Warning: This review contains spoilers from seasons 4 and 5 of HOUSE OF CARDS.
“Chapter 53” has a lot on it’s shoulders. After the absolutely dismal fourth season finale that went way too over the top (I never finished reviewing the fourth season here, but in a nutshell, I thought it was disappointing with a few occasional great moment), as well as the exit of series creator and showrunner Beau Willimon, the fifth season premiere needed to deliver some fresh goods.
And alas, it hasn’t.
House of Cards’ season five premiere is without a doubt it’s most tame, and most disappointing. For the majority of its runtime, it is a jumble of random scenes that seemingly have no beginning, no end, and maybe no point. I want to say it has bad pacing, but it might not have any pace at all. It just kind of…moves along without idea as to where it’s going.
But let’s start with the opening, which is fantastic.
The cold open is a two-parter. First, of Claire (Robin Wright) giving an address to the nation after the terrorist kidnapping and murder that took place at the end of Season 4. The second, is of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), calculated and in full form, storming like a bull into Congress and demanding that they call of their investigations of treason. “I will not yield!” he shouts over and over again, like a king refusing the overthrow of his servants.
The way this scene slowly builds is masterful. In the span of just a few minutes, it goes from a civil debate into complete and total unbridled chaos. They way in which half of the room cheers when Frank refuses to step down against the House Speaker’s wishes, and the other half boos is perhaps the best example we’ve seen so far of how divided he’s has made Congress. The sequence itself is a brilliant display of reverse mutiny, and an absolutely stellar start to a season. Surely, a premiere episode with that monumental and bombastic of a start can only up from there.
From almost immediately after the opening credits until a pretty decent last few minutes, the season five premiere is mostly a tedious retread of tired plots and stale, boring nothing. The reason it falls so flat, so hard, so immediately is because: 1) It fails to live up the gargantuan standard set by tone and actions of not only the opening, but the last season as a whole, and 2) There is nothing happening at any point that is as interesting or as fresh as what preceded it.
For the most part, it’s standard back and forth between all the remaining story arcs from Season 4: Conway’s (Joel Kinnaman) election campaign, Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) recruiting a team to investigate Frank, and Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), for some reason, still being around Claire all the time. All of this is obviously pivotal, but somehow, none of it feels interesting anymore. Instead of being excited and intrigued to see where these characters are going to go at this point in the story, there is instead a disappointment sameness, an uninteresting familiarity to everything and everyone. It feels like we’ve been here before, too many times. And now, it’s impossible for us to care.
The new threads that are introduced are far more interesting, but they don’t last long enough. There’s a great scene towards the beginning where Frank and Claire attend the funeral of the terrorist victim. There’s another later on where Claire has a quiet one-on-one with the terrorist’s mother; begging her to admit that her son is not an innocent as she thinks he has. Both of these could have spectacular sequences if they had lasted anything longer than a few minutes. They’re never allowed time to grow, and sit with the audience.
And that’s the big issue, here I think. For the most part, House of Cards has always moved along at a painstakingly slow place, and it was all the better for it (one of the biggest elements to the show was always how ridiculously long it takes for governments to get things done). Here, it feels the new showrunners (former senior writers Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese) are just checking off boxes – making sure every plot point is addressed and squeezing it all into one episode. In the worst way possible, it doesn’t feel like House of Cards.
I mentioned the ending is decent. In what I have to say is a pretty clever twist. SPOILERS. It’s discovered that Underwood has put into effect a nationwide manhunt to find the killer, but meanwhile, he’s had him locked up all along, speaking to him through a glass cell wall like Hannibal Lecter. And in a ruthless, dark final sequence, he orders him to be executed, and the execution to be broadcast on live television. At first this ending seemed ridiculous, and impossible to believe, much like the end of Season 4, but in comparison with the rest of the episode, hey, at least it’s not boring.I suppose that’s the point we’ve reached with House of Cards. After four seasons, and many, many ups and downs in quality, I guess being cartoonish and melodramatic is better than being realistic and boring.
I really hope the whole season isn’t like this. I would love to be able to continue calling this show one of the best things on TV, but if this inconsistent, choppy quality keeps up for the duration of Season 5, I don’t know, man.
It’s worth noting that this episode was written by one of the show’s new showrunners, Frank Pugliese. This should be reassuring, but it isn’t. In addition to some handfuls of startlingly bad dialogue, “Chapter 53” just feels like an unfocused mess. Its feels, dare I say, amateurish – like the first draft of a pilot written by someone who just checked out Television Writing 101 from their local library. If this is any indication of where this new season is gonna be going, things are not looking good.
OVERALL RATING: 5/10