Renowned for its magnetic and malevolent mastermind protagonist US politician Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), House Of Cards has returned for its fifth season.
Following the exploits of Underwood and his equally machiavellian wife Claire (Robin Wright), House Of Cards has been a remarkable success through four previous seasons; a centre of focus since the platform’s expansion into producing its own original content several years ago. Cards’ popularity was an early validation of digital streaming platforms creating their own content, and the numerous awards it won has only further incentivized the change in business model.
2017 was more than just the premiere date of season five for House Of Cards, although it would be nice if that was the most notable thing to happen; it was also mere months after one of the most major events in modern history, the vitriolic 2016 presidential campaign and the resulting election of Donald Trump. Guaranteed to be studied at length by future historians, it could be argued that it would be irresponsible not to capture some of the cultural zeitgeist.
Capture, they did: in 13 tightly packed episodes of slightly varying length, echoes of reality can be found strewn throughout, in places both expected and not. The parallels are haunting at times, when scenes of protest or discontentment can be seen in the show that mirror the present. Crowds jeering “Not My President” and “Never Underwood” punctuate monologues about power and corruption. Eerie dread begins to take hold as all-too-familiar protests against tyranny are not taken seriously at all by Francis himself; the protesters may as well not exist. If connections can be drawn between Underwood and another highly controversial (but unfortunately non-fictional) president, is this one of them? Do we really have any say?
Manipulation and mayhem are Underwood’s specialty, but Spacey uses a mastered Southern drawl to take hold of the viewer despite their repulsion. Alternatively menacing and persuasive in full, Underwood can leave the audience cheering him on, even if every celebration tastes of bitter regret. The Underwoods are the protagonists for a reason; everything they do is alluring. As forces work to unseat them from the throne they so cleverly captured, viewers continue to be seduced into hoping for their victory, however illogical the desire.
Wright’s Claire Underwood – powerful, manipulative, and calculating – is the picture perfect equal to her husband. Similarly, Wright’s performance is as strong as Spacey’s. Every action, word, and intonation is deliberate, and Wright controls a room without being nearly as forceful or domineering as Spacey. Different styles to the same result, their acting mirrors the personalities of their characters.
With a few rushed episodes near the end that confuse character motivations, the season shies away from perfection, but only minutely. It manages to be greater than the sum of its already incredibly valuable and talented parts.