In its final season, “House of Cards” buries Kevin Spacey in a shallow grave — so shallow, you can still hear Frank Underwood knocking. Killed off as a means to excuse Spacey’s sudden absence from the series, following his termination a year ago for alleged sexual harassment, Francis still steers the ship. More than half the final season passes before “House of Cards” feels like Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright) story instead of his epilogue, and even when she starts to see her vision borne out, the lingering questions are all about Frank. Despite the hype, Season 6 isn’t Claire’s show. It’s still Frank’s, which undercuts the season’s many attempts at women-first stories and keeps momentum stagnant.
Really, in its dying hours “House of Cards” becomes a murder-mystery. Seeing it this way provides a bit of goofy levity to a series always toeing the line between pompous prestige and soapy melodrama, even if the story’s morbid obsession with how Frank died sparks bad memories of “This Is Us,” Jack Pearson, and a slow-cooker. To make the wait more tolerable, fans are given a feast of fresh talent and old faces. Combined with an elegant visual sheen that feels even more pristine than before, it should be easy for anyone interested to finish the series, even if what’s there is far less sumptuous than early offerings.
Season 6 picks up about 100 days into Claire’s presidency. Embroiled in a political minefield where even her status as a widow can’t protect her from innumerable death threats, Madam President (an honorific Claire hates) is simply trying to survive. Her new vice president, Mark Usher (Campbell Scott), is a little too controlling. Her old friend from school, Annette Shepherd (Diane Lane), is a little too eager to use Claire to curry favor. Her friend’s brother, Bill (Greg Kinnear), is far too blunt in his desire to work Claire like a puppet. The Shepherds run an industrial conglomerate not that different from the Koch brothers’ business, and showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson don’t mince words in creating real-life parallels between these siblings and wealthy, repugnant Republicans. (At one point, Bill even says, “No one loves women more than me.”)
Meanwhile, ghosts linger in the background. Everyone from the series’ most shocking victim to its most recent threaten to burden Claire’s bid for power, while formerly inconsequential members of the living are trotted out with new purpose. Constance Zimmer is always a welcome sight (even when her Janine Skorsky is doing very little reporting), and Michael Kelly manages to make Doug Stamper into a complicated villain-type yet again; the deceased president’s right-hand man is hard to root for, given everything, but he’s far from easy to root against.
Towering among all supporting players, though, is Patricia Clarkson. After joining the cast in Season 5, the Oscar nominee (and, if there’s any justice in this world, future Emmy winner for “Sharp Objects”) operates on another level than the rest of the cast — another show, even. Her character, Jane Davis, is an unflappable foreign affairs consultant who’s close with Claire, but not as close as she is with a good espresso served to her in bed by a well-built fellow who’s more than a few years her junior. It’s these dalliances, and the flicker of frivolity shown while living them that separates Jane from Claire. The former is cold and calculating, but Clarkson warms her up with delectable reactions to the most heinous orders. Who amongst us, when ordered to kill a close friend, says “I couldn’t live with myself” in such a way that a) she really can’t live with herself, and b) is clearly going to do it anyway? Jane Davis, that’s who.
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Clarkson illustrates the best of what “House of Cards” has left to offer. Rampant redundancies in plot — from baseless kink (remember when Claire fucked a guy to death?) to skyrocketing political assassinations (two presidents!) — keep the series from being taken too seriously, while failed attempts to ground the narrative in our current political reality push it away from searing topicality. What’s left is gasp-inducing melodrama with a side of delicious, tittering one-liners. The murder mystery can provide a sturdy base for viewers to lean into the series’ outrageous pleasures. (Again, see Clarkson’s performance). But there’s still a pervasive feeling of being conned.
Part of that grievance stems from Frank being gone, yet far from forgotten. The showrunners gave themselves the perfect out at the end of last season, a bit of fortuitous timing all but wasted. When Claire addressed the camera and said, “My turn” and all but erased her camera-whore hubby from control, there was no reason the audience should believe otherwise. Instead, five of the eight final episodes over-emphasize his importance and fail to create arcs worthy of Wright’s talents or Claire’s individuality. Worse yet, they weaken the show’s conscious effort to highlight the discrimination facing female politicians.
There’s a scene, clipped in the Season 6 trailer, where Claire is stopped in the hallway to talk to a combative dissenter. As he speaks, she turns and sees a camera trained on her from another room, so she looks back at the guy setting her up and simply says, “The reign of the middle-aged white man is over.” These days, her statement is easy to get behind. But what “House of Cards” doesn’t seem to realize is timely words can come across as posturing when you’re just reciting them for the cameras.
“House of Cards” Season 6, the final season of Netflix’s first original series, premieres Friday, November 2.