Entertainment Television

Friday 18 October 2019

'House of Cards' trumps them all for sheer drama

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey as Claire and Frank Underwood in season 5 of ‘House of Cards’
Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey as Claire and Frank Underwood in season 5 of ‘House of Cards’

Ed Power

With Donald Trump in the White House, does 'House of Cards' have a reason to exist?

As Netflix's Washington caper returns for a fifth season, it risks being eclipsed by real world events far more ludicrous than anything a mere TV show could dream up.

That's quite an achievement, considering the often over-the-top story lines.

In his relentless pursuit of power, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) has, since 2013, killed, lied, manipulated, lied some more and snapped a dog's neck.

This year, to defuse a political crisis, he shoves a woman down the stairs.

A Twitter feud with Underwood would probably culminate in the president calling to your house and bashing your head in with your laptop. Yet in the Age of Trump, there is nonetheless clear and present danger of the fictional president coming off dull and retiring.

U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Consider last season's big cliff-hanger in which Underwood and wife/ partner in megalomania Claire (Robin Wright) exaggerated the threat of an Isil-esque terrorist group to strengthen their grip on the presidency.

It's a juicy set-up - yet one that arguably pales compared to real life claims of Russian electoral interference and politically-motivated sackings at the FBI. 'House of Cards', which returns without original showrunner Beau Willimon, wants you to know that it is aware of all of this.

Early in the new run of episodes, Underwood riles civil rights protesters by threatening to shut America's borders.

Later, rumours of illegal machinations in the Oval Office draw the attention of the FBI. Without directly referencing Mr Trump, the show nonetheless finds a way of acknowledging ongoing political upheavals.

As a black-hearted villain, Spacey remains a twinkling joy. He's back monologuing to the camera (an affectation desperately missed last year) and, in contrast to the real commander-in-chief, always seems a dozen steps ahead of his enemies.

His major foe is dashing Republican presidential candidate Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). A decorated ex-soldier with Obama-esque levels of charisma, Conway poses an existential danger to the Underwoods - albeit one quickly revealed to have a potentially fatal flaw.

Also making life difficult for Frank is the ongoing dalliance between Claire and her live-in lover/creepy press officer Tom Yates (Paul Sparks).

Claire has already walked out on Frank once. Here she again reminds him that she regards the vice-presidency and second place on the podium as a springboard, not a destination in itself.

Likewise, returning characters are Michael Kelly, as Frank's murderously loyal chief of staff Doug Stamper, and Scream's Neve Campbell as Claire's amoral press secretary.

But President Underwood remains the most compelling reason to keep watching. Spacey navigates the melodrama with a straight face and an evil wink. He plays Underwood as a one-man Shakespearean tragedy - a devil who can barely be bothered with a disguise.

After several uneven seasons, his searing turn has helped make 'House of Cards' great again.

How will Netflix's House of Cards overcome challenges for season 5? 

Irish Independent

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