Season 5 of House of Cards, streaming on Netflix as of Tuesday, has a couple of challenges to overcome. For one, it has to maintain the steady momentum of a series that is always on the verge of spinning out of control, of falling into self-satire. It’s also forced to do something it probably doesn’t want to do, but the times demand it: decide whether the show’s new occupant of the White House will remind you of the new occupant of the White House in real life.
You’ll recall that when we last left the Underwoods, Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) had just announced their presidential-ticket twosome. They’re campaigning against the Republican candidate, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), whose attractive youth and freshness now stand in contrast to the long-established, Clintonesque experience of the Underwoods. That Democrat duo will, it’s been established, do anything to remain in power, and the new fifth season is largely about the extremes to which Frank and Claire will go.
This new season is the first with new showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese, who’ve taken over from Cards creator Beau Willimon. You can feel that shift in the tone of the new episodes: The atmosphere feels looser, more wild and daring. After the first few hours, you start to sense that no character is safe from the writers’ desire to startle us with unexpected acts of revenge or paranoia. What’s good for the drama may spell disaster for some familiar faces, as this season of Cards also makes way for new faces. These include Campbell Scott as a wily political consultant, Patricia Clarkson as a super-wily political appointee, and James Martinez as a super-duper-ambitious congressman.
Each of the new characters is given ample time to establish him- or herself. But I remain most loyal to that most loyal of supporting players, Michael Kelly’s ruthless White House Chief of Staff Doug Stamper. Indeed, many of the best moments of House of Cards this time around could serve as a spinoff show called The Misadventures of Doug Stamper, as Doug executes orders — or ignores some — given him by Frank and/or Claire. Kelly’s performance continues to be subtle in the midst of a show that doesn’t much care about subtlety.
That’s certainly true of Spacey’s ever-more-broad performance and Wright’s near self-parody of a woman who wears her power like a suffocating mask. The Underwoods spend a lot of time talking about the terrorist threat of this show’s version of ISIS, called ICO (pronounced as in the 1965 Dixie Cups hit “Iko, Iko”), even as you know that geopolitical relations matter as little to the Underwood administration as they do to the Trump administration — and Frank has become even crazier than our real president in regard to a shameless use of international incidents as cover for domestic scandal.
It’s fun to figure out which characters the new showrunners don’t have much fondness for, like speechwriter Tom Yates (Paul Sparks). Then again, maybe it’s just my own irritation with Tom that makes him seem like such a drag this time around. The perpetually murmuring, staggeringly self-important novelist — who entered the White House as official chronicler of Frank’s presidency and remains there as Claire’s pretentious boy toy — has become a symbol of everything tedious and tiresome about House of Cards. It’s significant that the new blood Gibson and Pugliese inject into the show — most successfully Clarkson’s wry woman-of-the-world — are vibrant, fast-talking people who challenge the Underwoods rather than merely reflecting them.
House of Cards continues to have fun with the ways pop culture spills over into real life. TV news stalwarts ranging from Rachel Maddow to Connie Chung figure in the proceedings, and the White House press briefing room made so familiar to us via Sean Spicer becomes the locus for activities that would make even Saturday Night Live think twice regarding believability. There’s a great scene early on involving the Underwoods’ fondness for the 1944 film noir Double Indemnity that makes the larcenous couple in that film (played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck) seem like both inspirations and pikers when it comes to Frank and Claire’s amoral deviousness. By the end of the season, my neck was sore from having been snapped so many times by the plot twists. Netflix bingers ought to be prepared for a very bumpy ride.
House of Cards Season 5 is streaming now on Netflix.