How does one caricature a president that is a complete and utter caricature? That is the burning question on the minds of Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese, the co-showrunners of the fifth season of House of Cards. Fortunately for the duo, who took over the reins from series creator Beau Willimon, they had already scripted the entire 13-episode season—and were prepping to shoot episodes 10 and 11—by the time former reality host Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in a shock upset.
Still, as critics have pointed out, there are a staggering number of similarities between the Netflix series’ fifth season and the chaotic first months of the Trump presidency.
It opens with President Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), under fire for his executive overreach, wishing to declare war on ICO (the show’s stand-in for ISIS) to shift the nation’s focus away from his myriad scandals and prey on Americans’ fear. To amp up the fear factor, he imposes a Muslim travel ban.
While Gibson and Pugliese, who’ve served as story supervisors since season three, admit to completing tons of research and hiring a broad team of political consultants, even they were a bit taken aback by their prescience.
“It’s interesting when you work on this stuff because sometimes it’s shocking. The travel ban was one of those times,” says Pugliese. “This was way before Trump, and there had been this growing rhetoric about Muslim immigrants in the air, so we were talking about the first episode and thought, ‘You know, somebody just might try this,’ and then the fact that it actually happened? Not surprising, but shocking.”
The parallels don’t end there. An incredibly close election takes place between President Underwood and his impeccably styled VP Claire (Robin Wright) versus hotshot Republican Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), one where WikiLeaks dumps, damning private recordings, and FBI meddling play a considerable role in manipulating public opinion. “It’s unthinkable to assume the FBI would involve themselves in an election,” testifies Nathan Green, deputy director of the FBI, doing his best James Comey impression.
“A lot of the stuff we were exploring was, ‘What would it take to steal or manipulate an election?’ and the fact that it was possible was scary for us, the writers in the room, but something we had to use,” says Pugliese. “We were talking about that a year ago, and we had all these consultants and election lawyers helping us out and warning us that this could happen, and when it did happen, it was like oh shit.”
“The vulnerabilities in our democracy are very interesting to dig into,” adds Gibson.
As far as resemblances between Underwood and Trump go, well, there are hearings before a special committee in Congress that’s been assembled to investigate the president; the president responds militarily to a gas attack in Homs; and, following a series of leaks out of the White House, President Underwood is overcome with paranoia, and begins not only recording every message or call going in and out of the White House, but also livestreaming his staffers via hidden cameras.
And yes, those recordings include Oval Office tapes—like the ones President Trump claims to have that will supposedly exonerate him from former FBI Director Comey’s damning allegations.
“We made a choice to look into this Nixonian paranoia that every president has for a moment, and Underwood and Trump definitely share it,” offers Gibson.
Another big theme of House of Cards Season 5 is the ongoing hostilities between the Underwood administration and Russia, led by President Viktor Petrov—who is, quite intentionally, a dead ringer for Vladimir Putin.
Petrov commands an occupying force to invade a research facility in Antarctica, in violation of a 1959 treaty, and further clashes with the Underwoods following the aforementioned gas attack in Syria. “Distracted? No, no. Divided? Yes,” confesses Petrov, detailing his desire to sow discord in the West. “My eyes are on a landscape that is so much bigger than any one of your roads.”
Gibson and Pugliese tell me that, while researching Petrov and Russia, they consulted with someone who worked as a publicist for the Putin administration. And, while he’s been a villain since Season 3, the fifth sees President Underwood become increasingly envious of the power Petrov wields—an admiring relationship akin to Trump and Putin.
“As far as our Petrov character and any similarities to Putin, it’s a character that orchestrates chaos and then manages and takes advantage of it. That notion of somebody doing that, and Frank Underwood being attracted to it and wanting to do something like it in America, seemed like something that we wanted to play with for years. It’s amazing how it’s happened in real life, and how Trump may have some ideas about what Putin’s doing and how it may be beneficial for himself,” says Pugliese.
“The parallel of the admiration for that figure, that he’s a little bit of a mirror image, is really interesting,” adds Gibson.
The fifth season ends—SPOILER ALERT—with President Underwood resigning in disgrace, and his VP Claire taking over as the first woman president in U.S. history. “It’s my turn,” she says, addressing the audience.
While the pair were “operating under the impression that Hillary would win” the presidency, they concede that the decision to elevate Claire to the Oval had little to do with Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects, and more to do with the “balance of power” between Frank and Claire. And while Claire is running things on the inside, Frank becomes heavily involved with pulling strings on the outside—that is, among the well-heeled donors and lobbyists that really run things in Washington.
“At the core is this evolving relationship and how it tries to sustain itself, is pulled apart, and pulls itself back together. It seemed really organic and inevitable that she would take the Oval Office,” says Gibson. “And as for Frank, he’s identified the power beyond the power. It’s a great opportunity with the show, and something we’ve always wanted to get into, which is how it’s not only about who’s in the White House but who owns the White House. What we’re leaning into here is the role of money in politics.”
Season 6 will explore the donor class, but it must also inevitably be colored by the turmoil of the Trump administration. So, now that Trump is president, how will the show sustain its edge?
Both Gibson and Pugliese are quick to mention “complicity,” and how the show has always treated its audience as active—not passive—participants in the Underwoods’ charades, most notably through Frank’s direct addresses to his viewers.
“With these resonances, one thing we talked about was this theme of complicity, and it feels very pertinent,” says Pugliese. “The show has always explored complicity from its very first frames, because Francis Underwood is inviting us along for this ride, and as the ride gets ever darker and morally complicated, it calls into question how, ‘You’ve asked for this and you’ve delighted in this, viewer,’ and there are implications for real life, as citizens and as voters: We made this happen and if we have a problem with it we have to fix it ourselves.”
The showrunners also see a connection between Frank’s mode of direct address, where he expresses his innermost thoughts and desires to the audience, and President Trump’s early-morning tweets, where he does much of the same.
“Trump’s version of the direct address is a tweet,” says Gibson, chuckling. “Francis is just more verbose.”