“More relevant in the Age of Trump.”
I have typed the phrase so often—in relation to everything from Veep to Fargo to RuPaul’s Drag Race and even an Aubrey Plaza-starring Sundance comedy about horny nuns—that I had made a promise to myself to stop using it.
And then I saw the House of Cards premiere.
Would you believe that season five of the Netflix drama is more relevant in the Age of Trump? (Sorry to break my promise. But, hey, broken promises…all in the spirit of the Age of Trump.)
There’s always something naughtily tantalizing about watching the soap-opera-meets-thriller aspects of House of Cards as an escapist reality not that far from the truth. The Machiavellian politico and his even more cunning wife ascend to power through a delicate staging of public-facing niceties while masking their unscrupulousness behind the curtain.
It was a grim cautionary tale, given how much of the Underwoods’ machinations we suspected actually reflect what goes on inside the Beltway—if all a bit heightened to meet the Southern grandeur of Kevin Spacey’s hammy performance. Because of that House of Cards has always been relevant.
But the season five premiere, which we’ve seen (and won’t spoil too much of) and launches May 30 on Netflix, debuts against the fledgling Trump administration without its funhouse mirror. The wacky, whimsical distortions seem to be gone. This mirror is almost too clear.
If you’ve seen the season five trailer, you’ve heard Spacey’s Frank Underwood voice-over, in which he speaks about how he needs to “teach [the American people] right from wrong” and “tell them what to think and how to feel and what to want.”
Then, Underwood concludes: “Luckily they have me.”
It’s all in contrast to the crowds of “Never Trump”-esque protestors who picket outside the White House, where the de facto president is waging an already problematic run to be elected president this time—a campaign that is mired in scandal when a newspaper exposé on his corruption comes out.
And so President Underwood and his wife, Robin Wright’s Claire, do what politicians do best: they begin to trade in fear. Specifically, fear of the other.
The Underwoods see continued political capital in the on-camera execution of “patriot” James Miller by ICO, the show’s version of ISIS. It’s an execution, of course, that the couple hinted at orchestrating themselves in the season four finale: “We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.”
“I’m done trying to win over people’s hearts,” Claire had said in that episode, suggesting that intentionally starting a war might be their greatest chance of winning. “We can work with fear.”
And so they do, using every public appearance to overdramatize the threat of terrorism in order to scare voters onto their side. To further manufacture the fear, Frank places overreaching and blanket restrictions on visas and no-fly lists for certain countries—and you can guess which ones. “A lot of innocent people are trying to get into our country,” says Secretary of State Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson), echoing the sentiment of those who argued against Donald Trump’s ultimately unconstitutional travel ban. “They could be hurt by this.”
Somehow, the new season of House of Cards leapfrogged real-world events and predicted the current political weaponizing of Islamophobia.
More broadly, there is more kinetic energy in this season’s premiere of House of Cards, a series that has seemed to devote 70 percent of its total running time to characters staring out of windows in sedans. We are going to admit that we’re stretching the POLITICAL SHOW JUST LIKE REAL LIFE! motif almost to insufferable limits here, but even that felt more resonant and reflective watching at the current time.
House of Cards is a series that lost viewers because of how snugly it embraced the glacial pace of prestige TV storytelling. But the season five premiere mimics a little bit of the Underwoods’ panic for power with more thrust than we’re used to, plots unfolding at a dizzying pace as Frank wields his executive power—even amid scandal—with a flustered petulance.
As we watched our screener of the episode, President Trump was signing an executive order promoting religious liberty while darting off to celebrate the passage of a horrifying healthcare bill through the House and then heading on to New York for a drive-by stop aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid.
This follows, of course, the president’s signing of a flurry of executive orders, the most of any president in his first 100 days since FDR. Then, of course, there was the branding of some of them as unconstitutional…and the retort to that…and the Russia investigations…and North Korea…and the missiles…and the, well, you get it.
Frank Underwood, of course, only grows stronger in chaos, often the manipulator and controller of it himself.
There’s an image that is at first comedic and then somewhat harrowing, of a congressman waving Tom Hammerschmidt’s exposé detailing Frank Underwood’s corruption and malfeasance in the House chambers, desperately attempting to rally his fellow politicians to do something about it.
Then the president himself confidently struts past him, ripping the newspaper out of his hand on his way to thwart congressional precedent and address the chamber rogue-style. He doesn’t go so far as to, in all his braggadocio, label the exposé fake news. But as he crumples the paper and goes on with his distraction-tactic speech, he does imply that negative stories about him don’t matter. That he will do what he wants anyway.
He bellows over the din of chaos: “I will not yield! I will not yield! I will not yield!”
There are obvious distinctions separating Underwood and Trump—southerner vs. New Yorker; Democrat vs. Republican; the conniver vs. the blowhard—but perhaps that’s what makes these parallels more chilling. More than one politician is susceptible to them.
As Lili Loofbourow writes in The Guardian, there is almost a naiveté to the storytelling that concludes season four and sets off the events of the season five premiere.
“House of Cards believes that the beheading of one American on camera would scandalize a nation into war,” she writes. “But how many ISIS beheadings have there been? How many African American men shot on camera by police? How many black protesters assaulted at campaign rallies? We are no longer capable of shock or awe. Compared with ours, the Underwoods’ United States is strikingly innocent.”
More, while the inescapable news cycle and gnat swarm of pundits and endless stream of 140-character opinionating might suggest otherwise, there is an air of desensitization permeating American culture when it comes to not just the horrific acts that humans are capable of committing, but even the unchecked power the government is willing to wield.
After four seasons, it’s interesting to contemplate the idea of this show at a time when we’re no longer shocked or scandalized by wild twists in our real-life politics. Does it lose its bite? Is it actually less relevant in the Age of Trump?
We’re forbidden by Netflix from discussing the rest of the season until closer to the May 30 premiere date. But it’s hard to imagine our fascination with every similarity it has with real-world politics waning as the Underwoods set out to Make America Scared Again.