House of Cards Is Now More Irrelevant Than Ever
In a time when political incompetence is on full display, Frank Underwood suddenly seems too smart to be in charge of the United States.
BY PAUL SCHRODT | Jun 1, 2017 | Film & TV
House of Cards should've seen Donald Trump coming. When the Netflix show premiered in 2013, it was a delicious fantasy that fed on Americans' worst suspicions of Washington, DC. It was like The West Wing inverted: Instead of an administration working hard to pursue ideas about what government can do for people, it centered on an ambitious DC couple, Frank and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright), who care only about their own self-interest and power, and who will do anything to further those. Frank killing a dog in the opening scene tells us everything we need to know about his ruthlessness and what he'll do to anything that stands in his path to the Oval Office. "Moments like this require someone who will act," he says, "who will do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing."
But despite the fact that we now have a president who's testing democratic institutions and norms with his rule by bullying, House of Cards has never felt so weirdly out of sync with the current moment. The biggest problem is that the Underwoods are just too good at what they do.
In the real world, damaging information about Trump and his team is being leaked by intelligence officials nearly daily. But in the bizarro universe of House of Cards' fifth season (which is now streaming on Netflix), Frank orchestrates a fake raid on a murderer the administration is linking to terrorism. The president then orders the killing of the man—an American who has no links to a terrorist network—to distract attention from his scandals. "We are at war," Frank says when someone brings up the rule of law, even though no one else seems to agree. It's as if Trump could will the NSA, CIA, and FBI to do his bidding and somehow keep it a secret.
That's not to say House of Cards isn't trying to keep up with Trump. In fact, after the departure of original creator Beau Willimon, it's working harder than ever to stay relevant—which makes it feel the opposite. Frank and Claire stoke the American public's fear of ISIS stand-in ICO and tighten border restrictions in a ploy to win back the White House in an election against the Republican Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), echoing Trump's "Islam hates us" campaign rhetoric and call for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." In one scene that feels lazily ripped from headlines during the production of the new season at the end of last year, protesters outside the White House shout "Not my president!" after the election is contested.
These moments only underline how far House of Cards' view of politics is from the reality unfolding before us. Frank may be unpopular, but he would never utter a word in public he hasn't carefully thought out. Trump often seems to be making up what he says on the spot—or just exhausted. He hasn't passed a significant piece of legislation in 130 days and couldn't roll out his Muslim shutdown with the bare minimum of competence. He made it clear this week that he doesn't know how the filibuster in the Senate actually works. That would make Frank chuckle.
House of Cards was never trying to be realistic, of course. This is a show in which the sitting vice president somehow managed to kill a journalist on city public transportation without getting caught. Lately, though, it's discarding narrative conventions that make shows, you know, fun to watch. In early seasons, Frank and Claire were Machiavellian and vindictive, sure, but they were still embattled. They made mistakes, like when Frank got too close to that journalist (Kate Mara) and basically said he was her daddy in a scene that still upsets me. Now every resistance to them instantly melts away. Their rise to permanent American monarchs is becoming conflict-free. Stamper tells a governor in his creepy voice to do something, and he does it without a fight. Even the cliffhangers, which used to be batshit, are getting tiresome. A so-ghoulish-it's-laughable closing shot in the second episode of season five shows Frank and Claire's faces carved into two lit pumpkins for Halloween. It's unclear what purpose this serves other than to make the same point the show has been making for four years. Yes, we get it. The Underwoods are evil.
It turns out House of Cards chose the wrong kind of evil. In the squeaky-clean Obama years, the lurid plot was fueled by Republicans' (and, let's be honest, Democrats') conspiracy theories about the Clintons, which are more than a little feeble at this point. Willimon worked for Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign, and his show is steeped in the same Clinton mythology that also informed Primary Colours. Frank is a Democrat, though he doesn't seem to have any ideology, and he works by calling in favours, making deals behind closed doors, and vanquishing his opponents. Except for that last part, most Americans would probably like a return to such a utopia. At least things would get done.
Washington insiders tend to agree that Veep is the most accurate portrayal of their town among all the fictional political TV shows. The image of flailing career officials bickering and putting each other down is familiar to them. There are too many people with too many different interests in the federal government to let someone like Frank get through for long. Trump was widely mocked for saying that he didn't realise governing would be so hard, but his quote contains an important truth. The presidency is hard, even when you're trying to blow everything up. House of Cards just made it look easy.