Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Darkness without Light: House of Cards Season 5

Frank and Claire Underwood's scheming in Season 5 begins to feel meaningless. The viewer is left wondering why they should still care.

"With all the foolishness and indecision in your lives, why not a man like me?"

Season 5 brings the return of Netflix's first original series, House of Cards, into our living rooms and bedrooms. The show continues to chart the political rise and schemings of Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), though this season felt tired and un-anchored the closer I got to the final episode.

Perhaps the best example of this is a speech by President Underwood announcing his resignation to Congress in the second last episode of the season. It starts off strong - Spacey's monologues have always been a high point of the American version of House of Cards. However, by the end he is going on about the, "end of the age of reason." Spacey's saucy humor (it's in the smile) and steely aggression are both evident - yet something feels off.

It probably has to do with the departure of Beau Willimon, the writer at the helm for House of Cards first four seasons. Without his writing, I sometimes found myself wondering why I should care about the characters. Frank and Claire's plotting, Doug Stamper's (Michael Kelly) covering his boss's evil tracks, and a host of supporting characters sometimes left me shrugging and saying, "Meh..."

The dramatic tension evident in the first four seasons is noticeably missing from large parts of Season 5. Another reason for this is because at five seasons, House of Cards has clearly outlived the Shakespearean frame it was built upon. Our anti-hero's journey was supposed to fall into three distinct stages. 

First Stage: coveting power from afar and scheming how to obtain it. We saw this in Seasons 1 & 2 when Frank and Claire worked to pull the rug out from underneath President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill).

Second Stage: Obtaining power. This happened in Season 3 when Frank Underwood assumed the Presidency. Here the character's weaknesses start to become apparent as they deal with the burden of power. "Uneasy lies the head that wears the Crown," as Shakespeare would have put it.

Third Stage: The Fall from Grace where the protagonist loses their power. This third and final stage has been delayed, by necessity, from the series long run. Instead of being dragged down, Frank and Claire just keep on winning. 

In the current season, there is no better example of this than when the Underwoods take down Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). As Frank's Republican rival for President, he has the election yanked from underneath his feet when Frank orchestrates the closures of key polling stations. Having his prize stolen works a number on the Governor's mind, causing him to lose mental stability. Eventually, leaks of the Governor's private meltdowns make their way to the Underwoods - who then use this evidence to finish what they started.

I hope House of Cards can finish strong on its Sixth Season. If the show goes on for too much longer, more viewers will be left wondering why they should still care.


Fiction vs. Reality

Perhaps the problem is that House of Cards can no longer compete with the grim reality of the world. I'm not just referring to Donald Trump's presidency when I write this. For too long in the developed world we've had so much (materially) and given each other so little in terms of human warmth and love. In this way House of Cards no longer feels like a fictional show, but one that is in lock step with the place we wake up in every morning.

A personal note to end this blog entry - I will be finishing a second draft of my fictional novel of short stories over the fall. It is my intention to share excerpts of the first chapter of that book here on my blog when it is ready to publish. The book will be darkly humorous with a moral core. More or less my version of Larry Kramer's Faggots.

I look forward to sharing it with all of you. Until next time.

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