One of myriad problems raised by the Trump Presidency (a low priority problem, to be sure) is that so much of what happened leading up to and following the election has been — in a sense — normalized. I have lived through quite a few Presidential campaigns in my life, and while the promise of drama almost always exists, it usually fizzles out on election day, that 2000 election notwithstanding (I will note, however, that America was strangely serene during those days between the election and when the Supreme Court gave the Presidency to George W. Bush, no doubt because neither of the candidates in the 2000 election inspired much passion on either side of the aisle). But the 2016 election lived up to and exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations for drama, and in the Trump era, it’s now expected as a normal course of business.
For political dramas, the end result is that storylines have to be pushed beyond their breaking point to sustain as much drama as real-world politics. The West Wing would no longer work in this political climate, which is why we have Designated Survivor, which is The West Wing set against the backdrop of a terrorist attack that killed nearly every member of all three branches of government.
Likewise, it’s not enough for the fifth season of House of Cards to present a close Presidential race that isn’t decided until days after the election, as in the 2000 election. In House of Cards, President Underwood — faced with certain electoral defeat — manufactures a constitutional crisis that drags on for months. Terrorist attacks are staged, more or less. Polling stations are closed down. The election is thrown to the House of Representatives, and even after that, a re-vote is required to settle the matter. In the meantime, the country is run by the Vice President, who happens to be Underwood’s wife, who only gained the position by virtue of what can only be described as a political caper. And that’s just the first few episodes of this season of House of Cards before Underwood retakes his Presidency, which is immediately thrown back into chaos. Oh, fuck it: House of Cards kills off some more characters, too, because the popularity of Game of Thrones requires it.
It’s an exhausting season of television to watch, all the moreso because House of Cards rarely provides big, satisfying moments. The series often builds storylines toward big dramatic confrontations, which are then glossed over in a time-jump or dealt with in a backroom deal or election that takes place offscreen. The problem is particularly egregious this season, after the writers put themselves into a corner with an impeachment hearing and then seemingly invented a twist that would explain away the many, many inconsistencies and narrative black holes the show took us through this year. Indeed, even when there are victories, there are no celebrations in House of Cards, in part, because there are no characters for whom we can root. They’re all awful. Every goddamn last one of them.
The storylines, however, seem almost beside the point in House of Cards. This show is almost entirely a showcase for Kevin Spacey to deliver folksy colloquialisms, rage at Cabinet members and Congresspeople, and pontificate to the camera. Meanwhile Robin Wright delivers her lines with a cold, clipped efficiency designed to ensure that no one will ever feel anything for her beyond an appreciation for her ability to shut down an argument with a few well chosen words or an icy stare that could wilt the sun.
Yet, as messy and nonsensical as the plotlines have become, and as predictable as the actions of the characters are, House of Cards remains inexplicably as addictive as ever. It’s a series that always holds the carrot stick tantalizingly within reach, but never lets the viewers take a bite. The pursuit, however, is where the fun lies in Cards. We spend 13 conflicted hours each year, hoping that the Underwoods will finally get their comeuppance, while secretly praying that they will continue to escape it. They’re a fun couple to hate, so much so that a show of humility or an ounce of passion might constitute a character assassination. The moment we feel anything beyond a loathing respect for the Underwoods is the moment House of Cards stops being fun.
The way the writers continue to pin themselves into corners suggests that that moment may arrive sooner rather than later. Indeed, after this year’s season finale, there’s not much room left in which to maneuver.