Had Donald Trump lost the November presidential election, we’d be having a very different conversation about the fifth season of “House of Cards.”
The show’s newly-released 13 episodes, now available on Netflix, explore the further adventures and exploits of the corrupt Underwood machine, run by President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his VP-hopeful wife, Claire (Robin Wright). Their political system is Machiavellian in nature: focused on procuring and keeping power at whatever moral cost.
But the show also suggests a Nietzschean undertone to the political machinations of Frank and his wife: they see themselves as being above the moral qualms and sensitivities of the common people. “You wanted a guardian at the gate like me,” Frank tells a group of congressmen at one point. “You have all enjoyed it, been party to it, and benefited by it. … You don’t need me to stand for anything. You just need me to stand.”
Frank and Claire believe they transcend morality and its constraints. The question, throughout “House of Cards,” is whether they’re right.
This Season, It’s All About Claire
In this new season, Frank and Claire Underwood battle against young military veteran and Republican governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) for the presidency. But the battle between the Underwoods and Conways seems a bit scattered, and even boring at times. As Claire stakes her ground in the White House, it becomes increasingly evident that a larger battle for power is brewing—one that has nothing to do with the Conways, but everything to do with the Underwoods.
This is exactly what needed to happen in “House of Cards.” We’ve had four seasons of shocking and nasty Frank Underwood. We’ve become desensitized to his evil, and a bit tired of his victories. He’s ceased to amaze or entertain us. But Claire is the wild card, the mystery. We’ve wondered what horrors or virtues might lie beneath her austere, quiet façade. This season, we begin to see Claire assert her own power. And it saves the show from becoming stale.
That isn’t to say other key characters, including Frank, don’t have their moments. But they increasingly swirl around Claire, who serves as the major driver of plot developments and action.
The Show’s Literary and Political Influences
“House of Cards” is an interesting philosophical and literary work. As mentioned above, it draws some influences from Machiavelli and Nietzsche, portraying an übermensch-driven political machine. But it also pulls a variety of ideas and literary references from Shakespeare; Frank and Claire are our General and Lady Macbeth. Frank Underwood’s many monologues to the audience feel as if they could be pulled from a Shakespeare play, or even perhaps an ancient tragedy. He increasingly serves, in this season, as a sort of philosophical narrator to the audience. He’s the salesman, selling an ideology to those listening in.
“The deck is stacked, the rules are rigged,” he tells us. “Welcome to the death of the age of reason. There is no right or wrong. Not anymore. There’s only being in, and then being out.”
But there’s another literary theme running throughout “House of Cards,” one perhaps not talked about enough. Throughout every season, Doug Stamper has listened to Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” On the face of it, there’s a very obvious title reference there—“House of Cards” is about two Washingtons: the one we see via public perception, and the one owned and run by the Underwoods.
But this season also suggests that Doug sees himself as a sort of Sydney Carton: a man willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the leading couple, a man who would sacrifice his own life and wellbeing to ensure their safety and success. In past seasons, Doug’s gruesome and troubled nature has made him a difficult character to truly like. This season, we’re presented with a Doug who—despite his murderous past—acts like a kicked puppy. His allegiance to the Underwoods, we see, will be his undoing. Because even though he sees himself as a Sydney Carton, he isn’t saving Charles Darnay or Lucie Manette—he’s saving the cruel Evrémondes of the world.
‘House of Cards’ In a Trumpian Era
That’s what makes Dickens such an interesting allusion in “House of Cards.” His “Tale of Two Cities” was written in response to the populist uprising of the French Revolution, one that resulted in the death of France’s aristocratic class. Stamper, in this sense, is a sort of Sydney Carton: seeking to save the elite class from the murderous indignation of the fray.
But in our world, populism has at least won this particular presidential battle. Trump was the outsider candidate, the one who campaigned on “draining the swamp” and throwing the Underwoods of Washington out of office. He’s our French Revolution candidate. So where does that put “House of Cards” in our world?
Interestingly, a lot of reviews I’ve read of this newest “House of Cards” season express some sadness over its incongruity with our latest presidential election. Instead of a clever, potentially corrupt presidential leader in the White House, we’ve got a bumbling, bombastic billionaire. To at least some, Trump’s ability to achieve victory signals a collapse of public virtue that makes the private corruption in “House of Cards” completely blasé. Lili Loufborrow called the show a “contemporary nostalgia piece,” one that depicts a country that’s “against all odds, more idealistic and decent than our own.”
If Hillary Clinton were president, more hysterical Republicans would perhaps hold up “House of Cards” in the same way many progressives are currently looking to “The Handmaid’s Tale” to express their current mood. Indeed, the ending of “House of Cards” feels as if it were written as a heavy-handed nod to a Hillary Clinton presidency. But the show’s creators never got the chance to offer that sort of political parable: instead, we got Trump. In response, reviewers are complaining that “House of Cards” feels like a farfetched fable. “The show’s big picture feels like something from an alternative universe,” James Poniewozik writes for the New York Times. “… ‘House of Cards’ isn’t less crazy than reality. But it assumes a greater baseline of normalcy in its larger world.”
I think, following the shock and dismay that followed Trump’s outsider win, some Washingtonians will watch the polished cogs and wheels of the Underwood machine with a begrudging admiration. But at the same time, I would argue that “House of Cards” isn’t enough of a political fable; it tries too hard to be relevant to current events. As a result, the plot is often less dynamic and powerful than it could be.
Instead of giving us fictional stand-ins for Vladimir Putin and ISIS, I’d love for the show’s writers to draw more inspiration from history and literature, such as Dickens or Shakespeare, Josephus or Herodotus. Give us a modern French revolution, or a Napoleon; give us a Julius Caesar-inspired coup, or a political battle of Shakespearean proportions. There’s so much more scope for the imagination when you’re not worried about making heavy-handed political hints about fake news and travel bans. (Incidentally, it will create a show that stands the test of time.)
The Show’s R-Rated Narrative
Past seasons of “House of Cards” have both benefitted from and been hurt by the libertinism inherent in the show’s structure. The very essence of the show is its lack of constraints: as a Netflix show, users can “binge watch” the series in one sitting, if they so choose. Some have reviewed it in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, analyzing one episode after another in a constant stream.
Because the show’s unhindered by TV ratings or ethical constraints, its writers are free to include as much tawdry content and explicit language as they like. “House of Cards” has always wanted to astound and offend us; sometimes, unfortunately, the writers’ desire to shock undermines their desire to tell a good story.
But this season actually succeeds in toning down some of the explicit content. There are still some sexual encounters that push this show into the R rating. But it’s not as mentally and ethically bruising as the last season. There’s no full nudity, less language, and less violence. I only actually watched this season after procuring assurances from a relative that it wasn’t as dirty as the past season, and was more focused on storytelling and plot. Perhaps Netflix realized this is what we were all tuning in to watch.
A Sixth Season Should Offer More
If Netflix produces another season of “House of Cards,” as it assuredly will, I think a few things need to happen. First, the bad guys need to lose. The Macbeths eventually lose power; their bloodstained hands don’t go unpunished. If the Underwoods continue their murderous journey without any repercussions, the story will eventually become ludicrous. Every good story contains consequences, pains, conflict. The Underwoods’ struggles thus far have been too small, too easily surmounted and overcome.
Additionally, something needs to happen with Doug Stamper. He’s easily the show’s most complicated character—both deeply unlikable and sympathetic, depending on the episode or season. As integral as he’s been to the story thus far, we need a greater degree of resolution in his story.
Finally, “House of Cards” should separate itself from more preachy political undertones or obvious allusions to current events. The best storytelling transcends a given political or cultural moment, offering us a tale of virtue and vice that speaks to eternal human struggles. At times, “House of Cards” seems to offer this. But at other times, it seems mired in its own perceptions of current-day Washington. A better show would give us something more.