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.)
Season 5, Episode 8 (Chapter 60)
An episode ago I was calling for the show to lighten its tone a bit, and the sight of robed bazillionaire bros saluting a bird idol who speaks in a Mystery Science Theater-worthy voice of God would, by all rights, seem like a start down the road to fun. But this hour, split between Frank at the all-male “Elysian Fields” retreat and Claire dealing with a Russian/Chinese diplomatic crisis, was, on the level of execution, awful. The two main stories were intercut with the subtlety of someone flipping channels. Conflicts were resolved with even less explanation or logic than this show typically allows—which is saying something. Suspense levels were nil. And we had to hear the wooden Tom Yates say the L-word to Claire. A contender for the worst House of Cards episode yet.
The concept of a glamping trip where a handful of well-connected guys decide the fate of the world without actually being allowed to discuss business or politics is, well, goofy. But goofy can be good, and this wasn’t. After the opening ritual, all that we really saw of the goings-on were eggs being cooked by an oil baron and a very weak SXSW keynote about the Black Mirror “Be Right Back” app. Frank kept violating the no-shop-talk rule, fell on his face while trying to scheme with Doug over the phone, had an epiphany that indicated he was going to play by the camp’s rules and not talk about politics, and then ... gave a big speech about politics.
That speech—really a dialogue with Brockhart in the presence of the rest of the dudes—was as clunky as faux-prestige-TV writing gets. “I like dirt and rocks and facts,” Frank announces, pitching a folksy boy-from-Georgia mixed metaphor to what’s supposedly a sophisticated audience. They buy it, for some reason: Frank “exceeded expectations,” Mark Usher tells him. He’s not lying, either. As Frank prematurely leaves the retreat, Ben from Pollyhop shows up to hand him audio of his friend, Conway, cursing out his airplane pilots.
Claire’s saga with the Russians and the Chinese and the marooned research mission struck a not-so-subtle contrast with Elysian Fields: Back at the White House, it was not men but women—Claire, Cathy, Jane—who were deciding the fate of the world. But the plot line was as vexing as Frank’s, both convoluted and oversimplified. The Russians didn’t want their research ship rescued by the Americans but the Chinese did want it rescued by the Americans but also the Chinese and the Russians were working together? If you can figure it all out, congratulations on your omnipotence.
Robin Wright did her fearsome best to sell some very tricky dialogue, though we needed another wink at the camera to accompany the line “I just find it so frustrating when human life is treated with such disregard.” Meanwhile, Jane Davis continues to emerge as an intriguingly opaque character. Why, exactly, has the apparently most connected woman in the world, someone who seems to have been with the State Department for some time, just now come to the White House’s aid? Claire keeps asking where Jane’s loyalties really lie; it seems like an extremely urgent question, and one that the Underwoods would want answered definitively.
When Frank returns to D.C., he muses that it seemed all-too-easy for the damning tape of Conway to have fallen into his lap. He’s right, but the show shouldn’t get points for acknowledging Frank’s outrageous luck if he’s also going to keep benefiting from it. The Underwoods’ apparent victory by accumulating their opponents’ damning hot-mic moments seems so certain that Doug prematurely congratulates Frank on winning the presidency (fact check: as if). Just as tellingly, Usher secretly defects with only minimal cajoling. Which is suspicious. Between Usher and Jane, the Underwoods are surrounding themselves with unapologetic double-agents—are Frank or Claire’s evil comments going to end up on tape as well?
Previously: Season 5, Episode 7
Next Up: Season 5, Episode 9