The time has come for House of Cards to fall. As the show demonstrates repeated rhymes and situations and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) getting more and more hammy with less menace, while Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) slowly gains presence, it seems like there’s less place to go but the end.
The original British series for which this show is based is a trilogy lasting three seasons. When House of Cards was originally picked up it was written for two, which helps you understand the quality drop between seasons two and three and why the second is its best. It use to seem as though the show was holding nothing back. With a skillful style set by David Fincher in the pilot and the series run by former political consultant Beau Willimon (Seasons 1-4), a solid template was built in to maintain some semblance of political atmosphere (Bill Clinton said it was 99% accurate) while ensuring the shows entertainment factor still had bite. The perfect show for Netflix and its original programming, and the perfect show to realize and effectively kickstart ‘binge watching’ (although the first time I heard that term used was in the pilot of Netflix’s other MAJOR series ‘Orange is the New Black’).
But since the highlight of season two critical bump it seems like there isn’t anywhere for the show’s characters to go. Effectively they should fulfill the trilogy set out in the original series. Fortunately/ Unfortunately House of Cards as most television shows go is a victim of its own success and the show has almost set to continue the story of the Underwoods’ in a sort of holding pattern, the Rotten Tomatoes Consensus for Season 3 reads that it “introduces intriguing new political and personal elements to Frank Underwood’s character, even if it feels like more of the same for some.” I will say it does play a bit better despite being the worst season because it flips the premise of ‘Frank Underwood mastermind’ on its head seemingly after paying attention to actual U.S. presidential administration. Here the idea of being able to pull all the strings doesn’t seem to apply realistically as president, playing to what many politicians say about bureaucracy that as experienced as you may be, nothing can prepare you for the presidency. It also has the best trailer, aptly set to ‘A Perfect Circle’.
Season Four is the first to slightly break away from the singular focus of the Underwood’s quest for power, and the show improves for it, altering its DNA as more people featured on the show become characters with their own goals and narratives rather than just pawns. This season is good for introducing some tension that makes you worry just a bit for the Underwood’s as well as developing some interpersonal conflict both of which aren’t hit on significant way until this season. However, in terms of buzzworthiness, the show is at its least effective having become refined from season 3 but the machinery becoming all the more transparent. The setting slows down time even further from to covering just the beginning of the presidential election, with the seasons 1 and 2 covering years and 3 the presidential primary, 4 only covers four months with less intensity than seasons 1 or 2, it makes it obvious the transition to playing the long game, threatening tedium.
Season 5 is an improvement on the previous two, but muddies the waters in terms of following the plot. Along with the continued deepening of other character motivations beyond ‘Team Underwood’ I find the lead characters objectives growing all the more murky and inconsistent. Several criss-crosses and flip-flops on the succession of power called Netflix to release a ‘big short-like’ explanation as to what the hell is going on. The upside to all of this is how it mirror’s the equally crazed U.S. political climate which increases its relevance but dilutes its ruthless escapist fun. Its understood this season was shot before the actual election outcome but it does in a twisted way predict a hacked election and muddled outcome (HBO’s Veep did the same).
The best addition here being strategist Mark Usher played by Campbell Scott, prominent for playing Richard Parker, Spider-Man’s dad/ not the lion in Life of Pi. Here we have someone who upon their introduction is as mysterious and shady as the Underwoods and he feels like a genuine threat. His slow increased prominence feeds into a rare subtlety of the show, previously held on by Frank’s personal relationships. The other side of the new character equation is the frequently annoying Patricia Clarkson cast as the inexplicable Jane Davis who despite being a deputy undersecretary somehow wields more political power and worldwide influence than anyone and for such a long time its a wonder mid-season why the Underwoods’ have never encountered her before.
By this point its more obvious the show has dealt with many of its plot points in a wheel-spinning way. ‘The Washington Herald’ storyline comes back and contains a meta-moment where one character yells at Tom Hammerschmidt for having covered the Underwoods’ for years with nothing to show for it, and the audience can’t help but feel the same way. The show either can’t figure out what it wants to say about journalism or plans on maintaining a bombshell article log-line that along with an Underwood presidency won’t come to an end until the series is finished. The cost to maintaining all of this after the original creator has left, (again similar to Veep) is a diminished sensibility and without a strong end game in mind, it’ll feel less ‘binge worthy’ and more like homework until Netflix abruptly cancels it. I think in this case it would be best if the show’s next two seasons were its last. The series has all the ammo it needs for an explosive finish. And at this point how believable is it for the all-powerful Underwoods’ to have another unseen threat come out from nowhere to upset them. Barring each other.
As each subsequent HoC season is pushed back in debut, the passed time shows how similar to ‘OITNB’ Netflix doesn’t really need it anymore. ‘Narcos‘ and ‘Stranger Things‘, similarly stylistic shows with mediocre ambitions are more than capable replacements in realizing Netflix’s ambitions to turn itself into an expensive tv network. As Frank Underwood says “I have no patience for useless things.”