Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

'House of Cards' Season 5 speaks to Trump's America for better and worse

Donald Trump might just be the end of Frank Underwood.

That’s the thought I kept having as I watched the 13 episodes of Season 5 of “House of Cards.”

There is no way the new season that arrives Tuesday on Netflix can be discussed without reference to Trump, who was elected in November while Season 5 was still in production in Baltimore. That inescapable connection to the man in the real White House is both a good and potentially bad thing for the series.

On the plus side, there is genuine pleasure in watching the series dramatically explore bits and pieces of the nation’s new Trumpian reality. It’s wicked but ultimately safe fun to see Underwood (Kevin Spacey) embracing his inner autocrat at the very time the real president is doing the same with travel bans, threats against the press and an avalanche of executive orders.

But the greater pleasure for me during the first four seasons was in witnessing Underwood’s shocking acts of transgression. And after Trump, they just don’t seem so shocking anymore. That’s the downside for “House of Cards.”

Underwood spitting in the face of a near-life-size Christ on a crucifix in Season 3 was appalling. But what Trump said on the “Access Hollywood” tape about grabbing women is pretty appalling, too. My biggest disappointment in Season 5: Nothing Underwood did made me gasp – or even sit up straight in my chair and wonder if I had really seen what I thought I did. There is nothing in this season that rivals Underwood opening Season 3 by urinating on his father’s grave.

That’s not necessarily the fault of the series or the result of showrunner Beau Willimon’s departure at the end of Season 4. I am more inclined to believe the change is in me – maybe in us as a culture – in the wake of Trump. Or maybe the shock factor for the series has simply maxed out.

There is still a lot to like about this series. The new showrunners, Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese, get all the forces of danger, darkness, treachery and chaos swirling in and around the White House of Frank and Claire Underwood, and “House of Cards” is still an outstanding political thriller.

Episode 1 mines the Trump vibe heavily. Underwood wants to formally declare war on the terrorist organization ICO (Islamic Caliphate Organization), protocol and constitutional separation of powers be damned. A young American who was radicalized in Pakistan beheaded a man on U.S. soil, and the Underwoods are trying to exploit it in their 2016 presidential campaign against New York’s Republican governor, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman).

As president and candidate for re-election, Underwood is full of talk about closing borders and ending visas from certain countries. As he heightens the fear quotient, he simultaneously projects himself in the media as the strong father who can protect the nation – the only political leader who can do so.

The echoes of Trump’s dystopian speech at the GOP Convention last summer are unmistakable.

“I am your voice ... I alone can fix it ... I will restore law and order,” Trump told cheering delegates in one of his most baldly autocratic moments in the campaign. That’s the wave Underwood is trying to surf in the first hour of Season 5.

And just in case anyone is not making the connection to Trump’s America, by the fifth episode, crowds are standing outside the White House gates with signs saying, “Not My President.” In the 12th episode, Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) says, “If it sounds like a fact, then it is fact.” Not exactly presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway with her “alternative facts,” but close enough. My favorite quote from Episode 12: “It’s unthinkable to assume that the FBI would involve itself in an election.”

As vice president, Claire Underwood is peddling the same fear and supposedly soothing promise of her and her husband as America’s parents. The series opens on her cutting a TV commercial in which she urges Americans to essentially spy on their neighbors and trust the Underwoods to keep them safe.

Yes, the Underwoods are pushing paranoia, too, straight out of Joe McCarthy’s 1950s Cold War mindset – and Team Trump today. Enemies are everywhere, from terrorists to hackers to what Claire Underwood calls the “noisy press.”

Governor Conway, though, has youth, optimism, a record as war hero and the backing of a social media executive with deep pockets.

No problem. War heroes have been swift-boated before in American politics. And with the threat of a terrorist attack on the front burner of American consciousness, the president has all sorts of weapons he can use to try to suppress votes in some places and even suspend voting in others – especially in swing states.

Gibson and Pugliese keep the dramatic pot boiling.

Adding to the tension this season is the addition of Patricia Clarkson as Jane Davis, a Washington insider who seems to have phenomenal connections and inside knowledge on all things Russian. Clarkson is a superb actress, and she plays her character on a razor’s edge so that you can never truly get a fix on her as friend or foe to the Underwoods.

This might be the best supporting performance of the year. Clarkson presents her character outwardly as a helpful, feminist aide to Claire, even as she sends subtle signals to the audience that she is capable of a treachery as great as that of the Underwoods. She gives you the creeps, but you cannot take your eyes off her when she is onscreen.

The dramatic noose is further tightened by sins of the past biting harder at the Underwoods’ heels. Leading this pack is Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), of the Washington Herald, doggedly investigating the death of his former reporter, Zoe Barnes, and the disappearance of Rachel Posner.

I have a hard time buying Hammerschmidt as a featured analyst on CNN this season, even though I love the Zoe Barnes story line.

In a delicious life-intersects-art moment, on the morning after the second season premiered, someone scrawled, “Zoe doesn’t live here any more,” on a wall of the downtown building that housed her fictional apartment in Baltimore. That’s how passionately some fans reacted to the moment of her death in the series.

I almost dropped dead from shock when Frank pushed her under that subway train, but nothing matches it on the gasp-o-meter in Season 5.

Folks who allow their lives to become entwined with the Underwoods still have a habit of winding up dead, but the deaths don’t have the same kind of oh-my-God wallop they once did.

And it is not just transgression that isn’t what it used to be in “House of Cards.”

There’s a moment in the first hour of the new season that features Claire and Frank at night walking out onto the roof of the White House to look down at the people standing outside the gates. Frank tells Claire the people are all looking at the White House and wondering what the president and vice president are doing tonight.

After Claire goes back inside, headed off to bed with speechwriter Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), the president lingers on the roof to smoke a cigarette. After a few puffs, he starts softly singing, “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight” from “Camelot.”

It’s OK as a TV moment, but it is a weak echo of a similar scene in Season 2 that featured Frank and Claire late at night sharing a smoke at an open window of their Washington townhouse.

“Sing me something,” Claire said to her husband, breaking the inky silence.

After leaning back and pondering the matter for a moment, Frank started in slow and low with the lyrics to “Pretty Polly,” a dark, sad English ballad.

That moment was timeless, transcendent and intimate. It felt more like living theater than television. As Frank sang to his wife, everything but their outlines in the window and his words melted away.

Maybe it is too much to expect streamed TV to reach that high more than a few times in any series. But if that’s the case, then don’t go there again. Frank singing the song from “Camelot” in the opener of Season 5 is only a painful reminder of what the series had once been capable of.

“House of Cards” is still high entertainment that smart viewers don’t have to apologize for enjoying. It’s politically as savvy as anything on TV this side of “Veep.” But with Trump in the White House, it’s no longer as shocking.

And, to paraphrase the graffiti on the building that housed Zoe Barnes’ apartment in downtown Baltimore, art does not live here anymore.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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