Season Review: ‘House of Cards’ Season Five

With its latest season, ‘House of Cards’ doubles down on its most frustrating tendencies

Spoilers for all five seasons of House of Cards ahead.

Ugh, this damn show. Through so many of its up and down seasons, I’ve reluctantly held on probably past the point of justification often because by the end of a sagging hour or frustrating arc of episodes something would occur to remind me of why, when this show hits its mark, it can be so damn fun. Frank pushes Zoe Barnes in front of a moving train; Frank, Claire and Meechum share in a three-way; Lucas Goodwin makes an attempt on Frank’s life; Tom Hammerschmidt publishes a scathing expose detailing the Underwoods’ suspected crimes. That through all the unearned bloviating bullshit and evil puppet-mastery, moments such as those can still exist enough in this show to keep me from completely losing my mind over how far up its own ass it is. But then season five dropped, and any redeeming qualities the show once desperately clung onto were all but vanquished in the face of doubling down on the side of itself that I hate the most.

This show has always had a problem with effectively portraying the simultaneous rise and fall of the Underwood empire. Frank ascends to the Presidency by illegally maneuvering President Walker into committing a crime, so he resigns, no questions asked; Frank and Claire throw the country into literal chaos to sabotage the election in their favor, and everyone just kind of shrugs it off. Kathy Durand might share information unbeneficial to Frank at her sworn testimony, so he shoves her down a fucking flight of stairs, and no one thinks anything of it. How the show has been able to justify away many of these lazy narrative crutches throughout much of its run is because in the background of all the Underwood scheming has been a Kate Baldwin, a Lucas Goodwin, or now a Tom Hammerschmidt passing along the baton of holding these liars and murderers to account. The idea that one day the past will finally catch up to them by way of a person or institution out of their orbit of control.

I had all my hope in the world resting on the beefy shoulders of reporter extraordinaire Tom Hammerschmidt and his two-season long investigation into this crime family, and that by season’s end we’d have at the very least an inkling of an idea as to how and when he’d (pun very intended) drop the hammer on them. But no; as Frank casually informs us and Claire in the season finale, he’d been the one feeding Hammerschmidt misleading information regarding the nature of Zoe’s death as yet another exercise in his omnipresent reach, and he was successful, of course! Doug takes the fall; Franks walks away unscathed; rinse and repeat. To be fair, Hammerschmidt appeared vaguely doubtful as to how much of that he was buying, but that’s the best we get? After two seasons worth of time spent with this really solid character doing smart, investigative journalism into the show’s main character and his series-worth of crimes: yet another Frank con-job with shades of vague doubt? How demoralizing.

This kind of undermining of character agency outside the Holy Trinity of Frank, Claire, and Doug speaks so clearly to House of Cards’ greatest problem: that the people around this trio aren’t people at all, but little worker bees flying around in circles at the whims of whatever the fuck they want at any given time. I know the Underwoods callously steamrolling their way through every seeming obstacle in their path has been the show’s calling card from the beginning, and to many people likely its most entertaining facet. But at this point in its run, watching these people mow down all those opposed them through lying, blackmailing, bullying and murdering without a single lasting consequence not only feels like unacceptable writing, but a borderline offense on the intelligence of its audience. This show has always presented itself as a “rise and fall” narrative – we know this because there’s barely been a single episode through all five seasons in which a supporting character hasn’t been digging into the Underwoods and their associates’ past illegal actions – but to this point it’s essentially only been about their rise, with an occasional easily dispatched hiccup along the way. Every time we near their inevitable fall they overcome it only to become more powerful in the process. It’s finally left me asking: without the fall, or the hint of an eventual fall, what’s the damn point?

Quick Thoughts:

  • Of course Frank was pulling all the strings of his impeachment process from the very beginning! Why wouldn’t he have been? You see in this Universe, it’s the President who’s the smart one and everyone else around him that’s incredibly, deeply stupid.
  • Ever since Frank and Claire stole Kathy Durand’s VP nomination right out from under her, she’s been free-falling her way into becoming the show’s most pathetic sucker. Which is a shame, because when she’s not busy being Frank’s #1 patsy, she feels like a reasonably decent and intelligent person. And we just know when she regains the capacity to speak she’s gonna keep her lips sealed as to how she conveniently tumbled down that flight of stairs, right?  
  • It’s so typical of this show to first introduce Will Conway as an ultra-competent challenger to Frank in the season four episodes where he needed to be, and then do the complete inverse of that in the season five episodes where he needed to become unhinged in order to sell Frank’s victory over him. And as soon as Frank was done with him we never heard from him again. He only mattered so far as the show needed him to get Frank from point A to point B in as prolonged fashion as possible; once he served his plot purpose, away he went.
  • So Claire is now the President, an outcome I predicted would happen from the beginning of the season, although my money was on her more blatantly sabotaging Frank to get the job. Putting the preposterousness of this development aside (she goes from estranged First Lady, to backdoor VP nominee, to Acting President, to VP, to President in the span of a year or so?), I don’t hate it. If she holds her ground on not pardoning Frank, I’ll like it even more, but what are the chances of that happening?
  • The big theme of this season was elevating Claire to the level of Frank as a narrative and spiritual equal. In getting to that point, we first see her flirt with directly addressing the audience before outright doing so a few episodes later. That was cool. She also murders her lover Tom Yates to keep him from publishing a manuscript that apparently details less-than-flattering material about her and Frank? Not so cool. I always liked the idea of Claire as an analog of Frank who’s as ruthless and ambitious as he is but also doesn’t need to stoop to his petty violence simply because she’s better at than him. I guess not.
  • And the Gavin “Guinea Pig-loving Ruler of the Dark Internet” Orsay Award for Lamest, Never-Ending Character Spotlight of the Season nominees are: Aidan Macallan, Jane Davis, LeAnn Harvey, Tom Yates. The winner is… Jane Davis! I love Patricia Clarkson, but this character was so stupid.
  • Yeah, I’ll be back for Season Six. I hate myself that much.

Written by Michael Lang

A passionate TV watcher and frequent moviegoer, Mike has long enjoyed analyzing and discussing the best (and worst) in pop culture with friends, family, message-board frequenters, and especially his good friends, Chris and Jeff. Now with Screeningclub.com and the SCTV podcast, he's thrilled to finally have the chance to bring those discussions to a public forum.

Follow him on Twitter @Languistics_

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