The magnificently messy ‘House of Cards’

By Matthew Clayfield
The show that made Netflix a major player comes to a satisfying and ludicrous end

WARNING: The following article reveals major plot points from the sixth season of House of Cards.


There is a spectre hanging over the sixth and final season of House of Cards: the spectre of Frank Underwood.

Or is it the spectre of Kevin Spacey? In October last year, Spacey became one of the first high-profile targets of the #MeToo movement after a series of sexual misconduct allegations against him came to light. Rather than cancelling the show outright, Netflix cancelled Spacey instead, scrapping the two episodes that had already been shot and hastily rewriting the rest. Robin Wright’s Claire would take centrestage in a shorter, eight-episode season.

As luck would have it, last season ended with Claire ascending to the presidency after Frank decided there was more power to be had behind the scenes in the world of big business. In that wildly uneven season’s final moments, she turned to the camera, as Frank had done so many times before her, and spoke to us directly for the first time. “My turn,” she said. Well, quite.

Frank’s decision to leak details of his crimes to the press, force impeachment proceedings against himself, and emerge from the ashes as a backroom puppet-master was among the most ludicrous things that the show had ever asked us to swallow. It was out of character, and smacked of desperation in the writers’ room. It’s almost a relief that this particular storyline never came to pass.

But Claire’s turn at the top begins with what feels like a desperate move, too: Frank, it turns out, has died during her first one hundred days in office. Luckily, the show is canny enough to realise that you can’t just move on from a man like Frank Underwood, let alone from his crimes. As Claire tells us early in the season, in a transparent attempt on the writers’ part to counter any suggestion that knocking him off was too easy an option: “A man like Francis doesn’t just die. That would be – what’s the word? – convenient.” In fact, there’s nothing convenient about it. Before he died, Frank made a series of extravagant promises to a pair of extravagantly wealthy siblings, the conservative philanthropists Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and the always brilliant Dianne Lane), who now expect Claire to honour them. There’s also the matter of Frank’s will, which he changed in his dying days, cutting Claire out on the grounds that she hadn’t yet issued a pardon in his direction. Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) became Frank’s sole beneficiary, a fact that Claire is keen to hide from the man, who’s being held in a psychiatric facility after taking the fall for Frank’s murder of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) at the beginning of season two. And all those asides? Those fourth wall-breaking moments of intimacy between Frank and the audience over the past five years? It turns out they were actually entries in an audio diary Frank was keeping. That’s out there somewhere now as well, implicating Claire in everything.

In another early scene of the new season, former secretary of state Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson) meets with Claire. “He’s still with us, don’t you think?” she asks. Well, he is and he isn’t, and the audio diary is a case in point. While it is true that Spacey appears in the “Previously On” cut-scene that plays before the season proper, he is otherwise entirely absent from the proceedings. We are shown a photo of Claire at Frank’s open casket in which his head is slightly out of frame. When Stamper first listens to the audio diary through headphones, he actually speaks the words aloud himself as he does so.

Both these approaches are pretty nuts – one wonders how Kelly shot the latter scene without cracking up – but also pretty fitting in their nuttiness. House of Cards has always been unhinged, a Wile E. Coyote cartoon masquerading as prestige drama. Beneath its cold, clinical exterior, established by David Fincher in the pilot, a lunatic narrative drive has been at play. Unless you’re an alt-right conspiracy theorist who believes the Clintons have been knocking off their opponents for years, it has never seemed a very accurate reflection of the machinations of power in Washington. (Veep, the seventh and final season of which is due next spring, comes closer to the mark.)

But it’s also true that this season is particularly whackadoodle. The writers appear to have thought: “Well, fuck it.” Aside from the obvious reason for doing so – the fact that they had nothing to lose – there is also the matter of Donald Trump’s presidency and the fact that, since Trump announced his candidacy two years ago, House of Cards has actually seemed a little tame. Frank Underwood may have been a murderer, but at least he was always civil in public.

Enter the Shepherd family. Bill and Annette are a liberal-left nightmare, a mash-up of every right-wing bogeyman currently stalking the political landscape. They’re the Koch brothers and the Mercer family rolled into one, though far less secretive about their intentions. (Bill seems always to be giving interviews, including to NPR’s Terry Gross. Why this tested my ability to suspend disbelief more than anything else this season is unclear.) Annette’s son Duncan (Cory Fern) runs Gardner Analytics – that’s Cambridge Analytica, for those of you playing at home – which runs the InfoWars-like Beltway Television, buys up newspapers and television stations at a rate that even the Sinclair Group would find impressive, and has developed a popular app that gives the Shepherds direct access to people’s phones. All the disparate strands of post-Citizens United, Trump-era conservatism lead, in this version of reality, to them: “Annette and Bill are Rome,” says one of the congressmen the Shepherds have in their pocket.

Actually, they seem to have everyone in their pocket: the vice president (Campbell Scott), most of the Congress, the swing vote on the Supreme Court, even the fellow who carries the nuclear football. In a scene worthy of Monty Python, they hold a kind of board meeting at which they discuss, with entirely straight faces, the effect that assassinating Claire would have on the GDP. They’ve actually run predictive models. Now, that’s how you one-up reality.

In addition to its arguments about money in politics, the season also has something to say about women in the same. What exactly that something is is difficult to say. In the season’s best episode, Claire tricks her opponents into invoking the 25th Amendment – something else that has come up a lot since Trump took office – by refusing to leave the White House residence for nearly a month. She’s playing the “hysterical woman”, allowing her mascara to run just so. At exactly the right moment, she re-emerges, fires her entire cabinet, and installs America’s first all-female one in its place. It’s a stunning development, even stirring, a reminder of what might have been.

But then you remember that it’s Claire Underwood, not Hillary Clinton, who’s in charge here. Claire is precisely the kind of woman that Clinton’s opponents have always accused the latter of being. When Claire’s national security advisers try to dissuade her from ordering a pre-emptive nuclear strike – remember how Clinton was going to start World War Three? – she responds by lecturing them on misogyny and misandry. One wonders what sort of point the show is trying to make here. Do the writers agree with what she’s saying, even though she’s talking about dropping the bomb? Or are they warning us against those who play “the woman card”? Either way, one thinks: “What the hell?” It’s difficult to get behind America’s first female president when the woman in question is Lady Macbeth.

Which brings us, finally, to Shakespeare. The Bard’s influence on House of Cards – in both its British and American incarnations – has always been pretty obvious: in addition to the formal matter of Frank’s asides, the show’s focus on raw, almost abstract power, rather than on the minutiae of how it is wielded in Washington, is something it’s borrowed directly from Shakespeare’s history plays. While I will admit to being slightly disappointed that we will never get to see Frank’s Richard III moment – from the moment he became president at the end of season three, it has seemed all but inevitable that we would one day hear him demanding to exchange his kingdom for a horse – what we get in the event is somehow just as satisfying, and ultimately more unexpected. I’ve spoiled enough of the season already to ruin the ending as well; suffice it to say that the two-hander that brings the series to a close, unfolding over six beautifully directed minutes, is one of the best things the show has ever done. The dialogue is elliptical, the tone close to tragic, the final tableau like something out of Julius Caesar or maybe even Lear. The final shot is one for the ages.

And so we get our Shakespearean ending. It just isn’t the Shakespearean ending we were promised. We should probably start getting used to it, too: it’s been a bumper season for dead leads. Roseanne recently returned as The Connors after Roseanne Barr was fired from the series, the character she played having died of an opioid overdose in the interim. Jeffrey Tambor, who played Maura Pfefferman on Transparent, will not return when the show does next year, having been accused, by members of the cast and crew, of sexual misconduct. One imagines that Maura will probably have died between seasons as well.

In an article for Vulture about what the next season of Transparent might look like, Kathryn VanArendonk wrote that “Tambor’s exit from the series is an opportunity to force the show into new territory […] and further [explore] the inner lives of its other characters.” House of Cards certainly took that route and the results are better than we had any reason to hope. Indeed, for all its narrative Sturm und Drang, and its scattershot, all-or-nothing approach to theme, I rather liked this final season, which I watched in a single, marathon sitting, probably helping it to retain at least some coherence. It makes plain what those who watched the show closely always instinctively knew: that Claire and Doug, Frank’s closest confidants, were always as important to the proceedings as he was. He paid lip-service to the former’s talents, but never really considered her an equal partner, and regularly abused the latter’s loyalty. Michael Kelly has always been great as Frank’s red right hand, but never as great as he is here, especially in the last couple of episodes, when everyone’s vying to keep him on side. But it’s Robin Wright who carries the season, balancing the unwieldy mess on her finger as though there were nothing to it. (She did so behind the camera as well, directing the finale.) Claire is as cold as she ever was, but coy, too, almost flirting with the camera. Wright has never been as funny as she gets to be this season. One rather gets the impression that the show has been underusing her until now.

What is House of Cards’ legacy going to look like? To the extent that one is able to think of it as a mere television show, I don’t think it will have one. Once people cottoned on to the fact that it was a dime-store novel bound in leather and gold leaf, any chance it had of entering the pantheon began to rapidly wane, and did so with ever increasing rapidity with each passing season. In wider cultural terms, it is possible to regard it, along with Veep and maybe Scandal, as symptomatic of the growing cynicism towards politics that contributed to the election of Trump, a corrective to the unbridled optimism of the Obama years in the same way that The West Wing served as a fictional counterpoint to the Bush years.

It is more likely to be remembered for what it inaugurated in industrial terms: the arrival of Netflix as a major player. It is easy to forget now, when so many of the best shows on air aren’t actually on the air at all, but when House of Cards premiered, a mere five years ago, streaming services were still something of a novelty. The newspapers quaintly referred to the series as an “online-only television show”. It was the first such show to receive Emmy nominations. It helped to change the way we watch things.

Unfortunately, it will also be remembered for the way in which it nearly ended: with a man who abused his power scuttling the whole thing. Like Louie, Transparent, The Cosby Show and others, it will be difficult, in future years, to go back and re-watch House of Cards in good conscience, at least in its entirety. (Luckily, the British version is online, too, and makes for tighter, more rewarding viewing.) As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in November last year, when allegations of Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct were reported in The New York Times: “These stories [about C.K., Weinstein, Cosby and others] change our perception of their art, whether we would like them to or not. This is not just unavoidable, it’s a necessary part of processing art and coming to terms with it.”

“There’s no reason to feel remorse for disinvesting affection we sank into artists who are later revealed to be criminals or abusers,” he wrote. “There’s no reason to have qualms about stamping their work ‘Of Archival Interest Only’ and moving on to something new.”

He ended that piece with the words: “Time to listen.” Or, as Claire Underwood might have put it: “Their turn.”

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

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