At this year’s unconventional White House Correspondents’ Dinner, host Hasan Minhaj succinctly observed how a different political climate makes for very different viewing of Netflix’s flagship drama series “House of Cards,” whose fifth season debuts today. He quipped: ”I’ve been watching ‘House of Cards’ just to relax. Oh, a vice president pushes a journalist in front of a train? How quaint.”
The fifth season of “House of Cards” premieres under such shockingly different circumstances from what it faced just a year ago that it’s hard to not read into its antiseptic, amoral portrait of a coolly power-hungry Washington, D.C. The show was created under the auspices of President Obama and functioned, like “Scandal,” as a kind of acidic corrective to the buoyant optimism surrounding his presidency. As the seasons went on and the stakes got higher, “House of Cards” seemed determined to expect nothing but the worst from its entire stable of Washington-insider characters
Executive producer David Fincher set the stylistic tone of the series from the pilot, and the hermetic isolation of his D.C. interiors and unfussy Americana became more distinct as “House of Cards”’ storytelling moved past the model set by the 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name. But what is perhaps most distinct about the Netflix version of “House of Cards” is that unlike the BBC serial, which continued Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson)’s story in two more installments (“To Play the King,” 1993, and “The Final Cut,” 1995), our American political dystopia doesn’t end. The British series closes Urquhart’s story the only way the stories like his can end — Francis and Elizabeth Urquhart are consciously modeled after the doomed Lord and Lady Macbeth, with contemporary embellishments. But in our American “House of Cards,” there are no just desserts for the political operatives who grasp power simply for power’s sake. Frank and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) never have better angels and always win, in a story that will run for as long as Netflix can make it run.
In other words, it’s a nightmare. And yet it might still be preferable to reading the news. At least in “House of Cards,” Frank and Claire repeatedly demonstrate that they know exactly what they are doing. The fantasy of competent people in charge might be enough to be soothing, even when they’re murdering yet another hapless soul who crosses their path.
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