A bold statement to precede another bold statement: “House of Cards” Season 4 was the best yet for Beau Willimon’s Netflix original series.
What made the fourth season so dramatically satisfying was how its creator and showrunner consistently captured a political authenticity in a world of great melodrama. During the first two seasons, sensationalism reigned supreme as the scale slid closer to “soap” than “drama.” The seasons reveled so much in being bad that they almost broke more bad than good, but Willimon, a vocal political activist, became more and more invested in constructing real-world parallels as the series went on. The shift fit Netflix’s golden designs for the jewel of their Originals’ crown, and Season 4 put the series in fine position to keep telling realistic political stories with powerful resonance.
Then Willimon left, the election happened, and nothing was the same — except, it turns out, “House of Cards.”
Whether you’re a fan of the sitting president or not, the political culture overwhelming the country is all anyone can talk about — even in the world of TV. While series like “Veep”, which carries similar baggage, have skirted the issue through comedy, and neutral series like “A Series of Unfortunate Events” have benefitted from our turbulent times, “House of Cards” succumbs to the fervor surrounding President Trump by tracking a character too close to our fearless orange leader.
The journey of an antihero just isn’t as meaningful when his villainy falls short of what we’re seeing every day. When Frank does something terrible, we’re meant to see him as a monster. That feeling was magnified when the calming presence of President Obama held office. He was Frank’s foil, providing a largely stable political backdrop that made “House of Cards” feel crazy without coming across as false, forced, or otherwise inauthentic. Now there is no foil, and Frank’s monstrosities either make him sympathetic or neutral when pitted against our current culture. The chaos of “House of Cards” can’t compare with the chaos of the real world.
Unveiled at a private screening within Netflix’s massive “FYSee” space in Beverly Hills, the first episode of Season 5, “Chapter 53” — which we will not discuss in detail, for fear of spoiling key plot points for fans — builds a narrative that skews eerily close to modern politics, strengthening the tertiary connections between fictional and real-life presidents. Frank’s strategy for reelection, unveiled in the Season 4 finale, is to rule with fear. He wants to start a war in order to scare his constituents into supporting him. Given recent nerves related to a potential nuclear war, it’s not hard to see how Frank’s fear-mongering as a solution to his dip in popularity could draw Trump to mind for viewers at home.
But you don’t have to be critical of President Trump to make similar comparisons. Congressional politics, domestic terrorism, and immigration reform all play integral roles in the first hour of Season 5, and each one unnervingly and unwillingly affixes the “House of Cards” realm to our ever-changing culture. Even those with their heads in the sand couldn’t bury themselves deep enough to avoid seeing parallels to the news cycle.
One might think that such accuracy only increases the impact of a series that’s only getting more serious as the years progress. But the problem lies in how these similarities distract from and devalue the show’s earnest efforts to illustrate how dangerous power can become when wielded by the power-hungry. Frank has always been a monster, and his vile acts only become more repulsive as he moves up the political ladder. For a series that began with him ruthlessly putting a dog out of its misery, “House of Cards” has found creative new ways to illustrate the breadth of his immoral behavior.
But even Frank backs off from deeds that are too depraved. Specifics aside, he’s confronted with similar decisions to ones that make up our headlines, and his thought process, if not his course of action, is objectively preferable.
It’s not a good sign for the show (or the world) when your fictional antihero seems like the better option. Speaking strictly to the viewing experience, it means the surprises are muted. Elicited reactions aren’t as extreme as they were designed to be, and eventually “House of Cards” could become what it fears most: boring.
It’s too soon to say that’s the fate of Season 5, but it’s already on its way. When Willimon stepped down to pursue other projects, veteran “House of Cards” writers Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese took over as showrunners. Such a move mimics what well-off companies do when a changing of the guard is forced: It promotes from within, creating an image of stability by stating without saying that even though the captain has stepped down, the ship will stick to its successful path.
But “House of Cards” might need to rock the boat if it wants to thrive in 2017. As much as I’ve loved watching the series get serious over four seasons, the former soap opera looks ready to throw it in reverse. Fans like the twists. They like the scheming. They like Frank Underwood being bad on a grand scale, and it might be time for the big bad’s return. Excessive, gratuitous, and oh-so-juicy twists are always entertaining, especially if the alternative pales in comparison to events not intended to be entertaining.
Beau Willimon is gone. And, as much as it pains me to say this, his prestigious ambitions need to go with him. Make “House of Cards” bad again. It’s the only way it could be great.
“House of Cards” Season 5 premieres Tuesday, May 30 on Netflix.