If we were discussing what single major issue adversely impacted this final season of House of Cards the most — and boy is there a lot to choose from — the decision to center so much of the story on Frank Underwood would have to be in the conversation. When allegations of sexual misconduct against Kevin Spacey saw him removed from the show, the writers had to quickly pivot away from their original final season arc that would have seen Frank and Claire battling for power. That’s no easy task, and choosing to kill Frank off screen makes a lot of sense. The problem is, Frank never really goes away. He lingers all season long, and it’s difficult to create dramatic tension when so much of the story involves a dead character.
Frank’s ghost is right there in the opening scene of the series finale. Doug lays on his couch, pondering his upcoming life-changing decision: whether to kill Claire or not. Uncertain, he recites a mantra that’s helped him through many a crisis over the years: “What would Frank do?”
The Frank talk continues as Claire opens up about his corrupt behavior during a press conference. She says that it’s come to her attention that during the previous election, Frank may have exaggerated the terrorist threats on election day, and therefore tipped the scales. She’s sharing this information because she wants her administration to be transparent, she says, but really it’s to continue to chip away at Frank’s legacy.
“Frank’s legacy” is, inexplicably, the cornerstone of the series finale. Despite never really explaining what that legacy might be, the show uses it as fuel for the feud between Doug and Claire. Every decision made has to do with either cementing or tearing down Frank’s legacy, and it’s so difficult to care about any of it. The stakes don’t feel personal or character-based. But this is the case with so much of the final season, where various subplots and storylines do little to add anything meaningful to what should be the story of Claire as President.
As “Chapter 73” unfolds, it’s clear that the final showdown is going to be between Doug and Claire. It looks like Doug has agreed to kill Claire, and while he’s not doing it for the Shepherds— again, he’s doing it to protect “Frank’s legacy” — they certainly have a vested interest in her death. The whole episode plays out like an elaborate, absurd crime drama, with every piece moving into place for one final confrontation. Nathan Green retires from the Bureau, but not before telling Claire to stay in the White House because of an impending assassination attempt, a lie that’s meant to set her up with Doug later on. Annette and Mark discuss plans for after the assassination, while Doug continues to taunt the Claire by releasing lines from Frank’s diary to the media. In essence, Annette has instructed Doug to goad Claire into accepting a meeting with him to discuss the diary and its scandalous contents, all so that Doug can get close enough to kill her.
In order to distract from Frank’s diary, Claire makes a move straight out of Frank’s playbook by constructing a bogus terrorist threat. She’s informed of vague rumors about ICO trying to buy a weapon in Pakistan, and decides to exaggerate that intel into a full-blown nuclear panic. She takes the information public and does so to look tough on terror like her husband. Then she gets into it with Russian President Viktor Petrov, arguing over who has certain control in Pakistan and the credibility of the intel. Claire even threatens to drop a nuclear bomb to stop the supposed sale of the weapon.
These scenes are played with the utmost tension and seriousness, but it’s all rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Consider how much time this episode spends trying to touch on the various character arcs it began this season, and how little it manages to do with them. For instance, the story of Annette and Bill’s relationship, and how they’ve grown apart from each other as Bill gets sicker, never goes anywhere. Bill doesn’t die, and there’s no final resolution when it comes to the Shepherds and their feud with Claire. Plus there’s Seth, who has no story, and Janine, who just promises to keep digging. It all goes nowhere.
The closest we get to any sort of narrative resolution, at least when it comes to the Shepherds, is when Annette meets with Claire and asks to work together. “It’s not too late for us,” she says, playing up the idea that they’re both women, so they should have each other’s backs. This is after Annette orchestrated an assassination attempt and tried to kill Claire’s baby, so Claire’s decision to decline the offer isn’t surprising.
In fact, there’s very little about the series finale that’s surprising. The narrative beats here have been laid out for a long time, and we’ve mostly just been waiting for everything to finally happen. The one shock, to a certain extent, comes in the episode’s final scene, a lengthy one where Doug and Claire meet in the Oval Office alone. We know this is the moment the Shepherds wanted, and Robin Wright, who directed the episode, does a good job of using the camera to set the tense mood. But, as the scene unfolds, it’s clear that the show doesn’t have much left to say.
As Doug and Claire trade exposition, Doug admits that he was the one who killed Frank. Apparently, Frank showed up at the residence, drunk and ready to kill Claire, so Doug killed him first. Not because he wanted to save Claire, but because he didn’t want Frank to ruin, you guessed it, his legacy. This “shocking reveal” kind of sums up the problems with this season. There’s no real storytelling here, no real stakes. Instead, we’re just waiting around to see who will be the last one standing, which isn’t all that compelling. Claire is the one who lasts until the end though, killing Doug and finally ridding herself of all the loose ends.
It’s a whimper, not a bang, of a final scene. Ending on Claire killing Doug, saying, “There, no more pain,” and then looking villainously into the camera is so very House of Cards. The tone, delivery, and direction of the scene suggest something shocking and substantial, but there’s not much there underneath. So what if Claire killed Doug? Why should we care? This season didn’t give us a reason to care, instead running out the clock and asking us to be satisfied with guessing who might survive until the end.
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