When House of Cards season four hit Netflix in March 2016, the global political landscape was very different. There was no Brexit, no Trump, no Macron or Le Pen. Electoral surprises were still, well, surprises – and fiction largely remained stranger than truth.
Welcome to 2017, and House of Cards season five – minus its former showrunner Beau Willimon – is charged with the unenviable task of continuing a twisted and unexpected story of political intrigue against the backdrop of seismic shifts in the way our most powerful countries are governed, very public spats between international leaders, Twitter diplomacy, fake news and a confusing fluid political landscape.
Although the series was written before Donald Trump won the US election in November 2016, it’s clear that holding a mirror up to real events is in the writers’ minds in the first episode of season five.
*Mild spoilers for season five episode one below*
The stakes are higher, Frank Underwood’s administration is in chaos, and there’s an election looming as season five opens.
A chilling Orwellian political message from Claire Underwood – Frank’s wife and now running mate – sets the tone for a new fearful America hit by an attack from (fictional) terrorist organisation ICO on its own soil: “Keep us all safe and – tell us what you see.”
While Claire attempts to make political hay on television from the beheading of an American citizen by terrorists, Frank is grandstanding in Congress, hijacking the House’s debate calling for his censure following Tom Hammerschmidt’s damning newspaper article allegations.
“I will not yield! I will not yield! I will not yield!” he bellows as the Sergeant at Arms is called to eject him from the chamber. His political opponents jeer, his political allies cheer, as a partisan cacophony descends into a chaotic mess.
Frank grabs a copy of the condemning article and tears it up – are these his Russian allegations? Is that article “fake news”?
Insert travel bans and fast-paced executive orders with suggestions of an increasingly ‘non-standard’ internal working of the administration and you don’t need to be a professor of politics to start making parallels between fiction and reality. How much of this is prophetic and how much of it deliberate references to a new world order written into the show is unclear, but one thing is for sure: House of Cards 2017 is streaming into a different world.
What does all this mean for the show?
Well, episode one of series five is definitely still House of Cards, but it seems at times the lengths that the show is going to out-do the sensational headlines produced by House of Trump mean that everything in the episode has been turned up to eleven. The pace is faster, the skullduggery more outlandish and the themes filled with further hyperbole.
Of course House of Cards predates the current political landscape, but whether it’s a victim of its own success in predicting the direction of travel in geo-politics, or whether it’s simply been outmanoeuvred by the pace of political change, the show has clearly arrived at a cross roads.
Can Frank and Claire continue to be the unacceptable face of politics when liberal America has a real administration to rage against? Should the writers deliberately now try to leave topicality alone and let the Underwoods go their own way? Or is this first episode the sign of a new era for the show, where thematically it will try to more closely mirror the changes in world politics?
Just as the global political order is at a turning point, so is the show. Which direction it takes remains to be seen – but for now, House of Cards remains a compelling piece of televisual drama that has earned its fifth term of office on Netflix. Let’s hope it continues to govern well.