House of Cards Season 5: The Underwood split begins


I’ve always thought House of Cards was about relationships. Frank and Claire, Frank and Doug, Frank and Catherine, and on and on. But Frank and Claire above everyone else. After watching season five during baseball’s All-Star break I still think this is true, but I have a more refined view of what it means. The story isn’t simple about relationships. It’s about dominance in relationships.

Frank dominated Claire in the early seasons. She thought they were equals, and he willingly let her think so. That caught up with him through seasons three and four and it nearly broke their marriage. It wasn’t until Claire orchestrated a race scandal to damage his primary campaign that Frank truly viewed and treated her as an equal partner in their marriage. Claire got on the presidential ticket, and their marriage was restored.

For a while.

Dominant Frank returned in season five, asserting his own will and making decisions that contradicted or ignored Claire’s input. His ultimate show of dominance came, ironically, when he resigned the presidency and demanded – without consulting her first – a full pardon from his wife-turned-president. Claire hesitated and vocalized her obvious realization to Frank that he left her no choice. In that conversion she revealed, however subtly or not, that she knows the equal partnership is over.

Season five ended with the new President Underwood ignoring Frank’s calls and declaring to an empty Oval Office, “My turn.” In season six I hope we’ll see the complete and final sundering of the Underwood marriage.

What would that look like?

We know what we get from House of Cards at this point. Frank and Claire never really resolve any of their problems. They just get past them by creating a new, more chaotic problem. When that fails, they kill people. Witness Zoe Barnes, Peter Russo, Tom Yates and (possibly) LeAnn Harvey. So expect the same rolling cavalcade of chaos as we’ve seen for five seasons, with each decision leaving trace elements of explosives that will go off at the wrong time in the future, forcing still more wild decisions that force them farther apart.

House of Cards has always been a show devoid of any happiness within its characters. I hope and expect that to continue. I don’t see a fitting end with Claire – or Frank – reclining behind the Resolute desk in comfortable power. Both are almost certain to fall with their lies and misdeeds exposed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if either ends up dead.

Let’s get to something I didn’t like about this season: The introductions of Mark Usher and Jane Davis. Both characters are “fixers” orchestrating things outside of what we see in each episode. Mark feels slightly more two-faced than Jane for the way he turned on Will Conway. Does anyone really think Frank would let someone so close to him who so easily broke his candidate’s trust? Unless Frank had Mark in place from day one for exactly that purpose, I highly doubt it. The contrast between Usher and Doug Stamper is enormous.

But both Usher and Davis strike me as too convenient in a show that needs to avoid convenience as much as possible to maintain its credibility. Jane knows exactly the right foreign player at exactly the right time and Mark’s loyalties shift in the right direction at the right moment. I think there’s a lot to yet learn about both of them (how did Jane get LeAnn’s gun?) and I hope they explore it more in season six. If they’re both working for Frank – entirely possible – I could accept it but I would have to be really thrown for a loop to buy into anything else.

This is a minor quibble. There’s plenty the show still does right. I enjoy the way it jumps ahead of scenes and events so we don’t have to sit through inevitabilities. Catherine falling down the steps is a good example. There’s no need to show us Frank feigning dismay when security crews get there. We know he’s a liar. Skipping the second election day is another one. I also loved the way it split season five basically in half between the election and the aftermath, using the former to lay the groundwork or the later.

I think it ultimately laid the groundwork for season six, making season five a transition season. This whole story has been the odyssey of the Underwood’s pursuit of incrementally more power. Now that they both achieved the most powerful office in the world, there’s only one type of power left for conquest: Power over the other.

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