its quality and churns out great content year after year. But something has changed and it isn’t the show. It’s the world. Television for me has an escapist raison d’être. If I want to confront major world issues I turn to documentaries, or at most docuseries, but not to serialized tv. It’s not just the time commitment, it’s the fact that I can handle exposure to the bad side of the world, but only for a limited time. Too much, and I am affected by the negativity and sorrow. I can handle two hours, even eight. I cannot handle years (I know some people who cannot handle any). This past year has been exhausting from a political perspective. The US election began in the summer of 2015, and as soon as it ended things didn’t look too good. This outlook has not improved. So to expose myself to a show that embodies all the things that make me feel sick to my stomach wasn’t easy. Add in the fact that the election on HoC began back in season 3, and it’s incredible that it is still going on.
Things pick up where we left off, with Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his pick for VP and wife Claire (Robin Wright) campaigning against the charismatic and handsome Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). At their side are returning seconds in command Doug Stamper (Michael Kelley) and LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell). The press is intent on not leaving the Underwoods alone, prodding and investigating all the skeletons in the first couple’s closet, hashing up all the drama from the first four seasons, in spite of no returning cameos by any of the previous seasons’ cast (except for some cabinet members, the newspaper editor, and Claire’s lover/speechwriter). The world is in turmoil over issues with Russia and the terrorist organization ICO. Sound familiar? I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to, which is why it was so hard to press play on the next episode button each time.
Don’t get me wrong, the show is still excellent and really well shot, directed, and acted. The plot lines are tight, and the twists and machinations keep coming. I believe, in fact, that the term machiavellian should soon be changed, because Frank Underwood embodies all the qualities of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and maneuvers the treacherous paths of politics better than the Italian writer/philosopher ever could have anticipated or imagined. It’s just so difficult to tune in to a show so entrenched in what is happening in the world, when said world causes so much anxiety. It doubles down on all the things that scare us: terrorism, unlimited and unchecked power of the government, technology used against us, election fraud, Russian mingling… It’s hard to see the show as entertainment any more, even though the dark and twisty sense of humor is still somewhat present, even though less pronounced than in previous seasons. The show is also getting a little lazy when it comes to the relationship of Frank and Claire, always teetering back and forth, one season uniting them and the next forcing conflict between them. It’s a little exhausting and proof of a slight lack of direction. While other shows clearly show forward movement, I now wonder if the showrunners (who keep changing) even know what their endgame is.
Spacey and Wright are as amazing as ever, though, so credit should be given to them. They inhabit these characters perfectly at this point, and I never doubt for a second that they will keep giving their all for these characters they have brilliantly created and keep adding significant layers to. Kelly keeps up his bulldog portrayal of Doug, growing more animalistic each season: all guard dog, with a little bit of id to betray him. Campbell is given a little more to do this time around, but her LeAnn is perhaps the most inconsequential character in the entire show. New additions this season include Campbell Scott (Singles), playing Mark Usher, who begins the season as an advisor to Conway, but eventually shifts to working for the Underwoods. Campbell’s steely and inscrutable performance at first bugged me, but I grew to appreciate it over the course of the season and ended up really enjoying it. Another new face to the series is Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April), playing Jane Davis whose title is Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade. If that is not a Washington title, I don’t know what is. I love the actress and am always glad to see her show up in anything. Her character shows up halfway through the season and is as enigmatic as she is powerful. What is her role in the administration and what are her motivations? These questions linger, while she mesmerizes on screen.
The predictability of what happens sometimes gets a little annoying, specifically in the fact that we implicitly know that somehow someway the Underwoods will emerge victorious and overcome their troubles and adversaries. That said, it is always fascinating to see how they do it, to see all the pieces come together, to watch the dominos fall exactly as they were intended to, in surprising and unexpected ways. I don’t know what our political landscape will be next year, and so far it is unclear whether House of Cards will be returning at all, but if it does, I hope that it takes some steps away from the political climate we live in and go in different directions, so that the show can live in its own universe and mirror ours a little less. I need it. The show needs it. Heck, the country needs it.