Now that Kevin Spacey has been fired from House of Cards, reviewing the show's fifth season is much different. While the show will return for eight episodes before calling it a day, it has been tarnished by association and may limp to a finish without much more than a novelty’s level worth of curiosity of how it handles Spacey’s firing in the context of the overall storyline.
Of course, Spacey’s downfall viz a viz the show is ironic. The fifth season saw his character, Frank Underwood, pushed to the side in favor of his wife Claire, who is now President after his resignation (don't ask). Indeed, the show's hiatus is a good opportunity for the show runners to think about where they want to go and what they want out of the final season because the fifth season was so bananas crazy (not in a good way) that a pause will be good regardless.
When House of Cards started, it balanced much of what makes DC intrigue interesting - political sabotage, deals cut behind closed doors, and just enough lurid titillation to pique without being prurient. But as the show has progressed, the machinations have become less believable and the suspension of disbelief required, far greater. This was never more true than in Season 5, which unfolded for the first half against a ridiculously convoluted electoral theft story that made Bush v. Gore look simple and then spent the second half fast forwarding past what could have been a season-long arc of Frank's undoing (at his own hand as it turns out, in a finale-aside that would have been missed if you blinked) and elevation of Claire surrounded by scheming aides eager to take advantage of her naivete and inexperience.
Sometimes, shows that start out strong lose their thread (looking at you, Homeland) and even before Spacey’s outing as a sexual predator, it was clear House of Cards had morphed from drama to parody. Spacey’s scene-chewing monologues became flabby, less Machiavelli and more dorm-room 101 philosophy, and while the body count piled up, it required a belief both in the fecklessness of law enforcement and every tinfoil-hat conspiracy about dark forces running the country to not be laughable.
Looking back, it is clear that the early decisions to navigate Frank into the Oval Office so quickly ended up being too much to fast. The show jettisoned any pretense of being a “DC drama” that might have been based on legislative horse-trading or lower-level skirmishes in favor of more and more outlandish scheming and mendacity that ultimately involved state-sanctioned murder, false arrest and imprisonment, and manufactured terrorist attacks to spook the populace. On the other hand, we are asked to believe the Vice President of the United States could keep secret a live-in lover (who she kills in the penultimate episode) while also, hello, BEING MARRIED TO THE PRESIDENT. It is absurd, even for televised drama.
There may be a small opportunity for redemption in Spacey’s exit. With Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood now unshackled from the yoke of her marriage to Frank, eight episodes is more than enough time to tell both a taut political story and consider the reckoning that all those who have done bad things deserve.
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