As in previous years, I’m binge-reviewing the latest season of Netflix’s House of Cards, the TV show that helped popularize the idea of “binge watching” when it premiered in 2013. Don’t read farther than you’ve watched. (The whole series will appear here.)
Episode 1 (Chapter 53)
Season Five of House of Cards brings a new team of showrunners and a new real-life president for Frank Underwood to be compared to. It also, for a moment, seemed to bring a new gimmick of Claire addressing the camera just as her husband does. “I’ve been meaning to talk with you,” she says in the very first seconds of this premiere. “It’s terrifying, isn’t it?”
Yes, Claire, it is—terrifying and intriguing. Alas, she was just filming a paranoia-promoting campaign ad masquerading as a PSA. But the thought of her getting a chance to make meta-monologues raises the question of how the show could refresh its formula five years in—rather than merely continue to chart new depths of evil for the Underwoods, as this hour ended up doing.
In any case, Claire’s chilling address to the nation and Frank’s fiery interruption of Congress made for a sensational start to the episode. The age-of-terror Wag the Dog machinations that then unfolded had an especially gothic edge. ICO, the Cards-world ISIS, has become a strawman—strawbogeyman—for Frank and Claire to distract the nation with as Republicans try to pummel them on Hammerschmidt’s exposé about corruption. From elaborate hoaxes to serious policy change to the extrajudicial murder of an American citizen, it’s clear there is no length the Underwoods won’t go to in the name of safety—that is, their own safety.
I loved the scene of Claire and Frank peering through a rifle scope at the crowd outside of the White House. The choice of optical device was exactly the kind of dark (if on-the-nose) detail that this show excels at using. And the allegory is potent. The American people are trying to scrutinize the first couple but can’t actually see them. Meanwhile, Frank and Claire can see their constituents quite well, and their gaze is also a weapon. That they’re willing to pull the metaphorical trigger is apparent in the ruse about Joshua Masterson, which culminated in a fantastically David Fincherian scene of Frank sneering at a young troubled American through a glass pane and then ordering his death.
A creepy episode in its own right, then. Is it even more creepy given recent headlines? The Donald Trump era obviously places Cards in a new context, and the fact that this presidency feels more ominous to many than Obama’s did should be, one imagines, a boon to the show. Indeed, the creators have lucked out—if it can be called that—with Trump having proposed an immigration ban much as Frank Underwood has. And Trump’s darker tone with regards to the menace of terrorism fits with what’s going on in this season.
But in perhaps more significant ways, Cards has never felt farther from reality (and that’s saying something for one of the most nitpicked-over shows to ever air). Its vision of politics is one of competence, in which everyone from junior staffers to presidents have veneers of poise that hide modern Machiavellis. This season involves the greatest conspiracy yet, with the Secretary of State and various law-enforcement officials smoothly selling outrageous lies (the convenience-store explosion, the Masterson cover-up). Meanwhile, even the most charitable reading of the Trump presidency thus far involves a good number of public, unforced errors as well as torrential scrutiny attending every dubious assertion from the White House.
Cards has also never been particularly astute in its portrayal of the media, and that’s going to feel like more of an issue in a moment when the press’s role in politics is more pronounced and more contested than it arguably has ever been. It’s 2016 in the show and the main source of action is Charlie Rose? It’s the Internet era and viewers get no sense of whether the American people are buying the conspiracy theories about their president? Another Cards blindspot has been the actual demos in democracy—the people who aren’t politicians. The average American’s ability to be manipulated by plugged-in mandarins is taken for granted here. Which, of course, is exactly what our world’s plugged-in mandarins took for granted before November of last year.
Enjoying this show going forward may mean divorcing it from the national entertainment of the moment—politics—and instead reveling in its scene-to-scene sneakiness. It means becoming more invested in Tom Yates, who—though never my favorite character—should play an interesting role now that he’s sleeping with Claire (what did he steal from her?). It means speculating about what is up with the Conways, who seem wounded and more on their heels than they did when they were introduced as telegenic foils to the Underwoods last season.
More than anything, enjoying the show means suspending disbelief about the Underwoods’ nefarious calculations. Claire didn’t really need to toy with the terrorist’s mother, and Frank didn’t really need to toy with the terrorist. But these people are motivated by power. What could be more of a power rush than looking in the face of someone whose life is at your disposal?
Next Up: Season 5, Episode 2