What a difference a year can make. The fourth season of House of Cards arrived during a significantly more tepid political climate: February 2016, when Barack Obama made (sigh) assurances that Donald Trump would never become president. Now, in the chaotic days of the Trump administration, the fifth season of the Netflix original series might actually seem quaint compared to all of the political upheaval happening in real life — a reminder of simpler times when we were eager for a peek into the Oval Office. Or maybe this new season will provoke a more gut-level reaction; White House intrigue simply might not be the kind of escapism that people are looking for right now.
It's impossible to deny the Trump influence — intentional or not — on House of Cards. We'll doubtless have a handful of think pieces dedicated to parallels between Trump and the Underwoods, and why the show suddenly isn't as terrifying as the real world. That's all well and good, but it misses a more basic point: Is House of Cards, Netflix's first Emmy darling, still a good show?
Not to pull a Frank Underwood, but it really depends on you, the reader of this article and ostensible viewer of the series. If chilling and somewhat realistic political machinations are what you're hungry for, House of Cards spends most of the season trying to depict a fictional but plausible White House. But if you're a fan of the show's soapier qualities — the spousal back-stabbing, the straight-up murder and the fourth-wall-breaking monologues aimed at the camera — you'll have to be more patient. The fifth season of House of Cards bides its time before going completely batshit.
I fall in the latter category of House of Cards fans — and to be completely transparent, the politics of today does put a strain on the series that's out of its control. Having seen all 13 episodes of the new season, fatigue does set in when you go from watching a conniving fictional president to a real one being shaded by, of all people, Pope Francis. But once House of Cards lathers on the camp in the final episodes of the new season, it becomes as irresistible as the Underwood's endless lust for power.
Season four left off with a chilling decision from the Underwoods to essentially allow an American to be beheaded by ICO — the show's ISIS stand-in — on U.S. soil to bring about a culture of fear in America. The simple idea being: Americans will be so freaked out by ICO, it'll encourage them to stick with the Underwoods, rather than promising Republican presidential candidate Will Conway, in the upcoming election.
Unsurprisingly, neither party plays fair in said election. Both candidates have pawns willing to get their hands sullied to try and sway the polls, and a lot of this season's early screen time is dedicated to backdoor scheming that becomes increasingly convoluted, like Frank trying to curry favor with influential billionaires at a weekend getaway that might also double as an Illuminati-esque cult. But threads like that feel complex just for the sake of being complex, like a writer *pauses to visit Thesaurus.com* rescripting sentences to appear percipient. It hides, most of all, character development. I can't tell you anything about the new political outsiders helping the candidates — played respectively by Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott — because they're intentionally one-note.
Adding even more regulars to the cast makes an already crowded White House even more claustrophobic, despite the series losing one staple in Mahershala Ali's Remy Danton. The most studious fans will have a hard time keeping track of everyone's agenda, no matter how many times Frank addresses the audience.
Thankfully, House of Cards does, eventually, fix this issue in the most House of Cards way possible: with murder! The various deaths are entertaining and, even by this show's standards, occasionally quite absurd. But that version of House of Cards is the series I ascribe to a pleasure binge; one that relishes in its pulpiest moments rather than attempting to be a very serious political drama. In other words: more Scandal, less The West Wing with shittier people.
Regardless of the fluxes in quality throughout the season, the show's still buoyed by terrific performances from Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as the Underwoods. Wright, in particular, makes a strong case for another Emmy nomination, despite the potentially crowded category. (Elisabeth Moss, Keri Russell, Claire Foy, Evan Rachel Wood and Viola Davis will likely all be vying for hardware this fall.) Interestingly, it's her scenes opposite Paul Sparks' character — writer and White House concubine Tom Yates — and not Spacey, that are her most nuanced. She adds some vulnerability and humanity to Claire that we've rarely seen before, while nevertheless reminding you that she's just as hungry for power as her husband.
House of Cards' best days are certainly behind it. Few shows get better once the original showrunner departs, as Beau Willimon did following season four. And the early stages of the season are unnecessarily complicated, spending too much time around the election rather than looking ahead — and who among us wants to focus on a presidential election at this point? The optimist in me looks at the way House of Cards wraps up the fifth season — with a handful of tense episodes and, truly, one of the most spectacularly silly TV deaths in recent memory — and credits the sluggish start to growing pains from new co-showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese. But even if season five's promising final stretch is the exception and not the rule, I don't doubt the show will maintain a passionate following. Frank Underwood, speaking to you, says it best.
"Just as long as I'm doing something, you're happy to be along for the ride."
The fifth season of Hnullnullouse of Cards premieres Tuesday on Netflix.
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