It’s hard to believe that just over four years ago, a streaming service producing its own content was unheard of. The likes of Hulu and Amazon and especially Netflix were focused on battling it out for streaming rights to content produced by studios and independent filmmakers. That all changed in February 2013 when Netflix premiered “House of Cards,” their first foray into original content and the binge heard ’round the world.
Last week, the fifth season of the cynical political drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright premiered on the platform, and after more than sixty episodes, the series is just as diabolical and impressive as ever. [Perhaps goes without saying, but just in case: spoilers ahead!]
We join the Underwoods where we left off, with an election in the very near future and a domestic terrorism crisis unfolding. It’s all on the brink of falling apart around them. But this is Frank and Claire we’re talking about. Before the opening credits of the first episode even roll, Frank is roiling up Congress and speaking to us as much as to them as he shouts from the podium that he “will not yield!”
By now, the Underwoods have left a trail of destruction and devastation behind them any soap opera character would envy. Yet they’ve managed to keep a stable of loyal cronies around to keep the wheels of their deception spinning. Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is as icy as ever; LeAnne Harvey’s (Neve Campbell) ambition keeps her afloat. Though Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) are gone, new support arrives in the form of Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce Jane Davis (a top-of-her-game Patricia Clarkson) and Mark Usher (Campbell Scott), a Republican operative who earns the Underwoods’ confidence.
Meanwhile, Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) is back on the politics beat and continues to dig into the story Lucas tipped him onto: did Frank have something to do with Zoe Barnes’ death? His team at the Washington Herald, including new reporter Sean Jeffries (Korey Jackson), spends the season getting ever closer to the heart of the matter. This storyline of a dogged press operation seeking the truth under every nook and cranny is easily the season’s most respectable, as we wake every morning to new revelations about our current administration from the New York Times and Washington Post. Our democracy, in real life and in Netflix television series, requires this unbiased counterbalance to keep it all from going off the rails.
And in Underwood’s White House, it almost does. Though the season could’ve spent more time on some new international scandal, instead the first several episodes are all pre-election. And when the vote finally does happen, it’s anything but decisive. It’s about here that “House of Cards'” many, many plot lines become a bit confusing even for the most dedicated fan. Don’t look away, don’t miss a single shot or line of dialogue. This is an intricate tapestry new co-showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese are weaving; they’ve picked up the pattern nicely from show creator Beau Willimon, and while the season as a whole may be slightly over-filled with story, it’s nevertheless as ruthless as we’ve come to expect (read: not everyone comes out alive).
No sooner is Frank securely back in the Oval Office (albeit via a bumpy and convoluted road to get there) than old scandals come back to haunt him, and the second half of the season shifts its focus to how he and Claire will keep their political heads above water (and themselves out of jail). Somewhere around episode eight or nine, it all starts to feel a bit exhausting. We never get the chance to see the Underwoods in legislative action, the well-oiled machine of earlier seasons getting pet projects passed, so preoccupied are they with covering their own asses.
But these distractions certainly don’t mean either has lost their bitter edge. Quite the opposite. Now more than ever, each of them is willing to go to incredible lengths to stay in power, lengths that, if you don’t already love the series and these two hateful anti-heroes, might seem too absurd to take seriously. But if you do know them and, despite your best judgment, love them, none of it will come as a surprise. We survived the loss of Peter Russo; we’ll survive the losses of season five, too. Once the sting wears off.
As a production, the season is as slick as ever. Frank’s Oval Office is a muted enclave of beige and grey, all the better to see him and his henchmen in their bespoke dark suits. Claire’s vice-presidential wardrobe levels up from her clean water non-profit days, full of tailored skirt-suits and neutral colors; so striking is this costuming palette that in a later episode when she’s in a robin’s egg blue day dress, it’s startling. We spend most of the season in the White House, which makes the episodes placed elsewhere–a billionaire’s retreat in the woods, for example–all the more welcome as a change in scenery.
Ostensibly a series about power–how to get it, how to hold on to it once you have it–“House of Cards” is also a series about relationships, both personal and political. Claire is still involved with the writer Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), a relationship that doesn’t get the credit it deserves for its evocative vulnerability and effortless character development. We learn that LeAnn’s involvement with an operative isn’t entirely professional. Even Doug, that unfeeling, stone-faced confidant and advisor, finds himself tangled up in an affair that may be his undoing (that is, until it undoes itself).
After five seasons and countless other binge-worthy shows released since it first launched in 2013, it’s understandable if “House of Cards” has to get ever more spectacular in its scandals and plot twists just to keep up. Combine that with the real-life crazy that’s invaded our executive branch since we last saw the Underwoods, and you’d be forgiven if you took a pass on the drama of this particular political shell game. But you’d be missing out, because even if you lose track here and there, the pearls hidden in the mix are worth playing the game.
A final note. If you watch season 5 and still yearn for more political machinations, we recommend the original BBC version from which the U.S. “House of Cards” was adapted. It’s equally icy and devious and available on Netflix too.