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 13 (Chapter 65)
By all rights, House of Cards should be winding down, five seasons in. There were only 12 episodes in the original three-season U.K. series, and the shape of this anti-hero story would seem to naturally lend itself to a rise and fall—and the rise to the presidency is through. The needless plot complication that happened midway through this season suggests the writing team has been trying to pad episodes, which is never a sign of a show continuing to exist with good reason. Stylistically, Cards has gotten more rushed and clunky as the story has gotten ever-more-bonkers.
And yet the finale of Season Five sees a whole new dynamic established, one that could power the show for a while longer. Frank, it turns out, had been orchestrating his own demise so that he could control it. The goal: his wife as president, he as private-sector powerbroker, creating a government-business alliance more potent than the presidency on its own. Thinking back on the scandals of this season post-Elysian Fields, and trying to determine whether they were all plausibly Frank’s doing, hurts my head. But there indeed were times when it seemed he was acting so recklessly as to defy belief. Those instances—when he screwed over Romero, for example—now make more sense.
What doesn’t quite make sense is why he withheld his plan from Claire, who was understandably peeved to be blindsided by his resignation announcement. The first tenet of their relationship, she pointed out, has always been to let each other know what they’re thinking—and it’s not like Claire’s head isn’t already full of incriminating information. Frank’s secrecy feels like a plot device, driving yet another wedge between husband and wife, allowing for new tension over whether she’ll pardon him and whether she’ll allow him any influence in her administration. To put a fine point on the stakes, Frank says to us, “If she doesn’t pardon me, I’ll kill her.”
He delivers that line like a joke, but it’s hard to laugh when the body count for the Underwoods has been expanding at an exponential rate. In Season One, we had Peter Russo’s death; for Season Two, we had Zoe, and in Season Three, Rachel. Season Five had already seen the bumping off of Joshua Masterson, Aidan Macallan, Cathy Durant (for now), and Tom Yates. This finale added the apparent car-crash demise of LeAnn Harvey for knowing too much about election tampering, and the betrayal is particularly sickening given all the assurances she’d received. That we didn’t see her body leaves some hope, but as Frank said, “Sometimes you don’t have to watch the whole movie to know how it ends.” Another loss: Eric Rawlings, Frank’s obsessed lover, who climbed the White House fence and was shot.
For a bit it also looked like Doug might join the kill list by suicide, what with him caressing the Oval Office letter opener and listening to A Tale of Two Cities’ Sydney Carton’s pre-guillotine speech. But he’s sacrificing himself to the judicial system, not the blade. The journlist Hammerschmidt can tell that Doug’s taking the fall for Frank, but has no way to prove it, and Doug for now is sticking with the story. That could change, though, once this loyal servant learns the fate of his fellow loyal servant and one-night stand, LeAnn.
Claire’s administration has kicked off the long-threatened war in Syria, and achieved the killing of the Cards-world Osama bin Laden. But next season will likely focus more on the war brewing inside her White House. Jane remains squirrelly about her loyalties even as her fearsomeness becomes clearer: She organizes assassinations from the spa; she casually suggests the murder of an ex-president over instant coffee with his wife. And now she knows just how drastically the first couple threw the election—which gives her leverage. Her male counterpart in intrigue, Usher, also has leverage in his knowledge of Tom Yates’s killing. It seems preposterous for him to push himself into Claire’s VP spot, but it is very clear he can create real consequences for her if she doesn’t listen.
The show can go two ways now. Either Claire can live long and prosper in the White House, and we’ll see another climb via Frank in the private sector, culminating in their total control and subversion of America, and then maybe, after a multiple-season slog, a final fall. The more graceful option would be a swifter end: the ultimate double-crossers, currently estranged, picked apart by supposed allies who are as cunning and power-hungry as they are.
Previously: Season 5, Episode 12
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