House of Cards S5 Review: Villainy Hits a Little Too Close to Home
The Underwoods’ body count this season: Five.
Their body count for the rest of the series: Six.
Through callousness, intrigue, and even directly, the Underwoods have caused the deaths of almost as many people this season as the other seasons combined. They're pretty much serial killers at this point, which does stretch credulity. No more can I so easily cherish my sense of outrage at the dirtiness of Washington politics, damn it. I mean, unless I’m being naive...
Bloody, dirty, and utterly amoral the setup might be, but Season 5 gets an A+ for its demolishing of the Bechdel test (criteria for a pass: Two women who talk to each other about something other than men), and its no-nonsense, non-tokenistic portrayal of homosexuality. It has shown every other director and producer that it is within the realms of possibility to create a riveting, mainstream product without pandering to the male gaze.
Shades of Trump
At Cannes' Film Festival, Robin Wright (Claire Underwood) said that the Trump presidency stole all their House of Cards story ideas to the extent that they had to rework plotlines! There are definite similarities.
Replete with executive orders, calls for airstrikes and war, hacks, and Russian aggression — the Underwood administration is all too familiar.
Frank and Claire breed chaos in an effort to distract from investigations and a relentless media – reminiscent of the chaos surrounding Trump's presidency since it started. There's even a chemical attack in Syria, and Frank and Claire decide on declaration of war as a way to quell simmering domestic discontent.
Unforgivable Sins, Even for Politics
At a hearing for his impeachment, Frank gives an excoriating speech (in sidebar, to the viewers) about how we are complicit in what he is; a strongman, because that's what the people want. A tyrant, because people like action, any action, as long as *something* is being done. With the rise of strongmen around the world at this juncture, it hits home.
When faced with an opponent in the election like William Conway – a young, charming, good looking veteran with a flair for social media – the Underwoods have no recourse but to throw a spanner in the election.
From faking a cyberterror attack by ICO, to voter suppression, the election grinds to a halt, putting Conway and Underwood in limbo while the investigation into the President plays out. Poster boy Conway slowly but surely unravels, as his wartime misdeeds – that we are only ever given subtle hints to – take their toll.
In one of the more unexpected twists (that we really should've seen coming), the Underwoods throw their favourite 'son' under the bus – Doug Stamper. Loyal, unwavering, self-sacrificing Doug, becomes the supreme sacrifice when the going gets tough – not unlike the way erstwhile Trump loyalists have found themselves abruptly by the wayside.
When it seems like Zoe’s murder and Frank’s dealings with Tusk and the Chinese are finally coming back to bite them, he and Claire decide there's one final use to which Doug can be put – the fall guy. It's hard to feel sympathy because well, this is who they are and everyone, including Doug, knew it.
As a viewer, you get the feeling that the Underwoods are the villains we want: Competent, decisive, ruthless, calculating. You find yourself rooting for them – who else is there to root for?
Finally, Claire comes into her own. She begins talking directly to the camera. Her interactions with the camera are less an extension of the narrative, like Frank's swaggering monologues, and more an unwilling subject of our attention – she makes us feel voyeuristic.
Although they are the quintessential power couple, Frank lapses into his attempts at domination over Claire. He reminds her that she has him to thank for where she is; offers her deals, implying that her good fortune comes at his forbearance.
Oh, Frank. When has trying to powerplay Claire ever worked out for you? She doesn't disappoint.
Although Claire's (more permanent) rise to Presidency is finally here, there is the lingering feeling that she is only there because of nepotism – sound familiar? But unlike Ivanka and Jared Kushner, Claire is a formidable politician – and has had quite enough of letting Frank have the upper hand.
There is a moment where Frank sidebars to the viewer while in the middle of a conversation with Claire, to tell us that he owes her everything... but that she owes him too. She smiles dryly as though she heard, and says "Not really," in a tone to bring a tear of satisfaction to the eye.
Ever a woman of few words, the season ends with her refusal to give Frank a presidential pardon as she declares war. She looks at the camera as she ignores Frank's frantic phone calls, and says with finality, "My turn."
Bechdel Test: Pass
As Frank's sidekick Doug is relegated to a sideshow, Claire is nurturing her own second-in-command. LeAnne Harvey, it turns out, outlives her usefulness (but not by much). There's a new contender for the ear of Claire Underwood – Jane Davis.
The nature of Davis' position in the administration is deliberately vague, but she is the one pushing for war in Syria and liaising with the Chinese government. She makes a strong case for being the one to advise Claire, and push Frank to the background.
A new political front is emerging, where a group of women political financiers and movers and shakers are coalescing around Claire, who they want to see holding the reins.
And did I detect a hint of possible romance between Claire and Jane?
The love stories are contrived, maybe by design. All of them seem unnatural and brimming with antagonism; the affection shown for each other seems shallow and farcical. Perhaps they're meant to mirror the political relationships in the show, but it makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing.
Tom and Claire's romance, for instance, jumps straight from cryptic comments to each other in the hallways and impersonal sex, to saying abrupt 'I love you's. Tom gets as needy as his almost monosyllabic dialogue allows, wanting 'more' from Claire. As the two fall in love, Frank is nettled – despite the fact that he okayed this in the first place.
Also, Frank seems like a weirdly Republican kind of Democrat. All of his moves – voter suppression, declaration of war, gutting healthcare and crisis funds, hawkish approach to immigrants and terror – are straight out of the Conservative playbook. Come on, Netflix. Give us some Democrat-flavoured evil.
What Makes You Think
One thing for an Indian audience to envy is the strength of US institutions and US media; something that is playing out both on screen and in the real world. Tom Hammerschmidt is relentless as a Washington Herald reporter, and the series of hearings and investigations keep the Underwoods constantly on the defensive.
With Claire’s ruthless smackdown denying Frank a Presidential pardon and leaving him hanging precariously at the edge of imprisonment, it’s obvious he’s not going to take it lying down. The stage is set for an epic Underwood VS Underwood showdown in Season 6.
An interesting aspect is the signalling over where the next season will take the Underwoods; now that they have conquered the politics of governance, they're eyeing greener pastures – the politics of corporations, something that seems quite Illuminati-esque. Venturing into conspiracy theory territory, perhaps?
I'm not sure I'm going to be into a next season that glorifies the power and stature of shadowy all-male global powerbrokers – haven't we had enough of that?
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