House of Cards Season 5 Review: The Death of Reason

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“Welcome to the death of reason,” Frank says glaring into the camera late in House of Cards‘ fifth season. For the show, that may have happened a few seasons ago, but for the US, it started in January. So how does Frank Underwood measure up to Donald Trump? Critics have been claiming since last season that politics might’ve gotten outlandish enough that House of Cards probably didn’t need to dial itself back after going off the rail some point in season two. But the truth is, the fictional world under the Underwood Administration and the real one under the Trump Administration are two different kinds of crazy. Sadly, the wrong one has become predictable.

With season five, writers Melissa Jane Gibson and Frank Pugliese have taken over for Beau Willimon as showrunners, but the change is barely felt, which, all in all, is a good thing I suppose. There’s still the same Washington conniving, the same respectful marriage between Frank and Claire, and the same preposterousness that has plagued the past few seasons. House of Cards continues its shift from a Shakespearean political drama to a beltway soap opera this year. Thankfully, like the best bits of season four, it embraces the latter.

The strong section of this fifth batch of episodes is the first five or so, which continue the election storyline that began in season four. Frank and Conway’s rivalry is a bright spot for pulpy political drama that’s only outdone by what we witnessed last fall. But it’s still fun to watch Frank and Claire fight their battle together, with only each other as the support to balance each other out.

But after a strong episode five twist, the show somehow draws out its election plot another three episodes. There’s an argument to be had that most Netflix dramas nowadays could use a slightly lower episode count, and House of Cards season five is a prime example. You never want your TV show’s election to actually start to feel as unending as our 2016 one did, but that’s exactly what the new showrunners accomplish.

Naturally, around episode ten, the show start pulling some truly wild punches. An investigation into the death of Zoe Barnes manifests, while Frank’s White House predecessor lays down some accusations of his own. Suddenly, the Underwood Administration is in serious trouble, but the punches come so ridiculously fast, some of which are truly insane, that it’s impossible not to look back on the show’s brighter days.

That said, season five does ultimately break Frank’s winning streak in at least one manner. One of the show’s biggest problems after season one became that Frank suddenly seemed invincible. This season, his characterization is definitely bigger than it’s ever been (he’s no longer saying how much he likes to win just to the camera, but to everyone around him as well).

But beyond Frank and Claire, two new cast members, as well as a heavily expanded role for another, make up most of the screentime that doesn’t involve the Underwoods. Campbell Scott plays one of Conway’s advisers who later ends up in the Underwoods’ camp, but he sadly ends up being among the show’s most boring side characters. Patricia Clarkson plays Jane Davis, an official who somehow worms her way into Claire’s ear as an adviser, but Clarkson seems oddly out of place on this series, with the show never really defining the character enough to justify such generous casting. Lastly, LeAnn’s role in season five is much larger than what she had in season four, but Neve Campbell, while perfectly solid in the role, can’t fill the shoes of Mahershala Ali’s Remy Danton or Molly Parker’s Jackie Sharp, both of which already didn’t measure up to Corey Stoll’s Peter Russo or Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes.

That leaves season five entirely in the hands of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright to carry it. They’re entirely capable, but there’s no question that the stronger supporting players of the past made House of Cards a much better show. Yet even as the show continues to dip in quality, season five eventually reveals itself as a vehicle for its true plan: season six. The final two episodes of the season have a fire to them that’s exciting while potentially upending the show. The note we end on is one that should not only please fans, but also allow the show to hit the reset button in season six. The final piece of dialogue of the season is so ridiculously enticing and rewarding for longtime viewers that I can’t help but look forward with House of Cards with enthusiasm. It took an unfortunate amount of time to get there, and Netflix should really consider lowering the episode count next year, but there’s still something to be said for this hammy, soapy political saga. Grade: B-

By Matt Dougherty

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