If ever a show were equipped to deal with the intrusion of life’s ugly realities, it’s House of Cards.
Since its premiere in 2013, Netflix’s political thriller (based on a UK series) has used the routine machinations of the real American government as a springboard for its operatic tale of a ruthless couple life-ruining their way to the highest office in the land. So when its star, Kevin Spacey, was unceremoniously removed from the series last November after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson were prepared to make a “significant pivot” away from Spacey’s Frank Underwood, and toward his formidable wife Claire (Robin Wright), a woman for whom “me too” is more a demand than a statement of solidarity.
Having already established Claire as president at the end of season 5 — Frank resigned under gathering storm clouds of scandal — it was easy enough for the show to dispose of Spacey’s character via an off-camera death. The cause is not explained in the first five episodes made available for review, but it doesn’t really matter. (The full season will launch on Nov. 2.) This season, F.U. exists solely as a catalyst for drama: Before he died, Frank made quid-pro-quo promises to Bill Shepherd and his sister Annette (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane, respectively), the wealthy overlords of an industrial conglomerate. Now, the Shepherds, including Annette’s ambitious son Duncan (Cody Fern), have come to collect.
President Underwood — who’s spent the first 100 days of her term suffering the c-word slings of internet trolls and being underestimated by the men in her cabinet — has no interest in taking orders from anyone. “The reign of the middle-aged white man is over,” announces Claire, speaking for herself and, one suspects, the show itself. In its final season, House of Cards wants to imagine a scenario where women are the ones who rule the world — but instead of making it a better place, they are as cutthroat, venal, and wholly nihilistic as the legions of men who have come before. Though it’s Bill Shepherd who pushes hardest for Claire to do his bidding, the President’s true adversary is his sister, Annette. Frenemies from their school days, Annette and Claire carry each other’s darkest secrets in their icy hearts, and Lane and Wright devour this rivalry like the delicious melodrama that it is. A genteel powder room showdown in episode 2 ends with the women, I kid you not, facing off in a full-blown “Texas dip” curtsy — a pair of hardened debutantes ready to do battle. It’s a brutally funny and just the right amount of absurd — and, unfortunately, one of the few scenes Wright and Lane share in the first half of the season.
House of Cards does not suffer from the lack of Kevin Spacey; anyone who has stayed with the Underwoods this long knows Wright is more than capable of carrying the action as the show’s anti-hero. And Francis isn’t totally gone: He lives on in the undying faithfulness of Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly, wielding his Emmy-nominated glower like a master), Frank’s former Chief of Staff and the omnipresent other man in his relationship with Claire. With his idol dead, Doug remains slavishly dedicated to preserving Francis Underwood’s legacy — by any means necessary, of course. “Are you trying to erase him?” he rasps at Claire. “Because you can’t.” This season, the two alternate between reluctant allies and mortal enemies, and Kelly’s inexplicable magic makes it impossible not to root for his emotionless, murderous, dark-browed misanthrope. (Spin-off pitch: Doug Stamper: Scary D.C. Fixer.)
Once Frank became president at the end of season 2, House of Cards began to struggle with the “no more worlds to conquer” dilemma; the story lines became increasingly bonkers as the Underwoods fought to hold on to the White House, because that was the only thing left for them to do. It’s a pattern that continues in the final episodes, as the almost comically complicated plot threads — involving a nefarious data-crawling app, a problematic Syrian peace deal, charges of Russian collusion, EPA violations, etc. — unravel in a tangled heap.
As always with House of Cards, though, the particulars of the intrigue are not as important as the people behind it. One of the chief delights of this season is the showcase it gives to actresses in their midlife prime. Along with Wright and Lane, we have Patricia Clarkson’s commerce official Jane Davis; her character’s motives remain shadowy to the point of opaque, but Clarkson has such a blast issuing velvety murmurs about foreign policy, she is a pure pleasure to watch. And don’t forget former Secretary of State Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson), last seen crumpled on a stairway landing after a surprise shove from Francis. No spoilers, but the writers know better than to let this iron-willed woman’s story end at the hands of a “middle-aged white man.” Although, Boris McGiver’s rumpled reporter Tom Hammerschmidt, perhaps the only true good guy in the Cards universe, answers to that description. God bless him, Tom’s still trying to prove that Frank and Claire were responsible for the death of Zoe Barnes and so many others, and McGiver gives great man-of-the-people rage as he fights for a day of reckoning that everyone around him knows will likely never come.
Last year, Claire turned her cold-blooded gaze to the camera and declared, “My turn” — and indeed, the final season of House of Cards belongs to her, and more importantly, Wright herself. Sporting perfectly-tailored, military-style suits and dresses, her sleek blonde bob shielding her head like a helmet, Wright brings more humor to Claire than ever before as the President exploits sexist stereotypes about female hysteria (“America’s worst fear when it comes to a woman in the Oval Office,” she coos to the camera). As the sly nods to Lysistrata and Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus attest, behind President Underwood’s feminist facade is a warrior set on nothing less than complete patriarchal destruction. “Whatever Francis told you the last five years, don’t believe a word of it,” says Claire in the season premiere.
Though she — and the show — may never be able to erase Francis J. Underwood from history, it is perversely satisfying to watch them try. Grade: B+