Saturday, 3 June 2017

House of Cards - Season 5

Netflix's flagship drama is back, Frank Underwood is more corrupt and less subtle than ever before. The fifth season of House of Cards is the first without longtime showrunner: Beau Willimon. It is fashionable to say that politically driven shows like Scandal and House of Cards have been made irrelevant by the Trump Administration because no scheme the show's writers dream up could be nuttier than whatever headline you read right before you clicked on this review.

The fifth season picks up just two weeks away from the election that was already dragged through the second half of Season 4 and will continue to be important through most of this season.   

Executive producer David Fincher set the stylistic tone of the series from the pilot and the hermetic isolation of his D.C. interiors. The show's distinctive atmosphere is a landscape of alienation - from power, from humanity, from joy - in which the president turns to the audience and describes how he will use them, the American people, as pawns for an upcoming scheme. 

Frank's push to get Claire nominated as veep filled me with enthusiasm for two reasons; the first one is that Robin Wright has been (and continues to be) the cast member who has shown the most dynamic range in recent seasons and giving her more to do is smart, especially since Claire seems to be better at the game than her husband is. Secondly, because the idea of political and personal space blurring in the White House is a compelling one. Moreover, Kevin Spacey is as amusing as ever. He is almost always the broader performer in any given room, but that is part of the show's design - a way of drawing us into the character's almost omnisciently evil mindset. Watch House of Cards long enough and you start to think the way Frank does. 

Both of them are more of a team here than ever before, a power couple bonded by their desire to stay in the White House indefinitely, as well as by the knowledge that they will never find a mate more suitable than the one that (sometimes) sleep next to them. Plus, Claire's fourth-wall breaking close-up at the end of Season 4 - the first of such close-up she'd been given - hinted at a deeper self-possession. There are more where that come from. 

In House of Cards, there are no just desserts for the political operatives who grasp power simply for power's sake. Frank and Claire Underwood never have better angels and always win, in a story that will run for as long as Netflix can make it. This said story is a nightmare. And yet this season might still be preferable to reading the news coming out of the US right now. At least Frank and Claire repeatedly demonstrate that they know exactly what they are doing. The fantasy of competent people in charge might be enough to be soothing, even when they are murdering yet another bunch of soul who crossed their path. 

House of Cards continues to be adept of mimicking and criticking media narratives, with a facility that tends to, transcends the plot of the show. The artificial news alerts ring the truest of nearly anything else it does; and for once, the life-or-death stakes embraced by the show's flawed journalists seem rather believable. Frank is a withholding guide to his confident, the audience - a few episodes might go by before he finally turns to the camera and tells us what he is really thinking. So much of what the viewer understands portrays, the mainstream media is a well-meaning institution riddled with exploitable weaknesses, just like democracy itself. Indeed, the show's primary storytelling conceit is itself a mini media critique. Frank's asides to the fourth-wall are the only times he tells the unembellished, unadulterated truth. And yet the only other times he looks directly at the camera is when he addresses the American people through news cameras.

The finale improves its own metaphor with a few shots that echo iconic moments from the real-life Obama Administration. One is a situation room tableau where Claire has the same position and pose as Hilary Clinton does in a much-publicized photo from the night Osama Bin Laden was assassinated. The other is also from that night - Claire's declaration of war, nearly the last scene of the season, looks almost identical to Obama's address to the public announcing Bin Laden's death.

Finally, in my opinion, Season 5 is undoubtedly the series weakest - evens weaker than Season 3. The show has steadily killed off or disappeared the most endearing characters in its supporting cast - Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Rachel Brosnahan, Molly Parker, Mahershala Ali, just to name a few. And what is left is the world where tyrants won: the world barely worth living in. Now, why would I write about House of Cards if I don't like it that much anymore? Because, dear readers, I am a (wanna-be) critic, not a recapper, and House of Cards remains a show people discuss, one worthy of attention or at least thirteen hours of episodic viewing. Also, I used to LOVE the show or maybe that makes me more genuinely objective when I say that eventually, this season gets better.

Overall, House of Cards has always been a fun show since Season 1 and in its fifth season, it is still addictive. It knows itself and its audience so well, that it can't in good conscience be labelled as a guilty pleasure anymore. Robin Wright is still very good as is Kevin Spacey. Kinnaman has some moments at the very beginning of the season. The fifth season kept me watching through to the finale. It's the little things.

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