House of Cards season five review so close to being treasonous

All of a sudden, the presidential drama finds itself tragically behind the curve. What a pity it would have been so subversive if Hillary Clinton had won WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

As the House of Representatives begins an investigation that may lead to the presidents impeachment, a congressman waves a newspaper with a headline denouncing the occupant of the Oval Office as a corrupt scoundrel unfit for power.

Suddenly, the commander-in-chief strides into the chamber and demands to address the assembly. Mr President, this is beyond the norm! objects a politician who has read the constitution. I dont care! roars the world leader, bristling under his bizarre hairpiece.

Seven months ago, this scenario which opens the fifth series of House of Cards, released on Netflix yesterday would have been just another outrageous imagining of what might happen if the US got a president with total contempt for political convention.

House of Cards has always had a complex relationship with topicality. Oddly, President Underwood still tends to learn about leaks and scandals by reading the fictional Washington Herald delivered to him as a crisp print edition every morning, rather than as breaking news on a website. Generally, though, the shows setting was a more cruel American future or alternative present, until, under the Trump presidency, its suddenly behind the curve.

The show does score some impressive direct hits on his administration though: Underwood radically reduces the number of White House briefings, concluding that the best statement is no statement, just as Trump did on the day the new series was released.

But the problem now is that Kevin Spaceys Frank Underwood seems almost Lincoln-like by real-life standards. In this series, Underwood is threatened with removal and accused of being overly close to the Russian president. But a show that was once a fantastical what-if now feels like watching a satire long after the news has moved on.

The problem is that Frank Underwood is now Lincoln-like by real-life standards. Photograph: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

Indeed, House of Cards severely underestimated the possibilities of American democracy. Assuming that an amoral monster such as Underwood could never win an election, the show put him in power by murderously plotting to remove first the president and then the vice president.

The fifth season starts two weeks before the 2016 US election, in which the character is seeking election for the first time, and ends four months after the inauguration of a winner whose identity will not surprise many viewers. As Francis completed more than half of his predecessors term, he is constitutionally able to fight only one election, which means he must either change the law or secure his chosen successor.

By the end of the run, the Underwoods have accomplished something achieved in real politics only by the Adams and Bush families. But which crucially for the shows credibility the Clintons recently failed to do.

At the end of season four, Robin Wrights Claire Underwood was allowed to catch the audiences eyes through the screen, a privilege previously reserved for Spacey. She didnt speak then, and the new series plays with the tension over when Mrs Underwood will be given her own soliloquy. The first time she seems to do so, the camera pulls back to show that she is recording a TV address. But when she finally breaks the glass fourth wall, her key line is a sentiment Nancy Reagan used for the title of her autobiography and that opponents of Hillary Clinton believed to be the key motivation of her presidential run: My turn.

It would have been one of the most subversive and near-treasonous uses of TV fiction ever if these episodes had been released, as the producers clearly seem to have assumed they would be, during a Clinton administration. But because that context disappeared, so does the impact.

After a slow, low-key start, the fifth series does become more intriguing by venturing into an unexpected area of American power. The US series is often described as being based on Michael Dobbss 1989 novel House of Cards and the subsequent BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies. But the Netflix credit specifically sources the full trilogy of books and BBC series, which also included To Play the King and The Final Cut. As the middle novel features a politician manoeuvring to remove the monarch, it was unclear how that scenario would be remodelled for America.

Yet the new season does explore the possibility of a higher throne beyond the Oval Office. When the first President Underwood declares that he has greater ambitions, his wife replies: This is the presidency how much higher can you go? Her husband argues that the real power lies in the industrial and digital world, where he plans to make a killing post-presidency.

In one of the best exchanges in the new series, someone warns Frank that whatever youre up to, you wont get away with it. Spacey smirks: Maybe I already have. But House of Cards risks not quite getting away with it because of the lingering sense that it wanted a Clinton victory almost as much as she did.

House of Cards season five is on Netflix now.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/may/31/house-of-cards-season-five-review-so-close-to-being-treasonous

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