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House of Cards - Season 5 Review: "Claire's Turn"

After the longest hiatus between seasons in its history, Netflix's critically acclaimed flagship political thriller, House of Cards finally went live on the streaming service in the last couple of hours. Netflix provided me with screeners for all 13 episodesall 13 episodes, which I've been busy watching while taking notes flat out for the past few days. Before I begin the review, obviously, if you haven't yet finished watching the season for yourself, you might want to do so and come back later so nothing is spoiled, but something I would recommend doing if you haven't done it already is watching the Season 4 finale, Chapter 52, again so you can keep up with the play. I was definitely pleased I did so.

To the review now, and I think the best way to sum up the season as a whole is to say that it is the most complex season yet. House of Cards pushes the boundaries even further than Season 4 in many aspects of its political landscape. The entire season spans just 5 months, and picks up right where Season 4 left off, just three weeks before the election which could win Frank Underwood a second term as President of the United States, with his wife, Claire, becoming Vice-President thanks to the events late in Season 4.

Star and executive producer Kevin Spacey hinted to fans a few days ago that if they thought House of Cards couldn't produce a crazier story than what is currently happening in real life in the USA, then they would be gravely mistaken. I believe he is largely correct, aside from the fact that despite the happenings in the White House, the actual Presidents in the series are somewhat competent.

The first half of the season was largely focused on the election between the Democrat Underwoods and the familiar Republican candidate Will Conway, with wife Hannah at his side throughout. The younger Conway was ahead in the polls, but a spot of election rigging and voter fraud perpetrated by NSA member Aidan MacAllan by order of Chief of Staff Doug Stamper threw doubt into the results of several important states. After weeks of delays which left Claire as the acting President. A lot of time was spent by the two candidates campaigning for votes in the electoral college, and Conway eventually conceded the presidency to the Underwoods.

The season's second half saw the Underwoods fight tooth and nail to remain in power as a special committee led by Alex Romero sought to find reason to impeach Frank. Working alongside - and occasionally against - the Underwoods was Jane Davis, an expert on international relations, and Mark Usher, the Conway campaign manager who switched sides after his candidate lost the election. To force the committee to disband, Frank opted to resign, which meant Claire ascended to the presidency, while freeing him up to gain influence in the private sector, thus giving the Underwoods even more power.

While those two storylines were the season's main plots, there were subplots aplenty right throughout the season, with all minor characters involved in at least one, and often more.

We need to dial up the terror.
>> Frank Underwood - Chapter 53

The ICO subplot was one of the more important ones, and it was continued from last season. The Middle-Eastern terror group caused a number of issues for many of the characters, beginning with Frank asking Congress to declare war in the first episode, Chapter 53. The Underwoods attended the funeral of James Miller, the man beheaded by ICO in the Season 4 finale, and much of Season 5 featured the hunt for Yusuf al Ahmadi, who was finally killed in the Season 5 finale, though he was located and tracked only to slip away on several occasions during the season.

The Russians featured prominently as well, with their involvement in the season coming via a research ship that became stranded in the Antarctic region. The Russians were not at all interested in the helping hand being offered by the US because their activities in the region - searching for oil - weren't above board. A US national was on board the ship, though this took time to be confirmed, and while Claire, the acting President at the time, was keen to ensure his safe return, this did not happen, and his frozen body was located and then "lost" in transit. Around the same time, the Chinese were negotiating a trade deal with the US, and their willingness to align with the Russians saw Claire increase the negotiated tariffs on their trade deal as punishment.

In keeping with what could be described as a tradition, the Underwoods were responsible for ending the lives of some of the characters. Up first was Thomas Yates, who was Claire's companion of sorts. While she and Frank were not seen in bed together once during the season, her and Yates were on numerous occasions. The dynamic between the Underwoods and Yates was always tense, and Claire eventually became too comfortable around him, and admitted Frank killed Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo. Though his day job was a speech writer, Yates wrote a book based on the Underwoods which could have had disastrous consequences for the couple if it made it to print. After ordering Yates out of the White House, Claire poisoned him while they were having sex in what is one of the series' most extraordinary moments to date.

Frank's hands weren't clean either. When a leak was suspected among White House officials, in order to clean up loose ends and consolidate power, Frank had political consultant LeAnn Harvey killed in a deliberately caused traffic accident. Harvey was very close with Aidan MacAllan - the pair had known each other since their early teens, and Harvey spent a lot of time trying to have Aidan returned from Russia, where he sought refuge from the Underwood administration. He was never pardoned for his role in rigging the election, and not long before Harvey's murder, he committed suicide with a gun she gave him, though the circumstances surrounding that were somewhat suspicious.

My favorite subplot would have to go the way of the Washington Herald investigation into the Underwoods, which was led by Tom Hammerschmidt. It took time to get going, but Hammerschmidt, assisted occasionally by fellow reporters Sean Jeffires and Angela, eventually had enough information to go after Doug Stamper in relation to the disappearance of Rachel Posner and the death of Zoe Barnes. Posner's former roommate and romantic partner, Lisa Williams, featured prominently during the season, but she is in a highly vulnerable position now that Stamper and press secretary Seth Grayson are aware of her relationship with Hammerschmidt. In order to deflect attention away from the Underwoods, Stamper made a significant sacrifice and agreed to take the fall for Barnes' death, when in actual fact it was Frank who pushed her off the platform and into the path of an oncoming train. Sean Jeffries used his knowledge of the Herald investigation to win a role in the administration as deputy press secretary - the news of which infuriated Grayson.

Season 5 of House of Cards had some fairly significant cast changes, and several new characters previously unknown to the series were introduced. The aforementioned reporters, Sean Jeffries and Angela, propped up the Washington Herald reporting team, replacing Janine Skorsky and the deceased Lucas Goodwin. While Catherine Durant played a more substantial role than we've seen in previous seasons, including being effectively blackmailed into going against her traditionally sound morals and values, Jane Davis, the international relations expert who delicately forged a path from obscurity to seniority alongside the Underwoods. She was accidentally caught up in the White House evacuation in Chapter 59, and cleverly timed conversations saw her earn the trust of the Underwoods and their staff.

Mark Usher, the former Conway campaign manager, fascinated me right throughout the season. His blunt, simplistic approach to conflict was fantastic to watch. Alex Romero, the Congressman who hauled Frank in front of an investigation committee added a new dynamic to the series as politician who didn't prove easy for the Underwoods to silence. I was surprised at the lack of private sector influence over the Underwoods in this season. Seen frequently in past seasons, Raymond Tusk appeared in a solitary episode in Season 5, with no other non-political players taking his place in the storylines. Two other important figures in the form of Jackie Sharp and Remy Danton were mentioned frequently, but never sighted during the season.

Doug Stamper probably had the most significant individual character subplot, and it was strongly done just like last season. Stamper's loyalty to the Underwoods was unwavering, but it was hinted that his position might have been under more threat than ever before. He had to keep much tighter tabs on Seth Grayson and LeAnn Harvey, while also protecting his position from Mark Usher and Jane Davis, who provided more advice to the Underwoods than he would have liked.

I'm not fucking you because I like you, I'm fucking you because I hate you.
>> Laura Moretti - Chapter 63

We learned that the woman Stamper had been sleeping with outside of work was Laura Moretti, the widow of the man who he bumped off the top of the liver transplant list in order to save Frank's life after his assassination attempt last season. This isn't the first time Doug has taken some sort of pity on those who have suffered at the hands of the Underwoods. He tried to reconnect, albeit with limited success, to Lisa Williams, but this largely backfired and allowed the Washington Herald investigation to get closer to him. Stamper also had a one night stand with Harvey

As with all four past seasons, the relationship between Claire and Frank was at times totally normal and at other times totally bizarre. As I mentioned earlier, the couple never shared a bed together, and on one occasion Frank actually entered the room where Claire and Tom were sleeping, and sat there watching until she woke up.

In Season 4 the pair spent the first half of the season sabotaging each other's campaigns in the lead-up to the Season 5 election. That didn't happen this time, with the couple being on the same page more often than not on the important issues. I felt the fact that Claire was Vice-President went by understated at times, largely because the Underwoods never behaved as if one was the President and the other was Vice President.

Claire became President temporarily last season while Frank was recovering in hospital, and she had another crack at the role when the election was extended over several weeks due to the voter rigging scandals. However, Claire was made President in Chapter 65 when Frank stepped down out of the blue, creating a fascinating new dynamic between the couple where there can really only be one winner.

Part of Frank's plan to resign the Presidency to end the investigation into his dealings required Claire to pardon him and Stamper for any crimes they may have committed against the United States. The trouble for Frank was that Claire is yet to do that. During her media address announcing the death of al Ahmadi, Claire did not announce the pardon as Frank anticipated. She has said to Frank that she will pardon him, but more than one chance has come and gone, so Claire is clearly having second thoughts about doing so. When she was acting President mid way through the season, she hesitated another time before allowing Frank access to classified material.

If she doesn't pardon me, I'll kill her.
>> Frank Underwood - Chapter 65

Though Season 5 of House of Cards is the series' most complex, I was able to keep up with what was happening the vast majority of the time, even if I was only hanging on by the skin of my teeth at times. A shortened time span during which the season too place - just 5 months - played a part in this. House of Cards has always been a series that's light on introducing characters fully, and also bypassing actual events and showing the reactions instead. As an example, we saw very little of the actual election, and nothing of what eventually swung the Tennessee and Ohio vote the way of the Underwoods - it just happened, and we watched how the characters reacted to the results.

With showrunner Beau Willimon stepping down after Season 4, Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese took over the role for Season 5. The change was visible on occasion. The season seemed to have an increased tempo, was more concentrated on the core storylines, and of course had a number of casting changes. Overall, however, the look and feel of the series remained very similar to what Willimon produced. Writing staff remained largely unchanged from Season 4, but Robin Wright was the only director of those in Season 4 to take charge this time around. Wright directed Chapter 64 and Chapter 65.

What didn't change was the superb use of the breaking of the fourth wall technique by Frank, which is one of the aspects of the series which helped make it famous early on. The final scene in Season 4 saw Claire join Frank in breaking the fourth wall too, but in Season 5 she finally spoke to the audience, only once, and very briefly in Chapter 62. By that stage in the season I had passed on the possibility that Claire may break the fourth wall again, but I was overjoyed to be proven wrong.

Just to be clear, it's not that I haven't always known you were there. It's that I have mixed feeling about you. I question your intentions. And I'm ambivalent about attention. But don't take it personally. It's how I feel about most everybody.
>> Claire Underwood - Chapter 63

It gets better, too. Of the around 25 fourth wall breaks throughout Season 5, one of them appeared to be from Mark Usher. That came as Frank was sworn in for his second term as President. He looked in the direction of the camera and waved, just as Frank did when former President Garrett Walker was being sworn in in Season 1. I suspect there will be a bit of analysis going into this from the fans because I'm not completely convinced he was looking directly at the camera, and with the way the story played out, it's entirely possible he was looking and waving at someone else. See for yourself below:

Of course, Claire broke the fourth wall a second and final time in the dying moments of Chapter 65 - my favorite of them all this season.

Fourth wall breaks by Frank tended to be longer and were often timed to occur right in the middle of something important. Moments before Mark Usher broke the fourth wall after Frank was sworn in, Frank had stopped proceedings during the oath to reel off a few lines of dialog. During his pleas to members of Congress to allow him to wage war against ICO at a function, he broke the fourth wall during his speech to them. In the opening scene of Chapter 57, Frank used the fourth wall while walking among protesters to explain the process for electing the President in a situation where states refused to certify. Also, during his committee hearing, Frank interrupted his answers with a fourth wall address.

I didn't mind these adaptations to the technique at all. The creative team got the frequency of addresses right, and there was a couple of episodes that had no fourth wall interaction whatsoever. The addresses were used to explain the story at times where it would otherwise be confusing or too drawn out to have it explained via character interaction and dialog. In situations where the complexity of the political landscape began to push the audience away, a fourth wall address would bring things back in focus. The decision to ensure the majority of the fourth wall moments still took place without anyone else in the room was a good one. Constantly interrupting conversations or meetings would have worn thin had it been done too frequently, and the one-liner remarks or facial expressions to the viewer while no one was aware of what was happening makes for a more secretive, intimate feel in the moment.

In addition to the generally excellent writing and directing, other elements such as the set and costume design, cinematography and acting were at the usual very high standard. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in particular just ooze perfection and class in their roles as the Underwoods and can expect award nominations once again. Michael Kelly was also brilliant, and I thoroughly enjoyed the performances of Campbell Scott, Derek Cecil and Neve Campbell. Jayne Atkinson didn't miss a beat, but I was particularly impressed with Boris McGiver work portraying a reinvigorated Tom Hammerschmidt. Patricia Clarkson portrayed a character sitting on the fence between a protagonist and antagonist with beautiful control.

Running time is always interesting to analyze given streaming series don't have to conform to a broadcast schedule. Season 4 as the shortest season in history, coming in at an average 48.5 minutes per episode. Season 1 averaged 51 minutes, Season 2 50 minutes, and Season 3 averaged 52 minutes per episode. Season 5's average episode average came in slightly under 52 minutes as well, meaning this season has almost a full episode's more content than Season 4. Season 5's longest episode is Chapter 62 at a touch over 56 minutes, and its shortest is Chapter 56, which came in at around 44.5 minutes. All the times here include the title sequence and end credits, which combine to equal 4 minutes per episode.

I created this confusion in order to take advantage of it.
>> Frank Underwood - Chapter 65

In summary, for me, Season 5 is on the same level as Season 4 in terms of sheer enjoyment. It was harder to follow, and dug much deeper into the complexities of politics than previous seasons have done, but that wasn't enough to hinder the enjoyment factor from my perspective. It's not a season you can afford to doze off during viewing though, because you don't get an opportunity to catch up on missed events and dialog further down the track. The fourth wall change-up, new characters, faster pace, and a shortened time span all combine with great effect to produce a season that has its own unique characteristics compared to those that precede it.

To add to the praise, I've got no significant criticisms of Season 5 either. Jeff Beal's scores were more scarce than usual, but this emphasized the dialog when needed. As I've said previously, the plot was very complex because of the uncharted territory it explored, though it wasn't impossible to follow, but if a sixth season were to happen, the creative team would need to be careful how much more extreme they make things. On a more humorous note, all this season needed was the inclusion of North Korea to bring things into an even tighter parallel with real life.

With this fifth season virtually guaranteed to be a critical success once more - especially given the current real life political climate in the US, and plenty of potential avenues to explore in future seasons, I think it's fairly safe to say a sixth season of House of Cards will be due in 2018. Exactly when it drops will be anyone's guess, but a sixth season focusing on Claire's tenure as President, the renewed tension between her and her husband, including a potential break-up should Frank not be pardoned and Claire opt to take all of the Oval for herself are all exciting avenues that deserve further exploration.

Mark Usher as Vice President would also be fascinating to observe, especially seeing it's likely he can break the fourth wall. Even if Claire remains in power, Frank's world is bulging with crimes, lies and deceit, and it's surely only a matter of time until that collapses under its own weight. It's now Claire's turn to take charge of America, and Frank's fate is entirely in her hands. If a sixth and final season depicted the downfall of the Underwoods, I would not be the least bit disappointed.

My turn.
>> Claire Underwood - Chapter 65

It's always tough reviewing a full season of a single television series. There's undoubtedly so much more that I could detail and discuss, but the reality is that would rival the length of a novel if I went down that route. Hopefully I've captured all the most important and interesting elements of the story, and you've enjoyed my take on them!

Finally, if you've finished Season 5, head down to the comments below to tell me what you thought of the season. Even if you take a day, week or month to watch the season, I'm always keen to hear what you think.

Provided a sixth season is forthcoming, see you all back here in 2018!

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