House of Cards is the reason Netflix is the global juggernaut it is. Original programming was one of the pillars the business committed to wholly when reimagining itself as the twenty-first century successor to Video Ezy and by way of bold greenlighting, a thick wallet and terabytes of user data the streaming service has produced a network of solid hits.
None of them hold the critical acclaim House of Cards boasts, not even the excellent and upcoming Orange is the New Black.
Kevin Spacey’s southern drawl returns for a fifth season as the mischievous Frank Underwood. There’s a disconnect between the first two seasons and the more recent two, between a man hellbent to achieve power and a man hellbent to keep it, but the character is the same bastard he’s always been. Only now he rarely needs to put on a charade – even if this season seems to take steps to put him back in the underdog position.
That’s a more interesting story, and the show excels because of it even if the plot becomes a tad convoluted as a result. Frank is a love-to-hate character but without brilliant opponents he is nothing.
The opponents are varied and valid – beginning with his opposition for the Presidency in Governor Conway. Joel Kinnaman plays a wonderful and charismatic foil to the President but his character doesn’t have the stamina to keep going toe-to-toe with seasoned fighter Frank. His façade finally drops and a few conveniences offer the Underwoods the kill. In a spot of research for this review I discovered Joel Kinnaman’s previous work: AMC’s The Killing is beloved, while the Robocop reboot has few fans. However imagine my shock at the revelation Joel Kinnaman was the wooden and cringe-worthy Rick Flagg in Suicide Squad. How is it possible that one actor can deliver such vastly different quality performances?
Tom Hammerschmidt remains on Frank’s tail and is rising in the media landscape. He is more careful than Zoe or Lucas ever were in their pursuit of justice and brings in some fresh faces to look at the jigsaw.
Fresh faces make or break House of Cards. The show can get stale quickly if the same characters keep reappearing, but seeing Cathy or Donald or Petrov or Tusk tell the audience the show is devoted to legitimacy. These people feel like people more than plot devices – despite how much they are simply “used” – and make Tusk’s input on this election a fascinating though minor angle in this season’s plights.
Last year’s inductee Neve Campbell is wonderful, while her NSA analyst friend is painfully boring til a Snowden-esque tale begins to spin off-camera. Derek Cecil as Seth is used so well – underused if anything – while it’s time to let go of Claire’s weird speechwriter boytoy. Every ounce of plot has been drained from that situation.
The three big hitters this year are from three different areas of the Underwood’s lives. Patricia Clarkson (Emma Stone’s mum in Easy A, Emmy-winner for Six Feet Under) arrives at the half point of the series as a skilled and mysterious diplomat brought into Claire’s inner circle. A complete outsider, the Underwoods are unnaturally skittish at the plethora of skills and information at her disposal.
Campbell Scott is Mark Usher, the Republican campaign advisor and fixer, and it’s an understated performance that has a long life ahead of it. Korey Jackson is Sean Jeffries, promoted to Tom’s team at the newspaper for all of three seconds before beginning a separate sidequest for the truth.
How these all play out towards the back end of the season is intriguing. And how all of this will build to a shocking House of Cards finale is exciting.
Season four was criticised for a wheelspinning and the new showrunner has addressed this. The immediate terror threat posed in the finale finds a malicious and dramatic conclusion within the premiere, while the ideology behind it punctuates so much of the series going forward. The election is protracted to insane results but the characters all recognise this. The dissent in the polls is the appropriate response to the more interesting narrative journey. But the real-world implications lend a reality to proceedings that was lacking last season.
And while Robin Wright is a marvel and the series not-so secret weapon, last season did use her too much in the wrong way. By way of plot she is made Acting President this season as Frank grapples for his win and it is the right move. Murmurs of her promising future in politics are becoming louder. It’s hard to imagine a series with Claire in politics and Frank not, but it would mirror the would-be Hilary White House wonderfully.
It also gives Kevin Spacey an avenue to downsize his commitment to the show synonymous with him. Since his role as Frank he’s become President of a middle-tier film studio and began stretching his legs back to feature films, starring in this year’s Edgar Wright flick Baby Driver with Ansel Elgort.
But his departure is still a few years from happening, if ever.
When House of Cards launched it was a near-perfect depiction of the struggle for power, but now ultimate power is in the Underwoods hand the plot is now about keeping that power. How the talented ensemble moves chess pieces to keep the power or remove the power from Frank and Claire Underwood remains extremely entertaining.