In March of 2016, House of Cards’ fourth season had President Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) confessing a murder to his secretary of state, ICO (the series’ fictional ISIS) beheading a guy on live TV, lone journalist Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) dogging the president with corruption charges, data scientist Aidan MacAllan (Damian Young) cooking the social-media books for the president, and first lady Claire (Robin Wright) accepting her party’s VP nomination — only to break the fourth wall and vow to scare the American public into voting for law-and-order Team Underwood. How…quaint.
When the show first aired, in 2013, President Barack Obama had sailed into a relatively easy re-election win — 2012’s biggest scandals having come from Mitt Romney’s “binders of women” and “47 percent” utterances and the curious incident of the dog on the minivan. To all you newly minted young voters out there: Yes, that was the extent of the improprieties. And, wow, was that a hell of a long time ago, because 2017 so far has been as terrifying as any Romney pup’s rooftop car ride. Meanwhile, the wild machinations of House of Cards — which once seemed a farce — have been fully beaten by reality.
The fifth season of the political soap opera opens with chaos on the U.S. Senate floor as Frank blusters about ICO, declaring the United States at war with the terrorists — a war on U.S. soil. Of course, Senate rules prohibit the chief executive from seizing the floor, but the writers carefully orchestrate a quick little plot involving the exploitation of loopholes to maneuver Frank into this spotlight. These Democrats are far craftier than their real-life counterparts — any way we can get the show’s knowledgeable scribes to run for office?
The writers’ manipulation of D.C. insider knowledge to hatch impossibly twisty, addictive conspiracies has always been the show’s strength; even if I haven’t liked what was happening, I’ve usually found the drawn-out arcs masterfully concocted. But even as this holds true for Season 5’s windy paths of political intrigue, I still find myself obsessively refreshing Twitter after the end credits, filled with terror and surprise at what’s actually happening in a very real (but much less shrewd) norm-flouting presidency. By comparison, what House of Cards is throwing at us plays out too slowly, with too much thinking to compete with the bright-red breaking-news banners on every homepage.
This doesn’t mean that House of Cards is suddenly boring. The show’s hallmark Frank-and-Claire intimacy breeds many scenes rife with meaning and metaphor. Unlike in previous seasons, these moments now strike me as the good kind of cheesy, a romantic slow-pour of Velveeta from a simpler past. Frank and Claire sit side by side in the White House’s screening room to watch Double Indemnity — could the parallels between the male-female plotting partners be any more obvious? But I’m no longer looking for realism from this show. What is political realism now, anyway? Instead, when the couple begins ritually reciting the film’s dialogue, I’m pleasantly jolted back into the story and away from real-world troubles.
Still, watching how this round of House of Cards is received should prove interesting. Robin Wright joked at Cannes that Trump had stolen all their storylines for Season 6. He’s certainly disrupted the writers room and may have destabilized the very genre of the political thriller.
In American media, we tend to adhere to the principle that even if our fictional government is corrupt, it still acts according to the John le Carré rules of decency and politesse, because they are smart people with a masterminded plan. But what if they’re simply dangerous imbeciles with nuclear codes? Tom Clancy and those who have adapted his books never envisioned a casino thug with a golden apartment in the sky and a toddler’s appetite ascending to the presidency on a platform of buffoonery and ten single-syllable words. Even a political caricature, like David Cronenberg’s long-con huckster Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) in his adaptation of The Dead Zone, cannot begin to measure up to our new reality; Stillson’s career ends because he tries to shield himself from a bullet with a baby. Who’s to say Trump couldn’t do the same and still be celebrated — especially if the kid’s mother were a journalist?
In other words, Trump’s regime has rendered the usual third-act resolutions of political dramas implausible. Watching All the President’s Men makes me cackle in disillusionment. Even when I absolutely know that this series is building to an epic takedown of Frank and Claire — hence the title — I wonder: Will this house of cards really fall?
In the usual fictions, when an American politician or agency wields power for obvious evil, some noble-spirited character usually finds a way to root out the rotten — think of Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries broadcasting Lonesome Rhodes’s true self to America in A Face in the Crowd. (Today, Rhodes’s cruel remarks would be dismissed as locker-room talk.) The underlying promise of American political thrillers is that truth itself matters, that our systems resist corruption, that as long as we don’t live in a dictatorial dystopia we can rest easy with the knowledge that our free and open elections will bring a brighter future in just a few short years. But as hard-right Republicans gerrymander their way into guaranteed wins while ignoring their own president’s likely collusion with a hostile foreign government, the hope of a brighter tomorrow wanes. Sorry, did that get depressing?
Political dramas such as House of Cards feed off a government in stasis. It’s no surprise that so many of these shows launch in years of Democratic stability: The West Wing came at the tail end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and Scandal, The Good Wife, and House of Cards all arrived when Obama had begun evening out the economic crisis. These shows are escapist. It’s fun imagining the evil exploits of powerful people — that’s why James Bond villains are so beloved and maybe part of why Trump was irresistible to some voters. But at close range, with real lives at stake, these antiheroes are unveiled as the monsters they are. Frank and Claire are at their best this season when they function as a peculiar couple speaking elevated and unrealistic dialogue, because today that’s escapism: What if the villains walking the halls of the White House were thoughtful and capable?
House of Cards streams on Netflix.