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TV Review: House of Cards (Season 5)


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As the fifth season of House of Cards premieres on Netflix, I think I may have found a flaw in this otherwise perfect drama.

In America, as someone once said, the Democrats are the party of common sense, whereas the Republicans are the party of the gut instinct. Settling down to hurtle through this new series in the space of a few short nights, I assumed President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) was a Republican. He may have a lot of common sense, but everything he has ever done has been undergirded by the fierce, primal instinct of his gastrointestinal tract.

However, the Republic is in fact his opponent at the presidential election, the event around which this batch of thirteen chapters is based.

Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) has neither common sense nor good instincts, being instead filled with an unappealing mix of arrogance and whining self-pity. Remind you of anyone? Kinnaman’s performance is nonetheless one of the most impressive of this season, as we watch him sail triumphantly into the election before slowly coming to terms with how determined the Underwoods are at holding onto power.

Many commentators have talked of how life has seemed to imitate art with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. As a result, this fifth season of House of Cards sometimes feels as if it is actively trying to compete with the insanity of real American politics. You can decide for yourself whether it oversteps the mark, although I certainly think that the final two episodes occasionally pushed the boundaries of plausibility to an extent that the quality of the drama was undermined. Although what else can you expect in the the Underwoods' America, which with its rigged elections, bought-off opponents and wars started as distractions, has essentially become a rogue state.

More worryingly, its most senior leaders are rapidly losing control of their own criminality, as they struggle desperately to save Frank’s presidency from going under. It can be no coincidence that as her husband struggles to survive, Claire (Robin Wright) continues to rise in prominence, and smart observers will soon be able to guess where the show is taking her. Once the driver of the sub-plots that played second fiddle to Frank’s antics, she has since become the most interesting character in the show, indulging in a strange love affair with the flawed but likeable novelist Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), who is slowly learning of how the couple with which he is involved poison everything they touch.

As a sign of the shift of focus from Frank to his wife, Claire addresses the audience for the first time this series. She’s always known we’re there, she tells us with her monstrous glare, but has always felt ambivalent about our presence. Whose side, she rightly asks, are we on? The great achievement of House of Cards is still its ability to make the audience simultaneously ally with opposing forces. We want Frank to succeed as much as we want the pesky journalist Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), digging into the deaths of Zoe Barnes and Rachel Posner, to uncover the truth.

Towards the end of this excellent run of episodes, Hammerschmidt identifies the most fascinating and frightening aspect about the Underwoods. Unlike someone such as Donald Trump, with his obsession with Mexican walls, the First Couple here have no ideology, no driving vision, no north star. Rather than wanting to implement a grand policy, Frank and Claire are after power for its own sake. Its consolidation and expansion is their only aim.

Winning power, says Frank at one point, is man’s most basic instinct – it is, you could say, what his gut tells him to do. And the journalist is right – that makes the Underwoods more dangerous than anything.

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