Warning: This contains spoilers for Episodes 3 to 5 of House of Cards Season 5. Not seen the latest season? Read our spoiler-free review of the opening episodes here.
Having reacquainted the audience with the cutthroat world of the Underwoods, House of Cards’ next three episodes focus on the issue at hand – the election. Surveying both candidates as they use every tactic necessary to be elected President – and as Frank and Claire have proven, that doesn’t leave much off the table.
Episode 3 revolves around Will Conway’s 24-hour telethon, a masterpiece of a PR move, but a risky one, when the questions veer towards his war record – courtesy of Francis Underwood, of course. It’s a spectacularly arranged episode, Conway’s constant broadcast allows us to keep track of both candidates, as they shadily jibe each other behind the scenes, and in front of a huge audience.
As usual, whenever Frank is forced to give up control, in this case to the voters, his stress levels rocket. Claire attempts to calm him with a charming pre-election ritual (watching Double Indemnity), reminding everyone how long these two have been fighting this fight, before it is back to work. Spacey and Wright are exquisite together, both having crafted dispassionate behemoths that respond only to the other – the two are as controlled and intense as their characters would hope.
Episode 4 depicts Frank doing what he does best – whipping votes, by any means necessary. Except here he isn’t bargaining with individuals, he is attempting to ensure entire states bend to his will. And when they don’t, Frank takes one more step – organising an ICO terrorist threat in a swing state. He rolls his eyes while assuring everyone “I don’t want you to panic”. It’s a gigantic move, equal parts inspired and despicable. House of Cards’ use of terrorism this season leans more towards Black Mirror than Homeland, the association with reality adding to the tension and making the protagonists that much more fear-inducing.
If Episode 4’s blurring of the lines stress Conway out, Episode 5 takes him to breaking point. Opening with an explanation of the 12th Amendment, Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian former President has managed to deadlock the election to a point where it may as well be decided by a coin toss. Unprecedented in US politics, there are numerous discussions about how to decide the election, almost all of them involving the Underwoods. It is a tempered, calm discussion at a mahogany table, framed with flags, while scouring law books for precedents, but make no mistake: this is no more or less chaos than pushing reporters in front of trains, orchestrating terror threats, or kidnapping those who know too much. The election is placed in the hands of those in power. It just so happens those hands are Frank’s.
While the election in dominating the airwaves on both sides of the fourth wall, House of Cards’ supporting characters are telling a far bigger story. Seth is panicking at anyone who might be able to help him, LeAnn is desperately trying to control Aiden Macallan’s leaking of information, Doug is veering between alcohol and his lover, and Tom Yates is quiet and suspicious. All of the Underwoods’ alliances are wavering, because none of these people have what the Underwoods’ have – each other.
House of Cards Season 1 to 5 are available to watch online on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.