“Welcome to the death of reason,” snarls Frank Underwood as season five of House of Cards draws to a close. It’s an appropriate sentiment in a fictional world that has gone out of its way to one-up the absurdity of real-life Washington.
This is ruthless television from the off. Gone are the bloated storylines of season four, superfluous subplots and supporting characters are expunged with little fanfare as the show hones in on Frank and Claire Underwood, and Republican presidential rival Will Conway and his wife Hannah.
Symmetry in House of Cards is everywhere. The early plotlines are at their most interesting when scenes skip between the Underwoods and Conways, with Frank and Claire scheming as Will and Hannah grapple with an unexpectedly dark world. Echoes of Trump are also disconcertingly present as the Underwood regime seeks to reassert its challenged authority.
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright continue their malevolent waltz of evil, which at times is satisfying but at others veers towards comic book supervillainy. But as the bodies pile up and the American constitution bends seemingly beyond breaking point, it becomes hard to keep cheering for the bad guys.
The early success of House of Cards was built on the audience wanting the Underwoods to win, no matter the cost. As one character almost experiments with necrophilia, a roaring fire illuminating their contorted, joyous face as they writhe on their dying victim it all gets a bit much. As a viewer, you’re left in despair. Where’s the nuance? Where’s the rationale? Heck, where’s the retribution?
The show’s visual style and soundtrack continue to excel, though. Every room has symmetrically arranged furniture – two lamps either side of a sofa, a twitching Doug Stamper sat precisely in the middle as the camera pans backwards – and characters are positioned as if in an oil painting. The cinematography is all about power, a trick that is at its most evident when Frank and Claire stare straight down the camera and speak directly to the audience.
While the first few episodes seek to pick up the pace, the storylines soon become turgid. There’s a sense we’ve been here before: the Underwoods scheming, their opponents faltering, the American people conspicuous by their absence as the White House descends into a near-dictatorship.