Major spoilers for House of Cards Season 5.
After five years of scheming to get (and retain) control of the White House, House of Cards Season 5 ends with Frank Underwood resigning the role of President of the United States as impeachment looms. On paper in a conventional show that would be the end of the character’s arc – the devious Gaffneyan, someone so morally bankrupt the real world looks calm by comparison has finally got his comeuppance. Except this is House of Cards, and Frank’s resignation is all part of a much bigger scheme to achieve true power. As the excellent thirteen episode run comes to an end, it’s clear that Netflix is only going to up the ante in the inevitable Season 6.
For the most part, many of the show’s subplots are resolved – Claire’s killed live-in boyfriend Tom Yates, all who know about the election tampering are dead, ICO leader Yusuf Al Ahmadi has been pacified – so the showrunners actually have a rather blank page to set their manifesto on what to explore in next year. However, from what they leave open and the long-term scope of the show, we can get a good idea of what to expect.
“My Turn” – Claire Is President
Season 5 is mostly concerned with Frank’s re-election bid, showing him manipulating a terrorist threat to push Election Night into a stalemate and using a constitutional loophole to increase his chances before eventually using his cracked opponents to easily win. However, it turns out that was itself all a ruse and his real plan is to graduate above the position – he recognizes in modern America true power lies apart from the office of President in the private sector so orchestrates his resignation to put First Lady-cum-Vice President Claire in the driving seat.
The plan goes off without a hitch, except for one key detail – Claire reneges her previous agreement to pardon Frank for his crimes while in office, leaving him facing prosecution for his various misdeeds. This will surely be the driving force for Season 6, but we’ll come to that conflict in a moment and first focus just on Claire. After all, the drive of the show is now going to be about the ice-cold career woman proving herself during her first 100 days.
Crucially, Claire is a wartime President. Her first action as Leader of the Free World is to declare war on the Syrian regime, a threat that has been building throughout the season. This is one facet of power we’re yet to see explored in the show and will surely advance the already fractured relationship between the Underwood administration and Russia’s President Petrov. How will Claire cope as the pressures and body count mounts up – ruthless or toothless?
One of the other pressing concerns is her staff. Several names are raised for VP but by the end of the finale Mark Usher seems the most likely, suggesting all of this will be underscored by an uneasy-yet-official alliance with a self-serving Republican. Campbell Scott’s character was one of two big new additions to the series (along with Patricia Clarkson’s Jane Davis) and, regardless of where he settles, the current special advisor is sure to have a key presence in Season 6. In terms of the rest of the White House, that’s harder to tell – we don’t have many contenders who haven’t already served (or indeed are alive). With that in mind, Alex Romero is the biggest name without a position, and as he has designs for Frank (and called for his resignation) would be a good fit for something – the Chief Whip he so desires, perhaps. We do know that Seth is out as Press Secretary, replaced by the just-as-ambitious Sean Jeffries, a fact the current administration is trying to hide in the transition but will inevitably come out.
Of course, all of this may be background come next year. We ended Season 2 with Frank becoming President, only to jump forward in Season 3 deep into his reign to immediately learn he wasn’t all that good or popular. In terms of timeline, Claire’s come into power around now – mid-2017 – and with Season 6 surely arriving in early-to-mid 2018, it’s possible we’ll see another time jump. As such, any one of these threads could be neatly circumvented.
It’s important to also recognize the biggest shift to the status quo in Season 5: Claire now talks to the audience. Season 4 ended with her glancing at the camera with a united Frank, but she made clear in Episode 11 it’s something she is – and always has been – capable of this, just choosing to shirk the spotlight previously. Now she’s President and taking an active, aggressive stance against Frank, though, that’s likely to change. And with that comes an alteration how we watch the show. For 65 episodes Frank has been by presentation the protagonist, getting away with everything horrific by audience association. Now we have two people to pay attention to, making a complex moral debate.