Although “House of Cards” is, famously, as sensational as it is smart, its fifth season had big shoes to fill. After a singularly strong fourth season and a tumultuous real-life presidential election that can make overdramatized fictions pale in comparison, it was difficult to envision a suitably punchy follow-up.
This danger was neatly sidestepped with a season that crafted a more abstract conflict to run alongside its concrete ones — the tug of war between looking in and looking out, between dwelling on the past and obsessing over the future.
For much of the season, this conflict is most apparent in the clash between threateningly future-obsessed incumbent Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his presidential rival shackled to his past, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman).
Beneath his appearance of blond-haired, blue-eyed earnest Americana, Conway has begun to crack this season, with campaign stress, long-neglected PTSD and memories of a morally ambiguous combat mission taking their toll.
Kinnaman diverges from his smarmy performance last season to give Conway wild-eyed new dimension; in subtly allowing Conway vulnerabilities, Kinnaman transforms Conway from an imposing monolith of warmth to a compelling adversary tortured by the past he used to so proudly hold over non-veteran Underwood.
Meanwhile, the pressure to leave a future legacy is pivotal in the Underwoods’ psyche. Francis and his First Lady-cum-running mate, Claire (Robin Wright), unlike the family-oriented Conways, never had children of their own — instead, they channel their latent desires to pass themselves into the future through a manic obsession with retaining power.
Claire and Francis also adopt their speechwriter and self-proclaimed “first concubine,” Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), into a sort of surrogacy, in one scene watching his slumber as new parents might admire their infant. Wright plays perennially icy Claire with a reluctant desire to open up to Tom, imbuing their surreal psychosexual dance with emotional credibility.
Every character is near their breaking point this season, and the Underwoods’ chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is no exception. As he has in every season, Kelly convincingly conveys Doug’s tense energy as he reflects the guilt he feels for his past crimes, which belies his willingness to commit them in the future for the sake of the Underwoods.
With his deep attachment to the Underwood administration, however, comes the imminent threat of essentially evaporating should they fall from power. In an immaculately composed scene characteristic of “House of Cards,” Doug carves his initials into the bottom of a desk drawer in the Oval Office. Kelly’s subtle performance turns a classically juvenile action into a poignant manifestation of Doug’s fear of disappearing entirely.
Things are no calmer elsewhere within the White House, where the Underwoods’ longtime staffers grow mutinous and new faces nurture their ambitions. In between these camps, one of the most engaging storylines manifests in LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell), the Underwoods’ campaign manager.
New enough to know little of the Underwoods’ past but experienced enough to be trusted with their current secrets, LeAnn’s entanglement with the first couple gains a new angle when her long, intimate history with Aidan Macallan (Damian Young), an eccentric NSA data scientist, comes to light. Inevitably, a man who holds such important information also bears a target on his back, and LeAnn spends much of the season torn between her personal investment in Aidan and the pressures she faces to deliver him to the Underwoods and advance her career.
Perhaps in an attempt to keep up with the chaos of the real world, this season of “House of Cards” is jam-packed with international intrigue and shocking plot twists. At some points, this eagerness to stay exciting veers into unnaturally soapy territory — the late season presents a cult ceremony, a murder and a telenovela-worthy shove down a flight of stairs.
The absurdity of some events almost counteracts how convincing the character arcs this season are. Strip back the excesses of the plot, however, and season 5 presents a mesmerizing study in the tension between our internal baggage and external hopes.
Season 5 of “House of Cards” is now streaming on Netflix.
Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].