'House of Cards' Keeps Scraping the Bottom of Evil's Barrel
Image: Courtesy Netflix

This article contains potential spoilers for House of Cards, Seasons 1–5.

Netflix’s House of Cards is now in danger of overstaying its welcome. At five seasons, the story feels bloated, its characters stretched thin. Despite its largely depleted resources, however, there remain a few slender elements that could salvage the show. Though I rolled my eyes at the final episode’s open-ended conclusion, I’ll reluctantly concede that another season of House of Cards might restore some of the show’s bite.

With its muted color palette, finely crafted dialogue, and expert performances, House of Cards wears its prestige drama getup well, but that’s not enough. As the promising but lackluster Ozarkhas recently demonstrated, high production values don’t guarantee a story’s success, and House of Cards season 5 doesn’t quite convince us that what’s happening on its elaborate sets really matters.

The series has always struggled with one major challenge: How do you make a static character interesting? Francis (Frank) Underwood arrives onscreen as a fully-formed monster. From his callous killing of a wounded dog in the show’s opening scenes to his gleefully blasphemous antics in an empty sanctuary, we know immediately that Frank’s insatiable appetite for power is matched only by his ruthless ambition—that he’ll do anything to get what he wants. We may be horrified at the lengths to which he’ll go to secure his wishes, but we’re certainly not surprised.

Compare this to a show like Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, where we witness a moral transformation that’s as plausible as it is horrifying. (Gilligan pursues a similar trajectory in the stunning Better Call Saulprequel.) Hovering over all these current Jekyll-and-Hyde variations is the character of Tony Soprano—one of the most gloriously complex criminals to haunt television screens in recent years. What makes these characters so compelling is their volcanic dynamism. Like all of us, they’re inconsistent and riddled with contradictions. Moreover, they learn; they grow; they change. Frank Underwood, on the other hand, remains irremediably consistent.

While this dramatic predicament doesn’t necessarily preclude a compelling character study, it does tend to cater to a baser species of curiosity in the viewer. We often tune in to see just how far the character will go. In this sense, our interest in characters like Hannibal Lecter and Frank Underwood is more pathological than sympathetic. We want to see how inhuman a human can be.

Many of the show’s fans will no doubt counter that Claire Underwood more than compensates for her husband’s lack of dynamism. Though her character arc is a bit subtler (and greatly enhanced by Robin Wright’s impeccable performance), Claire ultimately brings us to the same dramatic impasse as her spouse; her malevolence is complete from the start of the show. When a former lover poses a threat to the couple’s hold on the Oval Office, she calmly arranges a tryst in a secluded location and poisons him to death. Once again, the act is both vile and utterly predictable. In crude terms, it was only a question of where and when.

This sense of predictability casts a shadow over the entire season, which begins with Frank’s campaign race against Republican newcomer, Will Conway. But any dramatic possibilities this competition might hold quickly evaporate as Frank and Claire settle into their familiar roles. In short, we already know how the race will end. We know that the couple will stop at nothing to consolidate their power, that they view the entire justice system as nothing more than an elaborate obstacle course, that votes will be rigged, and innocent blood will be shed. It’s not just that Frank’s ill-gotten victory over Conway is a foregone conclusion; it’s that we no longer care. Invulnerable characters are boring characters.

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'House of Cards' Keeps Scraping the Bottom of Evil's Barrel