Pity the poor screenwriters. In an age where reality itself is unrealistic, it’s hard to create compelling political drama that doesn’t seem understated in comparison to the evening news. You write a story that’s big and bold and straining at the limits of believability, and by the next day something even more outrageous has happened in real life and you have to go back to the drawing board. That’s the challenge for House Of Cards in its fifth season (Netflix, May 30); the show touches on lots of hot-button contemporary issues, but its depiction of two hyper-competent psychopaths in the White House now looks almost desirable. Especially if one of them is Robin Wright’s icily composed Claire.
As we ended last season, Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Wright) had manoeuvred their way to the Presidency only to find their progress stalled as Congress blocks their initiatives. Now a tough election looms against Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) who’s young, handsome and a decorated veteran, and their past crimes threaten to return to haunt them. Without getting too far into spoilers, season five sees the pair manipulate the media and voters, engineer electoral fiddling and play the democratic process like a fiddle to desperately cling to power.
In many of the issues touched upon, House Of Cards manages to be impressively current. Sub-plots include mass data collection and hacking, relations with Russia (Lars Mikkelsen’s Putin-alike Petrov is a rare match for the pair), domestic terrorist scaremongering, voter suppression and a complacent – or complicit – FBI boss. They’re all issues that have come up in the US since last summer, showing real prescience on the writers’ part. But the truth is far stranger than this fiction. The Underwoods have many – many – faults, but they are not narcissistic, attention-deficit serial harassers. What's more, they have a deep understanding of government and the US constitution, though admittedly they too work hard to undermine them. Still, they damage the government incidentally, in pursuit of their own power, and not on purpose, which counts for something.
Maybe that's what makes this season's House of Cards such great escapist TV. If Claire Underwood were around, you can't help but think, Trump would be a greasy stain under her elegant heel
Then there’s Claire Underwood, emerging from her husband's shadow to become this season's MVP. Poised and elegant in pale neutrals, Wright's Claire seems impossibly calm at all times; she orders her staff around with a gentle, "Do you have a moment?" as effective as any barked military command. In many ways she's closer to the original BBC series' lead than her husband. Like Ian Richardson she's tall, lean and aristocratic; like him she speaks softly but wields a sharp knife. The season begins with Claire carrying on her affair with her “speechwriter” Tom (Paul Sparks), and the sight of a First Lady (and now Vice Presidential candidate) shagging a lover in the White House does, it turns out, still have the power to shock, even if the President knows all about it and doesn't mind a bit. As the season progresses, Claire takes extreme measures to pursue her goals, and further cracks appear in her marriage as these two hyper-ambitious people subtly begin to jockey for power.
Perhaps thankfully, there's no one like her in the real world. There will be think pieces trying to compare her to Ivanka, no doubt, given their shared fondness for cream ensembles and their ability to wield power without an elected post. But Ivanka's home life is cuddly by comparison to Claire's chilly perfection, and her recent, much-derided self help book reveals that she can't touch Claire for brain power or Machaivellian acumen. And that's the power of Claire Underwood ("I just realised your initials are missing an N and a T" hisses one character; she is unruffled, having heard it all before). She is uncompromising, merciless and capable of anything. She's not a feminist hero, definitely, but she might be the feminist antihero we need. It's impossible to imagine this woman tolerating anyone like Trump.
Maybe that's what makes this season's House of Cards such great escapist TV. If Claire Underwood were around, you can't help but think, Trump would be a greasy stain under her elegant heel. Claire could survive the mud slung at Hillary, if only because key mudslingers would disappear – probably for good. The only downside is that, in a Claire Underwood administration, all those conspiracy theories of murder would have some actual substance. At least in one way, this fiction still outstrips the truth.