The following contains slight-spoilers for House of Cards’ sixth and final season, which is now streaming on Netflix.
Similar to the situation Fox’s Lethal Weapon found itself in this fall season, House of Cards had the unenviable task of returning to Netflix’s lineup without its driving key character, as the star playing him had been ousted from the series due to abhorrent behavior.
Also like the Martin Riggs situation over on Lethal Weapon, Frank Underwood gets an off-screen death, leaving the series with a serious charisma vacuum. And while House of Cards didn’t have to bring anyone new in to replace Kevin Spacey’s character, as it had Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood to lean on, it has the uphill climb of also wrapping up the entire story in eight episodes.
So House of Cards does what other shows over the years have chosen to do when given a truncated final run (Cinemax’s Banshee springs to mind here) – it creates a “whodunnit?” Who’s behind Frank’s mysterious death? Yes, as much as Claire spends her time at the top trying to separate herself from the sins of Frank, the show is still very much about his legacy. But without seeing Spacey, or even hearing his voice (which becomes awkward when characters are forced to speak aloud Frank’s audio diary), the results feel muddled.
Fortunately, Robin Wright, though playing a much colder and more purposefully enigmatic character than Frank, is up to the task of carrying this final chapter on her shoulders. Wright, who lobbied hard to get Netflix to give the show one more season, rescuing thousands of jobs in the process, is a fascinating centerpiece for House of Cards’ last sunset ride. She gives the series a much different vibe than Frank did, obviously, but it’s a welcome one. The series, regardless of Spacey’s firing, was steering toward this story anyhow, with Claire poised to overtake Frank sooner than later, so none of it feels forced, per se. Most of the awkwardness stems from the situation overall, and having to land in the middle of a “lemons out of lemonade” scenario that no one involved had any real control over.
Fortunately, though the beginning and end don’t exactly work the way you’d like them to (the first few episodes because of the expected clunkiness of setting up the new status quo, and the ending because… well, it just doesn’t land right), the middle chunk of this season is a lot of fun. As Claire instantly finds herself in a covert struggle for power with shadow-influencer tycoons the Shepherd Family, the cruel and clever games ramp up and the show’s mirthful mean streak grabs hold. Claire wins some, loses some, but always manages to survive in style. There’s even a stretch where she purposefully plays possum, ruthlessly relying on everyone’s inherently icky ability to imagine a female to be weak and emotionally fragile, so that she can plan her comeback.
Running throughout the season – from the very first scene when Claire discovers how many more threats she’s getting on average than her late husband, as the country’s first every sitting female president – the final run of episodes saddles up to Claire’s ultimate desire to not be “managed” by men anymore. A few flashbacks to critical moments from her past – one including not being supported by her mother after attacking a boy who’d orchestrated her sexual humiliation, and another explaining how she finds, in Frank, a man who openly allows her to be ambitious and hungry – inform Claire’s dedicated directive to operate on her own terms.
Claire’s countless contrarian strikes work to paint her as a hero; situations and crucibles arise to make you root for her as one. And, to be fair, she is in some regards. But then, in the stunning sixth episode of the season, Claire does a few things to remind you, “Oh yeah, she’s totally a monster.” It’s a really effective rug pull and one of the reasons why the middle portion of this final run works so damn well.
Claire has some formidable opponents this year too; Ghosts of Underwood Past along with some new powerful players creeping out of the woodwork. Not only does she still have to contend with Patricia Clarkson’s spycrafty Jane, Boris Kodjoe’s tenacious Tom, and Michael Kelly’s ultimate Frank stan, Doug Stamper, but the sinister Shepherd clan as well. Brought in to make Claire’s life a living hell, complete with actual assassination attempts, are Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear, playing siblings of a diabolical dynasty who’ve been puppeteering presidents from behind the scenes for decades. Plus, Cambell Scott’s Mark Usher is still very much in play, and a crucial cog in the mechanism to dismantle Claire’s leadership. It’s a heavyweight lineup of thespians, and some of the season’s best moments involve these actors flashing their fangs at one another.
Unfortunately, the end game is lacking. Many of these characters become too marginalized by the final two episodes, creating a bit of narrative whiplash. Everything funnels toward a showdown between Claire and Doug, who for most of the season operate as fierce frenemies as Doug tries to do everything in his power, from the fringes, to topple Claire without also doing harm to Frank’s memory.
In the moments when Doug realizes he can’t hurt her without also hurting his precious mentor, he opts to protect Claire from the slings and arrows of the Shepherds. It’s a really interesting dynamic and I understand why the series, right at the end, chooses to come down to the two people closest to Frank, but I found myself really missing the story that got shed in lieu of this standoff. As a season finale, the final episode works – just not as a series finale. It needs 10 to 15 more minutes.
Basically, we’re given a huge moment and then left to imagine the fallout, which is definitely a recurring Golden Era method for ending a series. It’s never not frustrating. Of course, we’re all capable of playing out the epilogue in our minds, but why make us do that when there can be such effortless and easy satisfaction drawn from considerate closure?