House of Cards Season 5 review: Dull, humourless slog that falls flat, despite Kevin Spacey's best attempts
When Brian Charles Lara retired from Test cricket, he asked his supporters one simple question. "Did I entertain you?" he bellowed, knowing the answer full well.
Lara wasn't the most consistent batsman to ever play the game. With him, it was usually feast or famine. His greatness lay in the fact that he was willing to chance it. To entertain the mob.
House of Cards hasn't been the most consistent TV show. Its greatness, early on, lay in the fact that it dared to be outrageous. It never took itself seriously. It never pretended to be a treatise on power and its corrupting influence. It didn't pretend it had something deeply philosophical to say. It only had one aim: To entertain us. And it did.
Kevin Spacey was imminently watchable as Frank Underwood, a Southern Democrat. His goals were easily defined and easy to understand. He was denied what was his and, as a result, plotted vengeance on those who wronged him. Until he ascended to his throne. He took the White House. The problem then became: What next?
The departure of House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon seems to be weighing heavily on the show. Perhaps, fearing a new hand at the helm, the writers chose to retread old events: Chief of staff Doug Stamper's problems with his demons, the Frank-Claire dynamic, the Underwoods easily disposing of their enemies and coming out on top without a scratch. They sought refuge in the familiar rather than taking a chance with the new. It's understandable. But in this age of Peak TV, a retread simply doesn't cut it.
And that's what makes Season 5 of House of Cards so sad to watch. Despite its lavish budget and a wealth of acting talent at its disposal, it commits a grievous error: Being dull.
House of Cards has taken all its advantages — its goodwill, its built-in audience, and the Netflix brand — and flushed them away. Spectacularly.
It's clear that the writers, at least for the first nine episodes, were stalling for time.
The other big problem in this show is consequences. The lack of any. The Underwoods scheme, plot and murder their way to their ultimate goal: Staying in power. Without any consequences, or even a hint of retribution. The butterfly effect is absent entirely.
What made shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos great was that the creators were willing to show the consequences for the main characters' families and communities. What made the early seasons of Game of Thrones engrossing viewing was knowing that nobody was safe. You can't hope to create drama and intrigue when you know the main characters are all-powerful, all-knowing, untouchable gods.
We also don't know why Frank and Claire want to stay in power. What do they hope to achieve? For us mere mortals, power is a means to an end. Gore Vidal may have written that power is an end to itself, but it doesn't make for engrossing viewing. Also absent? Humour. Kevin Spacey doesn't so much wink at the camera and his tongue remains, firmly, away from his cheek.
And, as mentioned earlier, the Trump effect looms large over this season. It's telling that what I found most unbelievable on this show was that the US president was competent. Most people use entertainment to escape from their everyday lives. Having it thrown right back in their faces is, at the least, mildly depressing.
Can House of Cards be made great again? Time will tell.
Until then, we'll be Netflix and chilling.