Harrowing drama, a protagonist lacking in morality and a ruthless firing – the story behind the scenes of House of Cards’ sixth series will likely be remembered far longer than the season itself. There is little left to say about the firing of Kevin Spacey – on an ethical level, it was obviously the correct one – yet from a narrative perspective, the removal of the lead character after last season’s intriguing cliff-hanger is deeply unsatisfying for long-term fans. Frank Underwood was a titan of television, one of the golden age’s greatest anti-heroes who charmed and appalled viewers in his merciless pursuit of power. For the most part, characters in the show were only interesting in relation to Frank – and season six does well to remember this – as well as allowing the newly-titled Claire Hale (the excellent Robin Wright) to establish her own identity. Whilst this eight-episode run is far from perfect, at its best it represents a fitting epilogue to the Underwood saga and a surprisingly enticing prologue to a potential new era.
Wright’s ability to step into her on-screen husband’s daunting large shoes and dominate the screen is the reason the show continues to work as well as it does. Feminism is explored in a way only Cards could, ripping all decency and ideology from the movement. Claire’s manipulation of her femininity is entirely fitting as she goes to progressively more extreme measures to protect her power. From the shocking opening scene, Freudian slips and Hale’s cynical use of the sympathy afforded to a widow, gender is at the heart of the cultural commentary of the show, providing thematic relevancy and a unique angle for the final season to explore. Whilst her asides to the camera are more hit and miss than Frank’s, at their most effective they paint a haunting picture of a character whose growth over 73 episodes has been extraordinary. With enemies closing in from all sides, we can’t help but invest in the new President’s domestic and international struggles with Cards retaining all the dramatic weight we have come to expect from a show that redefined the landscape of television.
“At its worst, it is an uneven season of hard-hitting but seemingly unconnected moments”
Despite the power of its central performance and a main plotline more focused and high-stakes than the previous Presidential offerings, the supporting cast still fail to make much of an impact. The addition of the Shepherds creates a degree of in-universe implausibility (where have these all-powerful billionaires been for the past five years?) and adds very little indeed. Anette, Bill and Duncan’s storylines go absolutely nowhere, as the writer appear so uninvested in their uninteresting premises they abandon them half-way through with little or no consequence. The show never really commits to any of its secondary storylines with prestigious talents like Patricia Clarkson (playing the mysterious Jane Davis) and Jayne Atkinson (the long-suffering Cathy Durant) criminally underused. At its worst, it is an uneven season of hard-hitting but seemingly unconnected moments (the flashbacks feel especially redundant), with Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) being the only other character that really matters. Frank’s most loyal servant must choose between the lesser of two evils to protect his master’s legacy; which creates the conflict that leads to the show’s surprising yet satisfying conclusion. Even when the show plunges off the deep end of plausibility and is hampered by the Spacey saga (the refusal to even play archived voice recordings is a frustrating one) the dynamic between Claire and Doug grounds the material in the past and elevates its intensity, as we root for an implausible happy ending where both overcome the prevailing (if undefined) political rivals that surround them.
Last year, I wrote that season five ended with ‘the stakes raised, the knives out and the deck wobbling… we are left crying out for more.’ How much has changed, and yet how little. Despite its surreal tonal shifts and narrative detours, House of Cards’ sixth season shows enough promise and ends in such a manner that the final season of political intrigue simply does not feel like enough. In a post-Frank world, Cards has done the impossible – redefining itself with an equally effective lead performance and premise – leaving us once again crying out for more.