One Nation, Underwood: House of Cards Foreshadows the Trump Coup Many Americans Fear

The fifth season of ‘House of Cards’ resists the temptation to turn the presidential TV drama into an anti-Trump satire. And it’s even scarier than he is

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, left, and Robin Wright as Clair Underwood in a scene from "House of Cards."
Nathaniel E. Bell, Netflix/AP

A word of warning for anyone planning on binge-watching the fifth season of Netflix’s political drama “House of Cards” in the near future: It may engender a genuine affection for the bumbling antics of U.S. President Donald Trump and his slapstick administration.

Having read the obligatory New York Times article to refresh my memory of what happened in the previous four seasons, I hunkered down to watch the new one. (Spoiler alert: I haven’t seen all 13 episodes of Season 5 of “House of Cards,” so please don’t leave any spoilers in the comments section!)

The trailer for the fifth season of "House of Cards."

Given everything that has happened since the fourth season of the show was aired in March 2016 – especially Trump’s election – it would have been very easy for the show’s creators to veer away from intense political drama and into the realm of quasi-satire by turning the show into yet another vehicle for firing barbs at the president.

Fortunately, they resisted that temptation, and “House of Cards” focuses on doing what it does best: portraying a pathologically power-crazed couple – Francis and Claire Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright – as they stop at nothing to retain and regain the reins of power in Washington.

In previous seasons, critics have seen in the Underwoods a version of Bill and Hillary Clinton: a husband-and-wife team of southern Democrats, apparently working to create a political dynasty. There is no danger of anyone accusing showrunners of imbuing the Underwoods with any of the characteristics of President Trump. To do so would require a massive dumbing down – of the character, the plot line and, frankly, the language. Francis Underwood is far more intelligent and eloquent than Trump. It’s almost enough to make one wish that the president of the United States were a ruthless murderer and not just a serial liar.

That is not to say that “House of Cards” does not offer some echoes of the Trump era. There are demonstrations outside the White House, with protestors chanting “Not my president” and accusing the administration of stealing the election. There are allegations of gerrymandering, there is a travel ban, there are the obligatory tensions between the United States and Russia, and there is, of course, terrorism.

In fairness to Trump, however, that is where the similarities end. There are no “covfefe” moments in the show. If the Underwoods were real, late-night chat show hosts wouldn’t joke about them; they would be far too scared to laugh at Francis’ hair or comment on Claire’s extramarital affairs.

The Underwoods’ lust for power is all-consuming; it defines their characters, almost to the point of turning them into caricatures. In the trailer for Season 5, Frank is seen plotting how he and his wife can bypass the law limiting a president to two terms. He reels off the years – “2016, 2020, 2024, 2028, 2032” – and then drops the bombshell sentence of the entire season: “One nation, Underwood.”

And therein lays the difference between the Underwoods and Trump: while the fictional president(s) in “House of Cards” want to stay in the White House forever and ever, amen, one gets the impression that Trump, if he could, would gladly give up the presidency and return to his previous life, hawking overpriced steaks and establishing fraudulent universities.

Frank Underwood would hate Trump. Underwood and his wife are career politicians. They have dedicated their lives, not to public service and not to the accumulation of wealth, but to the concentration of political power. They would take one look at Trump and laugh: Who, they would surely ask themselves, is this clown, this parody of a leader? And they would crush him.

Just enough evil

The Underwoods, and key members of their inner circle, are criminals. During the five seasons of “House of Cards,” they have committed murder, perjury, blackmail and a whole host of other illegal acts. That is not to imply, of course, that Trump and his entourage are law-abiding citizens. No one would be at all surprised to discover that The Donald or one of his senior advisers has crossed the line of legality (or, at the very least, stepped heavily on that line), but if it were to emerge that one of them pushed a critical journalist under a train, we would, of course, be shocked.

So, while “House of Cards” is based firmly on the real world of Washington politics, it remains just as firmly a work of fiction. Its protagonists are like Ian Fleming villains: they are familiar enough to us to remain believable, but contain just enough evil to remain interesting as characters. There are moments, however, when Francis, Claire and their various henchmen come dangerously close to becoming cartoonish. But the performances of Spacey and Wright pull their characters’ back from the brink, and the show remains viable.

Leaving aside the political parallels between the fictional world of the Underwoods and the farcical world of the Trumps, “House of Cards” is still one of the most watchable shows on television. It may be justifiably accused of erring on the side of the theatrical, but the dialogue sparkles and the plot is (more or less) believable. The terror incidents that pepper the fifth season are real enough to ring true for viewers in the United States, Europe and – yes – in Israel.

The original British show on which “House of Cards” is based contained just four episodes. Season 5 of the American version brings the episode count up to 65. A sixth season is planned, but as Robin Wright, who, in addition to playing Claire Underwood, is also an executive producer on the show, said in an interview, “[Donald Trump has] stolen all of our ideas for season six.” Whether or not that means we can expect the Underwoods to branch out into cheap vodka and reality TV shows remains to be seen.