Halfway through season five of Netflix’s House of Cards, United States President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) attends an elite gathering in the middle of the torch-lit woods. Everyone is dressed in red cloaks and standing around a giant idol. Frank turns to the camera and brags about how he has managed to stay in power. “Welcome to Elysian Fields,” he says. The theatricality of it all is entertaining, but there’s something about the sequence that rings artificial. This isn’t the sly Frank Underwood who screwed people over without their even realizing it; this is a monster without wit or subtlety, looking to scare people stiff.
For Frank and his First Lady, Claire (Robin Wright), inciting fear through a war on terror is exactly what they need to remain in power. Many would say it eerily resembles the state of U.S. politics today. However, to resemble isn’t to mirror, and House of Cards trades off a level of realism and logic for more theatrics and dense political maneuvering. Even as Republican presidential nominee Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) advances in the polls and Washington Herald editor Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) unravels the truth about the Underwoods’ past sins, Frank and Claire are untouchable — almost caricatures of power.
To be fair, while House of Cards has never been an amazing show, it’s always been committed to being the kind of show it wants to be. What it lacks in tight plotting and perfectly cohesive storytelling, it usually makes up for in deliciously malicious characters and effortless style. But that commitment is precisely the problem: since the series refuses to let go of its inherent flaws, every season has to make sure the good outweighs the bad. With season five, the scales tip further into the negative than ever before; it’s just nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is.
The biggest issue the fifth season has is that its central conflict isn’t written well enough to prop up everything else. The election drama between Frank and Conway is dragged out for nine out of the thirteen episodes, with Conway devolving from a promising rival to yet another two-faced politician that the show is already overstuffed with. Fans of the U.S. Constitution (if such people exist) might enjoy how in-depth the show goes in exploring the loopholes Frank can exploit to stay in power — but literacy doesn’t automatically equate to substance. House of Cards doesn’t understand that, in order to show that Frank and Claire are powerful, they have to overcome adversity, and maybe even lose sometimes. Here, they steamroll over everyone almost effortlessly, impervious to any lasting conflict. This makes them scary, yes, but hollow, too.
But Frank and Claire’s lack of development would have been easier to excuse if the things happening at the fringes of the season were worth thirteen hours of binge time; they’re not. Hammerschmidt is an antagonist but never a threat. The focus on terrorism teased by season four becomes an ironic footnote. And the show’s side characters — the shining stars of the series’ high points — no longer represent the casualties of the Underwood administration. Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) spends the season on autopilot before abruptly becoming essential by the end. New additions Mark Usher and Jane Davis (Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson, respectively) are mysterious but ultimately little more than walking deus ex machinas. And every time Claire’s lover Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) shows up, that’s your cue to switch tabs and save yourself from the cheese.
House of Cards’ fifth season doesn’t derail the series; it’s too well shot, too well scored, and too well acted to be written off as bad. For as long as Netflix keeps renewing it, it’ll undoubtedly remain one of the streaming service’s most polished and most relevant shows. But new showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese have to understand that the trick to making House of Cards good isn’t in making Frank as monstrous as possible (Spacey’s fourth wall-breaking monologues here frequently cross the line into hammy territory). Rather, it’s in refusing to indulge Frank’s pride and, like with our own real-life Underwoods, in recognizing that these characters are simply awful human beings who deserve to be treated as such.
House of Cards is streaming on Netflix.