[SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FINAL SEASON OF HOUSE OF CARDS!]
Well, that was a busy day for Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). On the final episode of House of Cards, the pregnant president not only averted an assassination attempt but found herself at the brink of nuclear war. And, then there was the whole stabbing and killing Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) thingy she had to deal with as well.
But viewers were left having to imagine what happens next as the series finale ended with Claire holding a bloody Doug in the Oval Office. Why such a cliffhanger? And why poor Doug? Also, what’s the deal with the icky vibe between the Shepherds?
EW talked to executive producers Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson about playing these final Cards.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The series finale is quite possibly the biggest cliffhanger you’ve done with Claire on the verge of nuclear war after killing Doug in the Oval Office. Why end the show that way?
FRANK PUGLIESE: I think the show’s had a very unique relationship with the audience, and the show had been speaking to the audience and that’s partially the themes of the season that we played with, the sort of reckoning and the complicity that we’re playing with. But ultimately, the finale is not final until it’s experienced by the audience and plays out after that last scene in the imagination of the audience. So, there was a choice to do that — to let whatever happens afterward to be played out or figured out in the mind of the audience.
MELISSA JAMES GIBSON: And I think, also, a real touchstone to us was that final image, that sort of pieta with Claire holding Stamper and it was a little bit of a bookend to where the series started with Francis mercy-killing the dog and then looking at us and embarking on that relationship with us. And you know, there’s that final look of Claire’s at the end. There’s been sort of a switching of faith, in a way, I mean, obviously she’s been ascendant ever since the end of season 5. But hopefully it speaks to the journey and the various prices that have been paid, sort of the cost of all this ambition and relentlessness.
FP: We’ve talked about this, but there’s a discovery that we knew, some point in working on this season, we discovered that the ending should be between Doug and Claire. In a sense, ultimately, he was able to let go of Francis, there’s certain aspects of it that we let play out there.
MJG: Right, like we’ll just say Claire enters this season, quite literally declaring independence from Francis and really trying to embark on her way, whereas Doug Stamper, all season, he is so inextricably tied to Frances Underwood’s legacy because his identity is so intertwined. And it just created a really useful conflict, storytelling-wise.
FP: Yeah, and also to realize that Doug to Claire and Claire to Doug was either their greatest ally or their ultimate downfall. So, it had to become the final showdown.
MJG: Right, they are the two who know the most. They’re the two who’ve been around the longest, and in a weird way, that’s the two who are most, at this point, intimately related.
Did you always know that Doug would die at the end of season 6?
FP: No, we discovered it as we went along. We had an idea, emotionally, of where we thought it should end, and some place that Claire needed to arrive at. How she would do that, I mean, it was one of the options, but it was something that we actually discovered while we were working on this season.
MJG: Yeah, and in a funny way, the end of season 5, sort of promised a great civil war between Francis and Claire. And with Francis out of the equation, Stamper becomes a conflicted proxy for Francis. And so, Claire and Stamper are engaged in a battle with a number of other people trying to get involved.
FP: Yeah, and the question for the ending was just Doug saying, “I’m the better wife because I’m the one who killed Francis and protected his legacy.” While at the same time, is Claire releasing Doug of his pain and giving him a sort of a mercy killing? Or is she taking care of a problem? Again, all questions.
MJG: Or both, like Francis was.
FP: But that’s stuff the audience has to wrestle with.
What was it like to shoot this scene, especially since Michael and Robin are pretty much the only remaining original players from the first season?
MJG: It was so emotional. We shot that scene last. We saved it, a little bit like a play, we saved that last scene for the last day. It was all day, it was the entire day, and Robin was directing with her big pregnant belly, running back and forth. It was really intense and emotional, and everyone was so focused and so wanting to make sure we ended it correctly.
FP: And it was a culmination of so much. We had numerous conversations with Robin and Michael about what should happen to their characters, and just sort of collectively coming up with the idea that it should be Doug who pays the price, in a sense. You know, that was emotional; the process itself was emotional. And to come as a group to this ending, and both the organic, cathartic difficulty of that ending. We were all in on it, realizing it was the culmination, and at the same time, it was over. So, there was a whole mix of emotions playing out there. But there was a very melancholy, or I don’t know what the right word is, but a satisfaction that was both sad and-
MJG: Like a joyous catharsis or something, you know? It was like, at the end of the night, no one wanted to leave. People were there till daybreak.
EW: Could you say how you originally intended to end the series?
FP: In a way, we had some ideas or options of what the ending could be, but there was no decision made because we were going to find it as the story was being told. We’ve always wanted to be true to what the story wanted to tell, so to do that, you have to be open to find it as you’re telling it. So, we had never gotten to the end. We had options, but we had never made a decision about the ending. A concrete one.
EW: You kill a lot of other people in this final season, including Tom (Boris McGiver), Cathy (Jayne Atkinson), and Jane (Patricia Clarkson). What led to that decision?
MJG: It’s a little bit, all the chickens coming home to roost. The show, by design, and going back to even Michael Dobb’s books, there’s some direct Shakespearian elements. Like the end of Hamlet, there’s the high body count. There’s a reckoning, this whole season was a reckoning. People had to pay a high price.
FP: And I will say, without Francis on-screen, there were all these characters jockeying to control Claire. To be her partner, ally, and sometimes rivalry, then back, or to take her under. And to be true to the character, to be true to the rules of the show. In order to approach and gain the power she wanted and the autonomy she was looking for, it wouldn’t have been right for her to let some people with damning, incriminating information pass.
MJG: And I think, what she would say is, all she’s trying to do is move forward, move beyond the past. These people who have been on the show for so long are just not letting her. The institutional memory of the show is preventing her from living her life in peace.
EW: Is Claire’s baby definitely Frank’s? Or could the father be Tom Yates (Paul Sparks)?
MJG: It’s definitely Frank’s baby. Maybe you recall season 2, when Claire was exploring fertility? And she goes back to see the same doctor in season 6, Dr. Larson, and the notion is that as part of all the fertility stuff that Francis’ sperm is frozen. And here’s Claire, with so many men trying to be the boss of her at every turn, here she very cleverly is basically weaponizing motherhood this season. Like the great surprise is that she would never anticipate what pregnancy and incoming motherhood would feel like, like her own emotions about it, I think, are surprising.
FP: And I get it, and I think we were aware that the audience would have a desire that it would be Tom Yates’ child. That’s not a bad thing that the audience might want that, even if ultimately, politically and for all kinds of self-actualization, it’s better that it’s Francis’ child.
EW: In a way, it almost sets up a new triangle between Doug, Claire and her unborn child. Doug seems to resent that child.
FP: You’re right. Doug never gets to be the true child. He never gets to be there.
EW: Tell me about the creation of the season’s main villains, the Shepherds (Greg Kinnear, Diane Lane, and Cody Fern).
MJG: Well we knew, at the end of season 5, you know how Francis is like, look, it’s gonna be great, we’re gonna be partners, we’ll control things without the White House and you from within. It was sort of like the notion that we were gonna explore the power behind the power. And the Shepherds were representatives of moneyed and powerful people who have invested decades in trying to manipulate politics in this country.
FP: Season 6 was always gonna be about who owns the White House. And by the end of season 5, Francis is promising that he’ll get to own the White House. But we had the Shepherds designed and in place; we were talking about them as we were ending that season. And we wanted them to be not directly representative of some characters that actually exist in the space, but some that you could believe can exist in the present political climate.
Annette and Bill give off a Flowers in the Attic-esque vibe. Was that a conscious choice?
FP: It was like a sibling marriage, yes. For sure.
MJG: Yeah, definitely.
EW: My favorite scene of the season is the powder room encounter between Annette and Claire and their curtsy. What was the inspiration for that?
FP: Melissa, it’s called the Texas dip, is that right?
MJG: Yep, yep. Well, Claire hails, no pun intended, from Texas, and so we started thinking about, imagining her as a debutante, doing the coming out thing. And they were at boarding school together, she would have taught young Annette this move, as they were sharing a dorm at the time. And then, recreating it as these really formidable middle-aged women who had such a history, and know each other so well, and therefore know exactly how to hurt each other. And there’s just complicated feelings. It’s rare on this show for Claire to be in the room with someone who reads her emotionally.
FP: It’s a scene that’s an indication of why we all really enjoyed that season, which is various really powerful women going up against each other during the course of the whole season. It was just so much fun, and great.
EW: The final season was loaded with flashbacks of younger versions of Claire. What did you want the audience to gleam from those?
MJG: Claire, as a character on the show has kept herself at a removed, by design, for several seasons, and we knew that we really wanted to have her face herself and have the audience get to know her to a depth we hadn’t had before. She is examining herself this season, like how did I wind up where I am, what were the choices along the way? And the opening image of the season, where you see young Claire staring into the camera, for us, that was sort of a North Star. That’s Claire, Claire spends the whole season trying to get back to that wild, free, self-possessed creature of whom no one is the boss.
FP: The show has always been about power, and there is a pure power, pure, unadulterated power to that opening image that she spends the whole season, I think, trying to get back to. And I will say, going back to the idea in Season Five and Season Six, about who owns her and her choice in this season to say, I own myself. Well, that’s all part of that exploration.
You also left the whole Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) investigation open with Janine (Constance Zimmer) still chasing the story.
FP: I think it’s something that the audience imagines what happens after that last scene of the series and planning how things could play out. How much should she get away with whatever happened in the Oval Office? Will Janine get to her? I think the rest of the story sort of plays out in the imagination of the audience.
MJG: This is a show where the audience is an active participant to a unique degree. Just because of the rules of the show and the direct address, so that, I think we had to leave some room for the audience’s participation.
Speaking of the direct address, what was behind the idea of Doug breaking the fourth wall?
FP: This season is kind of a battle for who controls the narrative. So, Doug has the most overt version of him trying to insert himself in that.
MJG: It’s a sign of his agency and little bit of the destabilization of the beginning of the destabilization of the rules, and the house of cards imploding, if you will. There’s this huge, I mean, I think it was a really huge shift when Claire first did it, and equally powerful rule-shift when he gave that.
EW: In some ways, the ending has the bad guy getting away with it. What do you want people to take away from this ending?
MJG: But is she? Because think of the toll. Think of the cost for her as a person, you know. Nobody gets off Scott-free in the world of the show.
EW: With such an open-ended finale, is this REALLY the end of House of Cards? Could there be like a movie follow-up?
MJG: All we were thinking about was bringing this story to a close. We were just serving this, from where the show started, when Beau Willimon created the American version. So, these six seasons, we wanted to, with integrity, end the story. We really weren’t thinking franchise possibilities.
FP: If anything is open-ended about the ending, it’s because it’s the right ending for the story.