*This review will not include overt spoilers for season six of House of Cards and will only discuss the effectiveness of its plotlines, both new and old.*
It’s early morning, still dark, on a quiet street on the outskirts of Washington DC. Several large brownstones line the sidewalks. Here is where the almost-elite exist. Wealthy families with a particular allotment of stature, all in a row. Frank Underwood is outside his property. He stands over a wounded neighborhood dog, placating him. We’ve heard the crash, but don’t know the severity of the animal’s condition. Frank does. He grew up on a farm in South Carolina, and euthanasia is not too foreign or drastic a concept for the politician. He explains this to us—his first of many soliloquies to the camera in the diary that represents his rise. Sirens blaze in the distant image, as officers discuss the implications of the hit-and-run with the dog’s masters.
“There, no more pain…” he consoles the shepherd as he liberates him from his anguish.
HOUSE OF CARDS Season Six Lacks No Character, Despite Having Killed Its Lead
We’d seen five seasons under the Underwood regime. Frances (Kevin Spacey), a Democratic congressman from SC, has moved up the ladder to house whip, to Vice President, to President—all with helpful love and guidance from his wife Claire (Robin Wright) and right-hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). The shameless and sinful trio has gone so far as to kill—over seven times, actually, in the seasons prior—in order to propel their stature. And that’s just counting their close acquaintances and not the innocent strangers of whom they’ve disposed to assist in their elevation.
The season prior to the most recent, which was released on November 2nd, tested the Underwoods both personally and professionally in ways previously unseen. Their power was tried, as was their love. And while with great power comes great responsibility, it also comes with a heightened challenge in covering their tracks. As Macbeth and his Lady stumble through their leadership, Frank, in the season five finale, arranges a coup to position Claire as commander in chief in his place, with the plan to control her from the private sector. Ending almost as if the show’s writers knew they would be losing their star, the final image of season five is Claire, alone in the oval, defiantly silencing Frank’s calls, as she addresses the camera for only the second time in series thus far: “My turn.”
Kevin Spacey’s Sexual Assault Allegations
In October 2017, Kevin Spacey was first publicly accused of sexual assault by actor Anthony Rapp, who shared with Buzzfeed information detailing an incident that occurred when he was 14 years old. After Rapp’s claim, more followed, including some from the team of House of Cards. Netflix (amongst other groups) severed ties with Spacey in light of the allegations, halting production on the sixth season and bringing the future of the show into question. Production resumed in January, and it was announced that Wright would be leading the program—a move that had apparently already been intended.
The Future is Female
Season six of House of Cards picks up seamlessly from where we were left. Claire is the President of the United States and Frank has died, cause unknown. Not to fear—over the course of the shortened eight-chapter final season, all is revealed.
Claire’s story leaves little to be desired. She provides us with the same direct-to-camera narration that Frank had in seasons prior, and her reign is one that theoretically we should be able to get behind. It is based on feminist principles… kind of. Over the course of the season’s evolution, Claire even defines her perspective for us: “misandrist,” or overtly prejudiced against men. To see this democratic politician empowering women as she rebuilds her cabinet from a man-hating agenda is refreshing in theory, but a reminder to the audience that too much of any kind of singular power is a danger, no matter the perspective from which the dominance stems.
We as participants are therefore presented with the same moral dilemma as we have been in many moments of the past seasons. We love to watch the Underwoods’ climb, and even have an understanding of their agendas in both the fictional foreign and domestic political spheres. But as people, they are deplorable devils from the beyond, and we question where the journey began – out of love for the country, or desire for control – versus where they are now. With Claire as the showrunner, we encounter an additional moral bargain, as her reign is just as dishonorable as her husband’s before, and where it could be elevating to women, it fails feminist principles.
Season Six Review
As is traditional of the prior seasons, season six introduces a slew of new characters to supplement the familiar ones as they continue to drop off. Siblings Bill and Annette Shepherd, played by Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane, enter the fold with a distinct agenda. Annette is, like Claire, of significant stature, and her new presence in collaboration with a female President and the character Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson) carries weight. These ladies might be the most deviant anti-heroines television has ever seen, but their tenacious characters fall short of landmark in a current United States government that is so repressive of women.
Still, the show’s grand plan fails the greater women’s movement, firstly in the deplorability of the characters, but secondly, in that the show is still roughly 75 percent about Frank. He may be dead, but his sins live on, and it is impossible to separate Claire’s legacy from his, no matter how hard she tries. It’s hard to miss such a palpable presence.
Season 6, which could be titled “Claire vs. Every Man in the World EVER,” is essentially built around anti-feminist tropes. The new character Annette says it best in a meeting with her fellows in taking down the President: “She’s weaponizing her feminism. And it’s grown tiresome.”
Frank is also present in an audio diary he has inexplicably left behind, which I presume to contain the narration he’s provided to the camera for all these years, based on the verbiage that is described (not heard). This diary ends up in Doug’s possession, and he uses it gradually as a weapon to find the answers he seeks to the meaning of the legacy he’s spent his whole life building for his friend. Ultimately, this assumption of mine is flawed because it doesn’t explain why Claire is still speaking to us. The biggest mystery left behind from the show is what on earth we, the audience, are doing in their world beyond the trope that they are telling a Shakespearean tale of a tragic anti-hero.
If the series is in fact as Shakespearean as we’ve viewed it to be, in season six, we see what might have happened had Lady Macbeth not succumbed to her nightmares and instead had the agency to continue her husband’s legacy. But the final scene of the series clarifies the alignment that exists between the characters from the show and Elizabethan literature. Frank was no Macbeth after all. He was an Iago, maybe. But then again, so was Claire. Still, have we not given enough credit to the third lead in the series all along? The presumed Cassius, the Horatio? Maybe the sidekick deserves more blame than we’ve allotted him. Doug Stamper may not be the evilest of the trio, but he might just be the most responsible FOR the evil.
After the conclusion of every show I’ve emotionally invested myself in, I always bring myself back to the pilot (and I won’t lie, often sometimes even restarting the series). To think that all Francis Underwood originally desired was Secretary of State is mind-boggling. Still in the first scene of the series, as he kneels over the fallen canine, he discusses “ambition,” almost as Brutus did in Julius Caesar. And I think we all know how that turned out.
Last Word on the House of Cards Finale
The final season of House of Cards continues the trends of the seasons prior—testing morality through heightened stakes, and evolving around the parable of power breeding corruption. Where it has an opportunity to be effective in new ways is where it fails, as it gives a powerful woman agency for high success, only to tear her down. If you’re on my side of the political and social spectrum, you’re offended by the way ambitious women are painted. If you’re opposite me, you’re not only disdainful of matriarchy for the attitude that surrounds it, but also see it as highly ineffective in the political sphere (despite its occurrence in a similar kind of dictatorship to what America is experiencing right now), which brings to question how progressive this “female-driven” plotline and cast actually is.
In a show where there were already plenty of loose ends to tie up, House of Cards plagues us with even more, throwing us into sensory overload by bringing back the unsolved issues from Frank’s administration, and introducing new obstacles for Claire that neither she nor the audience can fully wrap themselves around. While everyone around her scrambles to adjust to Frank’s death and fortify the past, she is adamant in building her future apart from his crimes. Sounds like every other season? Confusing and clamorous? I dare you to take those feelings you’ve had about those installments past and triple their weight. That’s where we’ve landed.
Yet somehow in the final scene of the series (I promised no spoilers, and I’ll make good on that), we find an unexpected amount of resolve. Are there still questions to answer? Of course. Do we care? No, not really. Or at least we shouldn’t. The ambiguity of the future of the characters who survive Claire’s regime only contributes to the message of the show’s final act, which alludes to a continuing venture into absolute mania™.
In the conclusive image of the series, the wolf holds her final victim in consolation. “There,” she echoes Frank, “no more pain.”