"Here we go again...are you confused? Are you afraid? Because what you thought you wanted is now here and there you are, staring back. Slack jawed. Bewildered. Wondering if this is what you actually asked for."
We may not always like it, but Frank's right. For 5 years House of Cards has chronicled Frank and Claire Underwood's rise to power. It's been a horrifically gripping descent into just how far people can go and still have us on their side. You think you're not? The Underwood's vicious scheming may seem towering now, but think back to the lives decimated, not to mention ended, during Season 1. Then think about how happy you were when, in the conclusion of Season 2's first episode, Frank looked at us and said "Did you think I'd forgotten about you?"
It's not like we relish the ruin they leave in their wake, but it's become such a dark delight watching the Underwood's beset by their enemies and still better them. After Frank became the most powerful man in the free world, watching the exploits on a global scale was as audacious as it was ridiculous. The First Lady simultaneously running for Vice President and the thinly veiled Putin caricature, "Petrov", were fairly recent pokes at world politicking. Now it's military-manipulated voting to steal elections and ISIS-a-like ICO. If anything, with the unavoidable Trump presidency as a comparison, the skullduggery in House of Cards holds a mirror up to the real absurdity. That being said, it's never been the clever reflection of Capitol Hill that had us losing entire days to back-to-back bingeing when Netflix dumped each season. It's the fact that we feel so involved. Even when it's been uncomfortable to watch, the Underwoods have made us accomplices to their nefarious deeds and, by default, taste their sweet victories.
Season 5, still manages to strike the balance of reflecting the real and the absurd, but it's not quite as involving. While Frank and Claire have always been "survivors," previous seasons have had them manage to choke someone else with the smoke from the fires they've lit by out-manoeuvring, out-gunning and out-psychopathing anyone they were up against. This season, sees them eeking out victories by just getting out in front. Add to that a little aimlessness now they've already attained the highest seat of power in the world and the victories just aren't as sweet. Clinging to power isn't as seductive as taking it.
It hasn't lost all of it's bite, however. There's still Machiavellian plotting, the decimation of lives and the contriving story threads that make you feel like your IQ is increasing just by keeping up. Not only is the dialogue still smart as a whip, it's joyfully venomous. It helps that new cast members are just as playful. Patricia Clarkson as clandestine expert in international affairs knows more about ICO and the comings and goings of international secrets than anyone should. Yet she plays Jane Davis with a air-headed pretence that's exactly that. Then there's Campbell Scott as political wrangler Usher, who is quietly confident when he's not obliterating judicial enquirers - "You always know where he stands. On Someone's neck."
With all that, it may be hard to imagine that there's still time for our titans, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, to chew up scenery and each other's characters. Claire has always been a key player and with even more political chops and ambition Wright manages to imbue her with an elegance in spite of the dark acts she commits. Then there's Spacey, who manages the astonishing accomplishment of having you root for Frank despite the black heart that beats at his core. It's just as much about respect as it is the collusion of his wall-breaking monologues to us. "Oh, don't deny it, you've loved it. You don't actually need me to stand for anything, as long as I stand...it doesn't matter what I say or what I do. As long as I'm doing something you're happy to be along for the ride." It's a glaring proposition for all of us that have stood by the Underwoods each and every season. And we probably always will.
4* - A Dark Night Of The Polls