Spoiler Alert: There are bits of spoilers in this piece stretching through Episode 5.
On the day of the South Carolina primary, Frank Underwood's re-election campaign runs into some trouble. A political opponent vandalizes a billboard on a main road with a picture of Underwood's dad standing with a member of the Ku Klux Klan. South Carolina, Underwood's home state with a large African-American population, goes into a frenzy, and the entire campaign goes along with it.
The spectacle, of course, bears a striking resemblance to reality. Just weeks ago, Donald Trump failed to whole-heartedly rebuke David Duke, the former KKK leader who has thrown his support behind Trump. But there was a critical difference. Upon learning of the scandal, Underwood goes into panic-mode, desperately attempting to reclaim the trust of the African-American community by making a moving speech before a church gathering and promising to remain available until every question has been answered. Trump, on the other hand, brushed his own scandal aside, slogged along, and evidently never experienced the political hysteria you would expect from such a phenomenon.
It's a contrast that arises throughout the new season, and especially viewed alongside this election cycle, I found myself constantly asking: Which one is happening on Netflix and which is happening on CNN?
When House Of Cards broke onto the scene in 2013, it was a political thriller. The back-room dealings and vote whipping were so enthralling when contrasted against the political reality, which was stagnant and bland. Politics, in other words, was sexy and colorful again.
But what a difference a few years makes. Whereas the early-to-mid-Obama years begged to harness the energy of his historic campaign, the final months of his presidency are now defined by calls to reign in the "loud voices," penis jokes, and jabs at one another's spray tans. However disgusted you are by the state of politics in 2016, there's no doubt that it's back, able to grab our attention with unprecedented ease.
Which all works to challenge a series like House of Cards. A few years ago, a billboard showing a president's dad standing with a KKK leader, or the suggestion that a candidate tap his wife as his running mate (see, Episode 4), would be intriguing enough. But in a post-Trump world, the viewer is left asking why a candidate is apologizing for something his father did, or why a few simple polls are enough to put to a halt the idea of Claire Underwood being Vice President. House of Cards, once a sharp, clean shot in the arm for Washington, now feels stale and obsolete. It's too rational. Too 2012.
Which is not to say it's not a good show. Indeed, the characters are as flawed and vulnerable as ever, the suspense brimming in every scene. It's as picture-perfect as any series out there. But that's it. House of Cards used to derive its success from its innovation and unique ability to fascinate its audience. Politics, once the characteristic, driving force of the series, has increasingly become a backdrop, turning House of Cards into just another drama, albeit a very good one.
Politics--the real kind--is increasingly capable of achieving its own House of Cards-style allure. Twitter is constantly overflowing with conversations centered around politics--the nitty-grittiness of delegate math and debate analysis consistently draws more volume than the fanfare around House of Cards or The People v. O.J. Simpson. In fact, Mark Halperin's and Jon Heilemann's series about the 2016 race, The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth, produces much of the same shock-and-awe thrill that defined the early seasons of House of Cards. Indeed, sober journalism, rather than sensationalized fiction, now does the job.
But what to make of this revelation? Should we be ashamed that our politics has done nothing but work to replace a useless piece of entertainment, or reinvigorated that we no longer need a TV show to intrigue us? There's no question this election has been laughable in many ways--often resembling satire and reality TV more than a serious campaign--but we've also seen record voter turnout, and learned an enormous amount about the state of the American electorate that we never would have known without someone like Trump. Are those successes, or just futile byproducts?
I doubt House of Cards can answer these questions, and the legacy of the 2016 election will forever be a duel. But the series has come to highlight a new era in American politics, where campaigning and legislating alone are no longer useful fodder for fictional entertainment. That hunger, for better or for worse, is now fed on its own.