HOUSE OF CARDS S5

Empire (Australasia) - - Review -

2016 / RATED MA15+ / CRE­ATED BY BEAU WILLIMON / CAST KEVIN SPACEY, ROBIN WRIGHT, MICHAEL KELLY, BORIS MCGIVER, JAYNE ATKIN­SON, DEREK CE­CIL, PAUL SPARKS, NEVE CAMP­BELL, JOEL KINNAMAN Com­ing up Trump

HOUSE OF CARDS has never ex­isted in a bub­ble. There have al­ways been glances at real-world pol­i­tics, such as the very Putin-y Rus­sian pres­i­dent Petrov or the ter­ror net­work ICO, which is just ISIS with dif­fer­ent let­ters. It’s of­ten just served as a more ab­sur­dist ver­sion of what’s hap­pen­ing to­day. Where, then, does it go now? We have Trump in the White House, a man whose propen­sity for po­lit­i­cal calamity might see him con­sid­ered “a bit OTT” if he were fic­tional, and in his trail a slime of cor­rup­tion, Rus­sian sneak­ery, war with the press, nepo­tism, the fir­ing of any­one ‘dis­loyal’, and nu­clear war flir­ta­tion. What has he left for the scriptwrit­ers? Civil war? Se­cret lizard peo­ple? House Of Cards now risks ei­ther be­com­ing ridicu­lous if it tries to outdo real life or se­date if it doesn’t. It opts mostly to go high where Trump goes low, keep­ing the crazy-twist count small, with the odd lurch in the other di­rec­tion. It’s prob­a­bly en­tirely the cor­rect choice.

The se­ries stum­bled in Sea­son 3, seem­ingly un­sure of what to do with Frank and Claire Un­der­wood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) once they’d grabbed the most pow­er­ful of­fice in the world, but made hay in Sea­son 4 by turn­ing their lives into a des­per­ate game of Risk. They were as­saulted on all fronts by peo­ple keen to re­lieve them of their power, forc­ing them into more and more risky meth­ods to fend them off. That only gets worse this sea­son.

We open with an elec­tion loom­ing. Frank, con­scious of his dwin­dling pop­u­lar­ity, is try­ing to stir up fear over the threat of ICO. If he can ter­rify the elec­torate and con­vince them he can save them, the pres­i­dency could re­main his. Op­pos­ing him is Will Con­way (Joel Kinnaman), the anti-frank. Whole­some, naive, open (mostly). Add to the mix the fact Claire, nom­i­nee for Vice Pres­i­dent, is more pop­u­lar than her hus­band and you have the po­ten­tial for a spec­tac­u­lar bat­tle, which the sea­son fully ex­ploits. If there’s a key word for the sea­son it’s “pres­sure”. How each char­ac­ter deals with the strain of the elec­tion is sur­pris­ing and darkly de­light­ful. Some crack, oth­ers harden, and not nec­es­sar­ily the ones you’d sus­pect. The se­ries’ big pull from re­al­ity is the grub­bi­ness of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Each time Frank, Claire or Will try to usurp the other it’s not by us­ing pol­icy or any­thing of sub­stance, but by dredg­ing up em­bar­rass­ing, ul­ti­mately in­con­se­quen­tial scan­dal. Pol­i­tics’ slide into the gut­ter is a boon to House Of Cards.

This has never re­ally been a show about pol­i­tics. None of its play­ers wants to be in charge in or­der to im­prove things for any­one but them­selves. Pol­icy is rarely men­tioned, the pub­lic vir­tu­ally un­seen. Power is sim­ply a sta­tus sym­bol to be pos­sessed, to grab and lock be­hind glass, away from the sticky fin­gers of oth­ers. The pres­i­dency is the One Ring and all the main play­ers are Gol­lum, fix­ated on a trea­sure that can never be theirs to keep.

What main­tains House Of Cards is adding new play­ers to the game and this sea­son we’ve a pair of doozies. Pa­tri­cia Clark­son is Jane Davis, an ICO ex­pert who knows ev­ery­one and never for­gets any­thing. Her scatty, chummy ex­te­rior is clearly a front. Camp­bell Scott is po­lit­i­cal ad­vi­sor Mark Usher, of whom Frank says, “You al­ways know where he stands. Usu­ally on some­one’s neck.” You can rely on Clark­son and Scott with any ma­te­rial, but they’re given gold here, each fully a match for the de­vi­ous­ness of the Un­der­woods.

This show is al­ways at its best when peo­ple are try­ing to out­wit each other, which is why later episodes in this sea­son are a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing for re­ly­ing on easy outs. There’s some non­sense about we­b­cam hack­ing that re­lies on peo­ple talk­ing to them­selves about their dark­est secrets while sit­ting at their com­put­ers, and more turns to vi­o­lence, al­ways a dis­ap­point­ingly blunt last re­sort for this show. Those are blips, though. The show gives no im­pres­sion that it’s run­ning out of ideas. It keeps dis­cov­er­ing new rules to the game, and new ways for its char­ac­ters to cheat them. The fic­tional cen­tral re­la­tion­ship is show­ing se­ri­ous strain, but its po­ten­tial for cre­at­ing ad­dic­tively dark drama is not. One of the show’s best sea­sons. OLLY RICHARDS

HOUSE OF CARDS SEA­SON 5 IS OUT 5 OCTOBER ON DVD AND BLU-RAY

Above: Frank and Claire (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright). Here: Frank and White House COS Doug Stam­per (Michael Kelly).

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