At its 2013 inauguration, House of Cards was a sinister, stylish master of social engineering that decided to use politics as a setting for its protagonists duplicitous and unquenchable hunger for power. Four murderous seasons later and, at its core, it hasn’t changed at all.
Season 5 begins its campaign with a pre-emptive assault on the expectations and reservations on this side of the screen. With the current state of the world/White House being what it is, Francis Underwood might lose some of his impact – why watch House of Cards when you can just watch the news? – so the show decides, much as the characters might, to strike first.
Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) immediately begin using perceived ‘acts of terror’ to fuel their engine of fear and control. They institute an unpopular travel ban, a rigorous no-fly list, and permit the media to run amok with speculation about anything remotely ‘foreign’, as well as slickly organising several instances of voter suppression. The episode’s writing manages to circumvent the subtext of reality the only way the Underwoods ever could – by charging directly at it, war-faces on.
Following the uneven nature of their relationship in Season 4, part of the power of their return comes from Claire’s singular focus in making the terror that will pull her closer to power. Robin Wright’s driven VP-candidate is uncompromising, with no hesitation, no conscience, and no humanity at all.
The first words Frank speaks (after some whispered plotting, of course) are “I don’t care”. It sets the tone for the oncoming barrage of invented terror, as well as complimenting the smoother, more personal tone of the second episode, creating a brand of chaotic poetry immediately recognisable to House of Cards fans.
The opening chapters of Season 5 strike the fear of Francis into everyone on both sides of the fourth wall, while orchestrating much shadier dealings surrounding the great-unknown of cyber warfare. The show carries off the latter perfectly in an era where few on-screen hackers can be taken seriously, and then couples this intangible digital danger with Seth’s decisions surrounding the profoundly named Declaration of War committee.
With the focus on the anarchy Frank has created, Kevin Spacey’s political puppet-master is then free to consider private matters. Splendidly switching from his first episode persona, Spacey’s immeasurable talent manages to display Frank as a human being, even employing a fourth-wall rebuild during the second episode, in which he has to pause during a chilling speech. It is a testament to Spacey’s stature as an actor, as well as a display of the quality and depth of the character, his development and relationships, that we not only return to this deplorable, ruthless politician, but are still unwillingly rooting for him the whole time.
Classily reintroducing supporting stars Joel Kinnamon, Dan Ziskie, Boris McGiver, and Neve Campbell, Season 5 manages to up the tension in its initial episodes. The conclusion of Episode 1, though, will remind you that of all things the Underwoods are, they are not to be underestimated.
House of Cards Season 1 to 5 are available to watch online on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.