This post discusses the plot of the fifth season of “House of Cards.” But if you’ve been keeping an eye on American politics, there are no surprises to be spoiled.
“Here I am, president of these United States. You made this bet, America. You voted for me,” Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) says to the audience while being sworn in as president in the fifth season of “House of Cards.” “Are you confused? Are you afraid? Because what you thought you wanted is now here, and there you are, staring back, slack-jawed, bewildered, wondering if this is what you actually asked for.”
This is one of many scenes in which “House of Cards” knowingly makes the pivot to the Trump era. But for all the series’ efforts, at a moment when culture is frenetically recycled into political argumentation, the fifth season of “House of Cards” is a highly valuable example of how a show or movie can be highly, almost unnervingly, relevant without adding a single valuable insight to our discussions of politics.
Relevance can be a challenge for Netflix shows because of the way the streaming service shoots and releases seasons of its shows. At broadcast networks, shows begin their seasons with a couple of finished episodes and writers continue to write new material that is filmed and edited as the season proceeds. Netflix, by contrast, has showrunners write, shoot and edit a whole season at a time, and then puts all the episodes online at once. That means events can overtake the finished episodes; when I spoke to Norman Lear a few weeks ago about the excellent Netflix remake of his series “One Day At A Time,” he said the biggest difference between working for Netflix versus a network is that “it’s impossible to be utterly topical.”
The fifth season of “House of Cards” solved this problem by shooting into the new Trump administration. Filming started last July, and finished in February, a few weeks after President Trump was sworn in. As a result of that timing (and some good guesses), the episodes are chock-full of plots that will be familiar to anyone who has watched even a jot of news coverage over the past year: voter-suppression plots, fears about terrorism, contempt for congressional oversight, a president anxious about the size and enthusiasm of his crowds, an election thrown to the House of Representatives, a presidential candidate who may be unstable, Chinese trade agreements and Russian malevolence, hackers, suspended press briefings, visa restrictions as security theater and Syrian chemical attacks. (There’s also the additional dose of sex and murder, sometimes delivered simultaneously.) Of course, this being “House of Cards,” all of these developments take place in an environment defined entirely by personal ambition and utterly devoid of ideology.
This may be how series creator Beau Willimon and his replacements as showrunner, Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese, believe politics work. They’re wrong, of course, as would be obvious to anyone watching House Republicans push through a politically suicidal health-care bill that will clear the way for massive tax cuts. And though this attitude has always had an ugly edge, in the Trump era, “House of Cards” comes across as even more vacant and distasteful than it had in its previous unpleasant outings. The series has a nasty tendency to simultaneously feed and obscure the worst impulses in our politics.
A perfect example of this is the season’s voter-suppression plot. Frank and his wife Claire (Robin Wright), now serving as his vice president, hatch a nefarious plan to steal the election from the Republican nominee, Gov. Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman, who, other than his turn in “Robocop,” really needs a better agent). Invoking the threat of the Islamic Caliphate Organization, the Underwoods persuade a series of key swing states to open heavily militarized “voting centers” in an effort to depress Conway’s turning. And on Election Day, they engineer a phony attack on one of the centers, leading to a number of states refusing to certify their election results and leaving the presidential election deadlocked.
Voter suppression is a real phenomenon. But in the “House of Cards” formulation, it occurs because two malevolent, ambitious people want to win an election. This is a story about evil masterminds, not racist attempts to keep black, Hispanic and multiracial Americans from voting. As a critic, I’m generally opposed to saying that a show or movie should be about something other than the subject an artist has chosen. But in this case, it’s remarkable to see “House of Cards” take a hotly debated and highly relevant issue and not merely reduce it to the private motivations of two individuals, but also eliminate the prospect of racial bias altogether. It’s hard to think of a choice that could more clearly emphasize the idea that the problems in American politics are confined to a very narrow slice of swamp and have nothing to do with systemic bias or the structure of politics.
At every juncture where it’s possible to choose between a rational diagnosis of problems in American politics and a story line that paints our problems as the source of malevolent individuals and sinister conspiracies, it’s wearisomely obvious which direction “House of Cards” will take.
Shadowy globalist cabals? Check! And bonus, they hold Bohemian Grove-style retreats replete with pagan rituals! Journalists who are really interested in amassing power for themselves? Check! Congressmen in oversight positions who have no genuine interest in the integrity of government? Check! Political consultants who jump from candidate to candidate and party to party? Double check! Even by the murderous standards of “House of Cards,” a plot where Claire murders her lover, Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), who has threatened to reveal her secrets, plays poorly in an environment where some prominent conservatives are flagging ugly conspiracy theories about the murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
If “House of Cards” advanced Trump’s worldview, and did so in a convincing and dramatically compelling fashion, I would be more impressed by that audacity than I am by the airless spectacle on display here. But because the Underwoods have no ideology, “House of Cards” has no more familiarity with any actual issue than is necessary to carry a plot for an episode or two.
Trump may not have particularly strong policy passions, but his fear-mongering about urban crime, strains of racial animus, resentment of elites and limitless capacity for self-promotion have all been consistent elements of his public persona. “House of Cards” takes the paranoia of the Trump era and washes it clean of racism, of “economic anxiety,” of the opioid epidemic, of anxious suburbanites, of an economy that is undergoing radical structural change and can’t be negotiated back to a mythic past.
The show’s paranoid tinge speaks not only to the fear of sinister “global elites” but to the conspiratorial thinking that has taken hold in some sectors of the left. No credible person still thinks that Trump is playing eight-dimensional chess. But plenty of people seem to hold out hope that Trump will prove so compromised that he will either be removed from office or remove himself. Frank Underwood’s late-season decision to quit the presidency is a sop to that futile wish, rather than a reckoning with the difficult mess that more likely lies ahead of us.
This isn’t yanking up a rock to reveal what’s scuttling underneath it, or even a brief for a Flight 93 election, as Michael Anton so breathlessly put it during the campaign. It’s an argument for total disengagement. In all the show’s desperation to reference the Trump era, there’s one thing it ignores. In “House of Cards,” the civic revitalization that animated the women’s marches, a swell of calls to congressional offices and a surge in potential candidates is largely reduced to people yelling impotently at the White House fence. Acknowledging that would threaten the series’ core conviction that politics is just a status game, and that no one truly cares about any issue, even because they might stand to benefit from a policy.
I guess that’s convenient if your goal is to keep people binge-watching television, rather than telling them anything real and galvanizing about American politics. Like the Underwoods’ machinations, the season-ending bait and switch can’t change the fact that “House of Cards” is nothing but a long con.