House of Cards - Season 5 (Review)
House of Cards' fifth season starts off immediately setting a new tone for the Underwood presidency in the first episode’s cold open: control through fear. But as the story continues, we're barely shown how that methodology affects the country; the glimpses into the lives of normal citizens are brief, and they vanish before they can actually conclude.
It was surprising, because the show has always held a good balance between political decisions and how they affected outside life. Whether it was a short scene of a former chef signing up for a federal employment program, or the vengeful actions of a journalist leading to an attempted assassination of the president, Frank Underwood's (Kevin Spacey) impact on the country was felt. At the very least, there would be closure to stories in which time was significantly invested. With the vast majority of the show’s drama revolving around Frank and Claire (Robin Wright), the absence of life outside of D.C. takes away from the idea of a tyrant's hand on a democratic republic. How can we be captivated by the idea of an Underwood presidency if we don't have a chance to see what it actually does to the country?
If the story's foundation is the ongoing corruption from within the White House and the Capitol, then it's burdened with the full responsibility of making a payoff for it. At that point, it’s up to the writers to keep things interesting enough to justify another season of what’s essentially the same formula we’ve already seen - and this year's installment of the series didn't really give much. Even if it was an intentional decision to keep the narrative focused on Frank and Claire - and their actions within D.C. - what's problematic is that the show’s marketing campaign seemed to promise something entirely different this year.
Five seasons in, with three of them now revolving around an Underwood presidency, House of Cards has held the potential of portraying a rare look at the gradual descent of a democratic nation into tyranny. From the promotional trailers, posters, and video clips that were released for its newest season, it does seem like that was where the narrative was headed. The final product, instead, was a plot centered on the Underwoods winning the election - still playing itself out from the previous season. As the story came to a close, any signs of the next milestone in Frank and Claire’s journey were left in place as more build-up to something that should have arrived by now. That’s where my main issue lies with this year’s installment of the show: it’s become too much about keeping power and not enough about what that power can do.
There’s a brilliant scene near the beginning of the season: Frank greets protestors through the gates of the White House and assures them with each handshake that there is “nothing to fear”, stopping to look at us through the camera as he repeats himself one last time. The ominous tone of that moment is probably what made the outcome of the rest of the story so disappointing – in the end I ended up agreeing with him.
Frank and Claire's story fulfills the promise of "One Nation Underwood", if only through the fact that almost every person in the show has become motivated by the same hunger for power held by the two of them. And because of that, House of Cards' two central characters have become just as uninteresting as its story has.
With no actual consequences shown from the political mayhem that occurs, Season 5 is a tiring and anticlimactic entry for a series that should have held a lot more in store this far down the road.
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright remain camouflaged in their roles - even if the script they're given has faults along the way.
The series continues to deviate from the high standards set by the production values of Season 1 when it comes to cinematography. Though it still isn't bad, it still feels somewhat lazy compared to what's come before.
Even though the score is competent, that's all it ends up being. Many key moments in the show are played out with an uninspired re-imagining of the main theme, and much of the unnerving and moody ambiance from previous seasons is absent.