It’s 2017 and Donald Trump is currently the President of the United States. If you just read the previous sentence, you either are happy or you want vomit. If you want to vomit, then you know these are sad times for the empire. If the Great American Experiment is truly an experiment, then Trump in the White House is the monster that was created when a couple of lab technicians became overly ambitious. And just like most horror movies, the Trump-monster will probably hurt of kill many many people before he is finally stopped. So, no, I am not unbiased. I think Trump is a disaster as a human being. That opinion is not mine alone. Lot and lots of people agree with me, including the show-runners of House of Cards.
There is a running thought, I think, for most people when it comes to House of Cards in the Trump era. There is this hesitation to like or watch the show, or even discuss the show, because of Trump and his daily antics. There is good reason for this. Why watch a show about the destruction of American democracy when American democracy is actually being destroyed for real? Television is supposed to give you a false anxiety, a sense of tension, so that the show is entertaining. That tension is the secret ingredient for any good drama. But, if there is tension in a person’s real life, then they might not want to feel that tension in their entertainment. And if entertainment is supposed to be a distraction from the real life stresses then it isn’t wrong for viewers to be wary of watching a political drama. Who wants to be reminded of Trump when you are trying to relax?
House of Cards fully understands that you are probably sick of Trump. To comfort and soothe you, the show gives you exactly what you want: an over-the-top drama that makes no fucking sense but is so fun to watch you absolutely can’t look away. House of Cards has decided not to try and give some thinly veiled metaphor about our real-world political destruction. Instead, House of Cards simply tries to entertain us with the timeless trifecta of sex, betrayal and murder. This makes for a delicious distraction that will help you completely forget how 80,000 voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania utterly screwed us over.
The most important decision House of Cards makes is to give us much more of what everyone wants and needs in their life: Claire. Her impossible posture and incredible wardrobe basically carries the entire season. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood used to be the most dynamic and interesting character on the screen. We loved watching him scheme and fight his way from a Congressman to President, throwing a number of Zoes into Metro trains along the way. This season, though, the scenery is shared with Robin Wright’s Claire. While the show’s plot has us going from a rigged election to a Constitutional crisis to finally Frank and Claire winning the White House to Frank become entangle in investigations, what the show is really doing is re-introducing the schism between Frank and Claire. In season 3, their relationship was destroyed. In season 4, it mended a bit. But in season 5, Claire slowly realizes that she’ll never have all the power she wants with a partnership with Frank. He’s always been to petty, too needy and too irrational. As a viewer, you can feel your loyalties shift. Where once you rooted for Frank, you slowly start to think that maybe Claire deserves your attention. This becomes solidified when Claire finally, in a moment both unexpected and desperately anticipated, turns to the camera and shatters the forth wall like a sledge hammer connecting with a plate-glass window.
The move from Frank towards Claire makes sense when you think about where the show is now. We’ve already seen Frank as President and, if season 3 is any indication, being President can be sort of boring. What season 4 and 5 gave us is drama, drama in the form or Tom Yates sleeping with and then being murdered by Claire, drama in the form of wire-tapping and NSA backdoor intelligence, drama in the form of Doug taken the blame for Zoe’s murder. Season 5 dumped all that on us as a cathartic house cleaning so that, when Claire looks up to us and says, “My turn,” we understand that the show is ready to move on to another story: the story of Claire’s raise to power and what she’s willing to do to keep it.
Sure, the show seemed to go so overboard that sometimes you had to pause the show and try to remember what the plot was supposed to be. Why did Russia want some scientist in the arctic? What is going on with some terrorist? Why did the Republican candidate have PTSD? Who is leaking what to who? You can worry about all that crap if you want to, but you miss the point if you do that. The show doesn’t care about making sense. It cares about having fun. Finally, a show that understands what is fundamentally important.
House of Cards doesn’t have to give us some moral answers to the mistakes we’ve made or try and explain our current political anxiety. Television shows can do that and that can be their purpose. But art has its place and House of Cards isn’t art. House of Cards is a television that. And, thankfully, after five seasons, it has finally fully embraced how impossibly silly it is. It turns out that silly television is exactly what need right now.