The House of Cards Season Finale 5 is One of the Best Episodes in Series History
Disclaimer: This review contains major spoilers for all of House of Cards season 5, including the finale.
“Chapter 65” is the episode most House of Cards fans having been waiting for for a very long time. This is the episode where everything finally changes. The episode where the shit finally hits the fan. The episode where the final nail is pushed too far in the coffin to be removed. After this episode, House of Cards can never and will never be the same again.
Depending on what kind of House of Cards fan you are, though, this is either one of the worst or the of the best episodes the show has had in quite some time. Personally, I’m leaning more towards the latter. Lately, there’s been a divide among fans of the show concerning who the show should be more about – Claire or Frank. Read the comments on any of the recent posts on the show’s Facebook page and you’ll see what I’m talking about. This is largely due, I believe, to the way they “split up” at the end of Season 3 and have since been rather on and off in their personal relationship. If you ask me, I say it’s always been about both, though obviously Frank (Spacey) is the more recognized face.
I don’t see why Frank and Claire not really being a “couple” anymore (at least by any conventional definition) is a problem either. Any viewer who got through that bone-crushingly intense fight at the end of Season 3, and didn’t think their dynamic would be permanently changed doesn’t know what show they’re watching. Either that, or they don’t want their television shows to throw them curveballs, which is a boring way to watch TV.
The point I’m getting at is this: At this point in the series – after five seasons, countless shifts in who holds the power, a change in showrunner, etc. – House of Cards is never going to be a show that gives you what you want in the way you want it. As a fan since the very beginning, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Even though “Chapter 65” isn’t perfect, it’s a solid way to usher what we can hope is a brand new era of House of Cards with new rules, new faces, and no more pulled punches.
The finale starts in Congress with Frank and Congressman Romero (James Martinez) butting heads immediately after Frank’s announcement that he will resign as President in order to avoid impeachment due to election fraud. This of course means that Claire (Robin Wright) will now be President for the remainder of Francis’s term. The episode’s duration is essentially a series of doors closing on Frank’s cabinet, and his America.
All of it is extremely satisfying. Though it’s a bit tamer than expected in tone (again, turning of expectations), it gladly dodges a lot of the problems this season had, especially the premiere. Those awkward transitions where scenes feel like they get cut short and that feeling that some scenes are placed randomly or seemingly have no purpose is absent here. Everything feels just about right. It’s slower (mostly) — we have time to absorb the scenes, the moments, the feelings.
Unlike a lot of this season, it doesn’t feel like we’re paying attention just to follow the plot (I’m not saying this season was bad by any stretch, just a little rocky along the way sometimes). The only major complaint I have is that we never see Conway’s (Joel Kinnaman) reaction to Underwood’s resignation and Claire’s inauguration. Conway has had literally zero screen time since the election ended. It probably would have been nice to see how he might react to seeing his opponent, who shamelessly cheated his way into office twice, accept a certain defeat to avoid an even bigger one.
It goes without saying this is the best episode of the season regardless. Many of the episodes this season were very good, but this was great — great in a way we haven’t seen from House of Cards in a long while. I attribute this to Robin Wright’s directorial efforts. I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again: she is this series’ best director. Whenever I see in the opening credits that it’s an episode she directed, I know to push my worries away.
Every episode she directs has a special flare to it. I don’t even quite know what it is or how to describe it. All of her episodes are usually the ones with the most emotional weight – the episodes where it feels like pivotal, series-changing things are happening. She just brings…something to the series that other directors don’t that puts her episodes above the rest. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that, in the coming seasons, she directs more than just two episodes like she did here.
Aside from the absolute stunner of an ending, which we’ll get to in a little bit, one of the best moments in the episode comes in Frank’s last moments as President, when he’s walking around a darkened Oval Office and soaking in his final few moments in the office by himself. He lights a cigarette, smokes it quietly, smoothly, and then uses it to burn a hole in one of the stars on the flag. Despite all the evil and all the corruption that’s taken place in this room, we’ll miss seeing Frank in this place. It’s a touching moment, even if it’s only in an ironic way.
The biggest feeling one gets from this episode overall is that of gears turning. The feeling that we’ve reached the point of no return with the series. Frank’s journey for the most powerful office in all the land that started five years ago has crashed and burned into an embarrassment. Having spent a lifetime working his way into power, he’s now pent up in a hotel room with virtually no one on his side. The long, brutal journey that made up the past five seasons of House of Cards has concluded with a crumbling empire. The tides have turned for Frank Underwood, that friendly old Majority Whip from South Carolina, and they’re never going to come back.
Now, Claire Underwood is President Of The United States, and almost every shred of connection or influence from Frank’s previous administration is gone from The White House.
**MAJOR SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT**
- Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) and Aidan Macallan (Damian Young) are both dead.
- Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson) is incapacitated.
- LeAnne Harvey (Neve Campbell), if not dead, is gravely, probably permanently injured.
- Hammerschmidt’s (Boris McGiver) investigation, despite being full of evidence that could be used to take down Frank, is now completely void and redundant.
- The only one left that still has any allegiance to Frank is Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), but he’s on house arrest for confessing to the murder of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara).
Other than the fact that she’s now married to a felon, and Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson) still knows whatever it was that she got off LeAnn’s computer — Claire Underwood’s presidency is essentially beginning on a clean slate. And I for one welcome our new blonde-haired overlord.
Many of the series’ fans are widely divided on the direction the show took during the end of this season. A lot of House of Cards fans don’t want to see Claire as President. Personally, I don’t know what else they could want. Sure, Frank could have remained as America’s least favorite Commander-in-Chief for a whole other season, but to what end? His administration and his brand had already hit a brick wall by the time the election was over. There needed to be a major change for House of Cards to continue and not be more of the same. As far as I’m concerned, this is the only logical direction the show could have taken at this point. I have no absolutely clue whatsoever what could possibly in Season 6, and I love that.
And that ending itself is stellar – one of the best of the whole series. In the season’s final moments, Claire assumes the office of President Of The United States and steps behind the Oval desk as President for the first. Her phone keeps ringing. It’s Frank, calling her in a panic because they had agreed that in her first public appearance, she would pardon Frank for all the crimes he had committed. Alas, she did no such thing, and the rift between the two has grown to a likely unfixable size.
It is here we realize that Claire simply does not need Frank any more, in any context – not as a lover nor as a political partner. After she rejects his call repeatedly, the camera dollies slowly in, in a way that mirrors the Season 2 finale when Frank had just become POTUS, and she looks is straight in the face. Breaking the fourth wall in the same way Frank had done for so many seasons, she says with a blunt sincerity “My turn,” and we cut to black, ending the show’s 5th season on one of it’s absolute highs.
This break in format and character would have a tad more effective if Claire hadn’t already addressed the audience a few episodes earlier, but it doesn’t matter that much. The ending is still earth-shattering. This is what the entire series has been leading up to, and even if the season was pretty uneven, it sticks the landing HARD. It was a rough ride, but I like where it’s landed.
I patiently await Season 6 of House of Cards with an eager, excited curiosity. Bring it on.
OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10
Some extra loose thoughts on the season as a whole:
Why was there never any Presidential debates between Conway and Frank? We saw the debates between him, Dunbar and Jackie Sharp in Season 3, so what happened here? Did they just forget?
Why was there never any follow-up, in the media or elsewhere, on the “cyber-attack” that happened during the election? It just kind of happened, then wasn’t addressed at all.
Neve Campbell was generally better than she was last season and LeAnn Harvey has become a character I’ve grown to enjoy seeing. In Season 4 it just kind of felt like she was a statue always standing near everyone else and I couldn’t have cared less about anything she said or did. Now, I have to admit, I’m extremely curious to see what actually is her fate following the events of this finale.