Several episodes into the fifth season of House of Cards, the bloody jewel of Netflix’s original content, a gloomy Doug Stamper slumps on a bar stool. The bartender asks Stamper, the chief of staff for Frank Underwood’s White House, whether the trouble is love or work. “Work,” Stamper replies. His new friend offers a perverse kind of comfort. “Nothing lasts forever,” he says.
It is just one of many memento mori moments in the bleakest (yet somehow still extremely fun to watch) season of the show yet. Stamper, thirsting for permanence, will eventually carve his initials into the Resolute desk—but for the political class House of Cards chronicles, life reduces to work and work is ultimately meaningless. The scheming never stops, the alliances shift crazily, an up-and-comer is always promising change and a craggy insider is always bending that naïve idealist to his will. Frank Underwood remains partial to epigrammatic statements like “There is no justice,” “Everyone becomes a problem eventually,” and “You do the same thing every day until you are dead.” His Washington is a travesty of wasted humanity and squandered good intentions, of powerful actors using and despoiling the less powerful and then casting them aside like garbage. What’s more, our legal and constitutional processes don’t prevent these horrific outcomes; they produce them. “You voted for me, America,” Underwood smirks, romancing the camera in one of his asides that answers the question of what would happen if the Cheshire Cat had a mustache he could twirl. “You did this.”
In some ways our current real-life president feels about as unlike longtime Washington insider and machinator Frank Underwood as one can get. Still, though the fifth season began production before Trump won the day, this installment taps into a now-familiar despair. It’s threaded with pessimism about not just a self-dealing crook in the Oval Office but about the uniquely American institutions and attitudes that got him there.
As this fresh run of episodes opens, Frank and Claire Underwood are locked in a heated race for re-election against the telegenic, cocky Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) and his principled VP pick, Gen. Brockhart (Colm Feore). Conway’s a war hero—a fact the show treats with hilarious contempt, what a drag, until a compelling twist calls his past into question. Conway’s “fixer,” an arch and studious Campbell Scott, is a worthy foil for Underwood’s underlings, including LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell, her brio newly tempered with vulnerability) and Tom, a lusty speechwriter who is more enthralling to himself than he is to either the other characters or the viewer.
Frank and Claire continue to deliver on their Season 4 pledge to stoke public fears about terrorism. They lock down the country’s borders, engage in voter suppression, seek a congressional declaration of war on ICO (the show’s ISIS analogue), and engineer a series of attacks meant to distract the press from investigating their corruption. (In one of many shamelessly and deliciously on-the-nose flourishes, a “strike” occurs on Halloween, the official day of boogeymen and collective fearmongering.)
Frank, like our real commander in chief, takes pleasure in humiliating his lackeys, including Jayne Atkinson’s ambivalent secretary of state; his age becomes an issue on the grueling campaign trail; he presides over a backbiting staff and leads a polarized country; at one point, he pulls a Kellyanne Conway and demands that an antagonist tell him “a different truth.” Furthermore, the show’s America is menaced by an encroaching Russia. It is cheapened by the corrosion of its national mythology. In a painfully close-to-home scene, a White House tour guide mourns the desecration of the office she serves. A sense of dignity has departed the presidency, she suggests, right before having sex with her interlocutor on the podium of the pressroom. (That we so cheerfully become complicit in our own abasement is entirely in keeping with the series’ wit, cynicism, and outrageousness.) The show’s visual vocabulary drives home the point: Everywhere are gleeful, timely images of a tarnished and violated United States—an eagle on an Oval Office rug, trampled beneath Claire’s foot, a Founding Father’s bust knocked off its pedestal. In a shot that is meant to evoke the loneliness of evil but ends up winking at Trump’s crepuscular White House wanderings, Frank Underwood roams the deserted halls of the West Wing as music drifts in from a nearby party. Sad!
Trump and the Underwoods share a pretty clear distaste for ideology. Their actions give the impression of being rooted in insatiable personal desires. Yet House of Cards is far less interested in unpacking the motivations of its antiheroes than we are in parsing and obsessing over what drives our actual president. The show doesn’t so much capture the sensibility of 2017 as it does the sensibility of a 17th-century vanitas still life: Strut and fret all you want; your endeavors are dust and will return to dust. While the real world has no artistic unity (a fact that can be frustrating to Trumpologists), House of Cards wants Claire and Frank to impart a message about the coarsening effects of power and the dazzling variety of depredations that become possible when enough norms and inhibitions are blown away. That means the main characters don’t always need internal incentives—and this lack of psychological nuance extends to the supporting cast. When LeAnn informs a rival, “I like to win. Once you understand that, you understand me,” she’s telling the truth. That’s really all you need to know! House of Cards will obsessively track a diabolical plan along the winding road to fruition, but it prefers to leave the psyche that concocted the plan in shadow.
The series diverges from reality in another crucial way. While ineptitude is one of Trump’s defining characteristics, House of Cards has always been a show about mastery. Frank Underwood embodies mastery over others; Claire Underwood stands for a subtler notion of self-mastery. Their narrative arcs are most absorbing when they falter in their respective virtues—when Frank, for instance, is thrown on his heels by an insubordinate senator or Claire allows some hesitancy or yearning to break across her face. The show’s real conflict isn’t between Frank and Claire, or Republicans and Democrats, or even good and evil. It is between mastery and futility, between the pull of ambition and the memento mori whisper that human striving is empty at the core.
One of the pleasures of previous seasons of House of Cards was watching people who were extremely good at their jobs enact their agendas through the skillful application of force and finesse. In Season 5, those seductions have been dialed way back. House of Cards now seems fascinated by repetitive movement, by how endless climbing can start to feel like standing still. Frank embarks on an emotional affair with, of all things, a Civil War re-enactor; LeAnn and Tom have an eerie election-night conversation about déjà vu. Conway appears to be suffering from war-related PTSD that keeps him trapped in the past. Maybe most tellingly, we learn in an early episode that Frank and Claire watch the same black-and-white noir film (Double Indemnity, about love and murder) every time one of them runs for office. They know all of the lines by heart.
There is something nihilistic, in House of Cards as in life, about relentless ambition and plotting that only feeds on itself and engenders more ambition and plotting. Like the Double Indemnity actors, the Underwoods seem to be uttering the same lines over and over again. A trailer for House of Cards’ fifth season made much of the moment in which Frank finally gives voice to his autocratic dream: “Underwood/Underwood 2016,” he drawls. “2020. 2024. 2028. 2032. 2036 …” The speech is meant to yank the scales from our eyes, revealing the fiendish grandiosity of his power-lust. But it also recalls a soliloquy from another guy whose black desires led to curdled hopes and existential despair: “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow …”
House of Cards is by now a known quantity. It came out in 2013 with a winning formula and for the most part has been standing still ever since; its repetitions are part of its art. What makes watching the new season so terrifying is the realization that we’ve changed so much.