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There’s a scoundrel in the White House — House of Cards‘ White House, that is.
The fifth season of the Netflix political thriller picks up where it left off, as sitting President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his vice presidential candidate and wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) will attempt to steal the Oval — again. This time, from their Republican rival, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). And this time, by governing with fear.
After telling the audience “we make the terror” in the season four finale when an American was beheaded by House of Cards‘ version of ISIS — ICO — on American television, the Democratic presidential candidate and his new running mate quickly begin voter manipulation to Machiavellian proportions in the new season’s election.
Frank initiates a massive change in policy by virtually closing down U.S. borders. His approval ratings plummet. A declaration of war is made and cries of voter fraud — as well as “Not my president!” chants — abound.
And that’s only in the first handful of episodes.
If this season of House of Cards feels prescient, that’s because the minds behind the critically acclaimed series did their research. New showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson — who joined the show as senior writers in season three before taking over when creator Beau Willimon stepped down last season — say they looked into what could happen based on what has already been simmering in America. The result is a season that eerily reflects the current political climate — even though it was thought up long before a reality star billionaire began to set any realistic sights on his current White House.
The series’ return — all 13 episodes are streaming now on Netflix — comes after a hiatus, as season four premiered March 4, 2016. The trailer provides plenty of hints of what’s to come, along with many returning, and some new, faces. Speaking here in a spoiler-free and candid chat with The Hollywood Reporter, Pugliese and James Gibson share the method behind the Underwood madness and how the entire, corrupt season ends up being a cautionary tale for American voters: ”We’re asking: What’s the price we pay when politics is turned into entertainment?”
What are some of the challenges of taking over a series in its fifth season, and how did you two bring something new to the series while still staying true to it?
Melissa James Gibson: It’s a continuous dance. Really honoring the vocabulary that exists and has been baked in for four years, but also responding to vehicle of character and story over those four seasons and taking the show into new territory that seems to make sense and be a natural progression. But not just repeating itself.
Frank Pugliese: We’re fortunate that we were there for season three. A lot of stuff that we’ve talked about and put in motion all together that we’re now just continuing to kick into is follow-up on the story that we started to tell when we got here. It’s not like we just came in for season five — I don’t know what that would have been like.
When did you finish filming this season?
James Gibson: During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, we were shooting episodes 10 and 11. We finished shooting the whole season on Feb. 15.
Pugliese: The last two episodes, 12 and 13, were shot after Trump had been elected.
What was it like on set — in the House of Cards White House — on Election Day?
Pugliese: The night of the election we all wrapped and expected Hillary Clinton to win. The next day, there was a somber mood on set. There was probably a feeling that we should do something, but we were doing what we were doing, which was trying to tell the best story possible. But it was somber.
James Gibson: There’s definitely something bizarre about spending all day on those sets that are so accurate. Anyone who has spent time in the White House who has visited the set is kind of blown away by how perfect the sets are and what a perfect representation they are. It was weird and intense, no question.
Did you make any changes after Trump was elected?
Pugliese: No, not really. There’s certain promises the show has made and there’s a certain trajectory that’s been established over the course of the season, so we were just thinking to the story that’s being told. If anything, like anyone else in the world and with any other writers, we were dealing with what was in the air anyway — both culturally, politically — so that can’t help but be in there. But specifically responding to [Donald] Trump? No, not exactly.
James Gibson: But I will say, it was just a reminder to be brave and bold. To be creative as storytellers. That’s how the election struck me.
Pugliese: In a way, whatever got Trump elected was what we were dealing with for years. Whatever’s been happening that got him there was something we’d been dealing with anyway, through the show and just by living here.
How much harder is it to dramatize government acting poorly when the real government is acting so poorly?
Pugliese: Because of Trump, it actually seems to be relevant at the moment. But everything that happens this season was stuff we were talking about well before. People might think we added in things like the protests after Trump. We actually shot it way before and it was written in way before. Some of this stuff may seem new, but it’s sort of happened in the past and what we notice is it could actually happen again.
What was handed over to you as a part of Beau Willimon’s vision and what was your pitch for where this season should go?
James Gibson: Under Beau at the end of season four, we are left with the Underwoods on the verge of fermenting chaos and fear and what could arguably be World War III. They look into the camera and tell us, “We are the terror.” So that was a promise we had to pay off. Going forward, one of the most challenging and interesting things for us, the real battleground, was in the American psyche. The idea of playing with the vulnerable imaginations of the American people and thinking of it as a battleground on which the war on terror is played out was exciting and provocative to us.
Pugliese: When Melissa and I talked as season four ended and approaching season five was some of the promises the end of season four made and how we would deliver on them. One of them was about that terror that exists in the imagination of the voter or the populous and how someone can manipulate that and what that means. That’s something we dove into approaching season five. The other thing, which might be indicative of Trump and his election, was that we were talking for a while about the blurring line between entertainment journalism and politics. How characters and people float in and out of them, how consuming that is and what that means.
James Gibson: And then, of course, at the core of everything is the marriage and continuing to explore that relationship and what it can sustain with Claire and Francis’ ever-escalating ambition and dependence on each other.
Pugliese: As usual, the show has always been a meditation on power and power as currency, and the price you pay for pursuing power. That was always there.
Did Willimon have a long-term vision when he handed you the keys, or a season number in mind for when the show should end?
Pugliese: You could say specifically there’s probably been several ideas of where it could end. There was nothing absolute or nothing agreed upon where it could end. Conversations we had from Beau and before were just some thematic promises and places the show might go thematically, or possibilities that the show had. But the show had so many. To a certain extent, we’re kind of delivering on conversations that were had, but it’s open to possibilities about where it could go.
You set up Frank’s plan to govern with fear at the end of season four — well ahead of Trump’s campaign and subsequent presidency. How do you account for this season’s prescient nature and eerie parallels, especially in the first few episodes?
Pugliese: We do an enormous amount of research. We have great experts and consultants who come in and they talk about what might be possible. They’re really knowledgeable about what might happen. In a way, we’re just responding to the moment we live in and trying to look at what could have happened or might happen or might be happening. So we just examined it a little closer than someone else might, because they don’t have to, and came up with some of these storylines.
James Gibson: It’s stuff that it’s in the air.
Pugliese: Exactly. This stuff is in the air and has been in the works. Even the idea of nationalism and populism has been around. We’ve been dealing with that since season three, but it’s been in the air for years. Even if it came out super overtly in this election cycle.
Because of all that, the show for the first time doesn’t feel like far-fetched entertainment. Do you anticipate it will resonate differently — and leave viewers provoked, terrified?
Pugliese: There might be a little bit of that, yes.
James Gibson: Sorry!
Pugliese: But there’s places the season goes, too, that real life probably hasn’t gone to yet. In a way, there’s something cautionary about the tale we’re telling and if anything — and this was not the intention, we were not commenting on or responding to the moment, we’re just trying to tell the story and deal with what’s in the air — but if it does give people some clarity and actually force them to ask some questions about what’s going on politically in real life, that’s good. That’s just a bonus.
James Gibson: And the voters will in the process. Speaking of complicity, that’s something we could all take a look at. Are we going to be passive observers of democracy, or are we going to participate? I think it’s inevitable that the show leads the viewer to think about that a little bit. It’s always been true that who’s in office is a reflection of our degree of participation or not. Voter turnout is the single most important factor.
Pugliese: Even in Frank’s fourth-wall addresses this season, he’s sort of asking the audience: How long can you be passive about all of this? He’s definitely putting it to them. It goes back to that blur between entertainment and politics. If anything, we’re pointing that out and wondering if everybody is okay with it — or really, what’s the price we pay because of it? When you turn politics into an entertainment.
When Trump catches up to Frank Underwood, what does that say about our country? Who is scarier, at this point, Trump or Frank?
James Gibson: It’s interesting because Frank is a creature of the system. He came up through the system. He’s a political animal. Whereas obviously Donald Trump is an outsider and wears that proudly and is trying to blow up the system from the outside. So they are opposite that way. The two characters — well, I guess only one is a character — their agendas are not exactly the same.
Pugliese: But both of them are a product of, again, culturally what’s been happening for a number of years. But they’re different products of that. They’re indicative of some stuff that’s a bit concerning, which is power for power’s sake. That’s concerning and the fact that that’s okay in reality. Maybe in our fictional world that was Francis’ objective — it’s definitely more concerning when that’s in the real world. But they both do anything and say anything for power. And somebody has to take a look at it. If anything, it would be great if the show makes the audience ask some questions about what’s going on.
Frank’s hair is whiter this season, which conjures up an image of Trump from the get-go. Was that intentional?
James Gibson: Trump’s hair is oranger! It’s the toll of the presidency, which we’ve seen unfold in real life, time after time.
Pugliese: It is whiter and that was actually planned from the beginning of the series. If you look at any president over the course of four to eight years, you can see what happens to their hair. We have the greatest hair and makeup people, they’re phenomenal, and there was a plan that was executed about what happens to the character’s hair as it goes.
Investigative journalism has always played a big role in the series. How will this season continue to try to find justice for Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara)?
Pugliese: The show has a memory and Zoe’s death is such a pivotal and huge moment in the series. It would be irresponsible to not deal with that. Someone would still be pursuing that and would still be trying to find some answers, so it felt essential that we do.
James Gibson: We were really interested emotionally for the character of Tom Hammerschmidt. He’s not letting go of the story because he’s a good journalist and he knows there’s more to it. There’s something about House of Cards that corrupts you, and it’s interesting to see someone like Hammerschmidt confronting or dealing with the corrupting possibilities. The other echo of digging into the Zoe aspect is also Rachel’s disappearance and how Doug deals with that. It’s another young woman who was indispensable.
For all of Frank’s flaws, his relationship with the media is actually to be desired compared to the Trump administration. What could Trump learn from him at this point?
Pugliese: There’s a sophistication Francis has through the course of the season in his approach to the media, in the fact that he’s trying to manipulate it. Like politicians have done in the past, he’s using terror and fear to do it. But he’s doing all of it from inside the Beltway — he’s doing it covertly instead of overtly.
James Gibson: And our real-life president is obviously nothing if not overt.
Going into this season without a season six pickup, did you write this finale to function both as a season and series finale?
Pugliese: Working on television, you have a sense that if it had to end there’s a way to end it, but there is almost always a plan for what it would mean to keep going forward.
James Gibson: But that’s the trick. It has to feel like an organic ending and an organic payoff to the arc of the season and in this case, I think you could argue that it really could go either way, so we were happy to hopefully leave the viewers wanting more.
All 13 episodes of House of Cards are streaming now on Netflix. Tell THR what you think as the season unfolds in the comments below and keep up with Live Feed for continuous coverage.
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