We all know that fiction has faltered in the face of the reality of the Trump presidency – but it’s politics that fails in the final season of House of Cards, as Grand Guignol runs rampant. There is blood and tears, with lots of runny mascara! Sweat? A little less so, unless you count the scriptwriters’ demented efforts to keep running a plot when the tank is dry.
The finale of the addictive series (I’m a total fan) reached our screens in early November via Netflix. It has always grabbed from the headlines. In fact, it’s been one of the series’ strengths that it has managed to mimic breaking news by altering reality ever so slightly. But this time around, House of Cards was making the news not following it.
Lead actor Kevin Spacey playing impeached President Francis Underwood, who at the end of Season 5 had ceded power to his loyal (?) wife and vice-president Claire, became the news when in October 2017 he was accused by Star Trek Discovery actor Anthony Rapp of making unwanted sexual advances in 1986, when Rapp was 14.
It was just a week after the Harvey Weinstein story had broken, and the House of Cards writing team – led by show-runners Frank Pugliese and Melissa Gibson – was in the middle of shaping the final season and had filmed the first two episodes.
“It was very surreal because, at the time, it was the very beginning of the #Me Too movement which was influencing our story and [within it,] what it was like to be president and female,” story editor Sharon Hoffman told Vulture.com.
Within a week, a dozen men had accused Spacey of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and attempted rape and Netflix halted production. By November 3, it had severed all connections with him. That left the future of the series up in the air.
Season 5 had ended with Claire’s declaration to viewers that it was “her turn” to rule. The writers had been fashioning a finale where a female president confronts misogyny head-on. Melissa Gibson thought it would be especially “perverse” for the story of a woman in power to be denied because of the actions of a man and in the end Netflix decided to go ahead with a Spacey-less finale.
So does it work? Or is the series mortally wounded without Frank Underwood? The answer to that is yes, and no.
The foreshortened 8-episode last series feels like a very different beast to the previous five. Why? Because if House of Cards was about anything, it was about the gritty world of politics i.e. the cut and thrust of democratic politics — caucuses, back-rooms, horse-trading and dirty deals.
The early seasons were fueled by set pieces of high-octane politics; it was the oxygen that drove Frank Underwood on, hustling in the corridors of power, leaning on the worthy but dull Education Secretary Donald Blythe, playing hard-ball with Jackie Sharp, the flakey Deputy House Minority Whip, setting up the vulnerable alcoholic governor-hopeful Peter Russo. The titles tell it all. We remember them because of their relative positions of power. Because that was important to the plot.
Not any more.
Season 6 is all murder and vengeance as Claire inherits presidential power after Frank dies in mysterious circumstances. As she cuts a swathe through her enemies, we’re treated to little pockets of flashback, which show how the cruel damaged little girl becomes the chilly, amoral woman. (Personally, I preferred it when no excuses were made for these characters and they were allowed to be plain bad in their own right.)
This final series is no longer about politics, it’s about settling personal scores. And that makes it very reductive. House of Cards always had its operatic excesses, but this time it’s gone for pure soap. Also, is the message that with a female president, politics inevitably gets shrunk to the personal?
The body count is staggeringly high. Doughty reporter Tom Hammerschmidt, Catherine Durant, the former Secretary of State, and Jane Davis, shady Foreign Department operative all meet untimely ends, as does Frank Underwood’s right-hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) who’s done in with the treasured letter-opener Frank Underwood had once presented to him. Is this a dagger I see before me etc?
It’s wrong to expect old-fashioned justice from a show that has celebrated downright cynicism and rampant political ambition. But the final season throws all of its sacrificial lambs under the bus, to mix my metaphors. What about Zoe Barnes, Rachel Posner and Lucas Goodwin? If nothing else, the narrative arc of fiction demands that their deaths be revisited, rather than simply name-checked perfunctorily when Tom Hammerschmidt finally pins Doug Stamper down for an off-the-record interview.
But the message of the final flawed season seems to be that not only does every bad deed go unpunished, but every good one must be obliterated. It’s nuclear option politics.
And ironically, by a circuitous route, that makes Season 6 the perfect replica of the current White House, rather than a token flagpole for the #Me Too movement as the scriptwriters seemed to intend.
Claire’s presidency is undermined by new characters Annette and Bill Shepherd, a power-brokering pair of billionaire oligarchs (brother and sister rather than husband and wife) with influential business interests, whom we’re led to believe had Frank in their pockets before his untimely death.
This is fictionally very dubious – here are characters who’ve never featured before, not even by name, but they’re rolled on to centre-stage now like evil twins to force her to stop undoing Frank’s promises. So it’s Frank Underwood’s legacy that’s being battled over. Not so feminist then.
And did I mention The Baby? What baby, you ask. No one in the cast seems to bat an eyelid when the distinctly middle-aged Claire (Robin Wright who plays her is an extremely lithe 52) suddenly manifests a six-month bump. Who’s the father? Tom Yates, the writer and Underwood biographer, who until the end of Season 5, was having regular, cuckolding rumpy-pumpy with Claire is the obvious paternity candidate. However, Claire’s already seen to him and she insists to anyone bold enough to ask, that this is Frank’s baby.
Remember back in Season 2 when she was flirting with the idea of getting fertility treatment – well, it appears good old Frank gave a sperm specimen back then which has been frozen conveniently and Claire has called in his deposit. But none of this is made explicit, so as a punter you have to have a very good memory, and a very gullible nature, to believe that one.
My theory is that this is a “fake news” baby – a phantom pregnancy created by Claire to soften her image. But just when you’ve got used to the idea of a pregnant Claire, the female metaphors start to proliferate. Her wardrobe and her brittle demeanour scream Black Widow, another role she’s busily playing. Is she mad? Or is she mad with grief?
Is that why her dress sense has gone AWOL? Gone now the subtle neutrals, the stylish creams and taupes and the figure-hugging dresses of seasons gone by. Now she’s suited in Mao-like ensembles in mourning black and muddy green, or when she’s being political, royal blues or primary reds – a kitsch embodiment of the Stars and Stripes.
The ironic thing about Claire’s reign as ice queen is that she – along with the final series – seems to have dispensed with the day-to-day politics altogether, once the show’s hallmark. She may be presented as a feminist icon with her all-female cabinet, but Claire Underwood plays out an exact replica of Donald Trump’s first year in power.
Season 6 joins her when she’s 100 days in, which probably chimes exactly with the early days of the Trump presidency during which the scriptwriters were desperately tearing their hair out trying to reshape the show without Spacey.
They might want you to believe that Claire Underwood – sorry, Hale; she’s reverted to her maiden name – is a feminist icon having sacked a cabinet full of old white men and replaced them with an all-female team. They might even want you to ponder whether she’s a feminist gone rogue; could she be a version of what might have been if Hilary Clinton had won the presidency? Or is she meant simply as a warning of the dangers of any woman, let alone feminist, getting into the White House?
Claire rules with an iron fist – and an even sharper hair cut. (Hair is important in US politics.) But she doesn’t seem to bother with pesky politicians. Executive orders are the plat du jour. The House of Representatives and the Senate barely get a look in. She has emasculated her vice-president with withering looks and school-marmish manner.
Where have all the politicians gone? The answer? Claire Hale has drained the swamp all on her own. Don’t let the gender agenda fool you. The last word from House of Cards is that Claire Hale is Donald Trump.
A version of this post appeared on Headstuff. See – https://www.headstuff.org/entertainment/film/house-of-cards-season-6-review/