What do you do, when the star of your TV show is fired and nearly brings the whole series down with him? For the cast and crew of the Netflix political drama “House of Cards,” the answer is simple: Be thankful you made Robin Wright the president.
The actions taken by Netflix and MRC in the fall of 2017, following the exposure of Kevin Spacey’s alleged sexual misconduct just as production was beginning on the final season of “House of Cards,” have been thoroughly documented. But while showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson had the benefit of installing Wright’s Claire Underwood as the new president to end Season 5, setting up a final season with Wright as the lead instead of Spacey, the period of time between the shutdown of production and the decision to bring it back was nerve-wracking.
“I got incredibly nervous that none of us were going to be able to finish our stories,” Constance Zimmer, who plays dogged journalist Janine, told IndieWire. “And that made me incredibly sad, because this show has been driven so much by the family that has been created by the crew and the cast, and the fans, I have to say.”
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Zimmer, as well as Michael Kelly and Diane Lane, had been working on the show prior to Spacey’s firing, and it was a shock for them all. Wright, however, became their savior.
“Robin was the first phone call I made when I heard the news,” Kelly said, who plays the complex political operative Doug Stamper. “For us, it was about how do you get these people back to work? And how do you wrap out a show that the fans have been so loyal to for so many years? She took charge. She was part of all the conversations. She made it happen.”
The former “Princess Bride” star has played a fascinating character since the beginning of the series, as Claire’s Machiavellian tendencies echo that of her husband Francis (Spacey), but backwards and in heels. Over the course of Season 5, Claire assumes the office of the President, and the finale’s final moments feature Wright emulating one of her husband’s well-established traditions: speaking directly to the camera. “My turn,” is all she says, but it’s a promise that the next season would be about her taking control.
“That immediately created something of a threat for the character of Francis, who had always owned that device,” Gibson said. “So what was set in motion was a battle for the narrative.”
While the episode debuted on Netflix months before Spacey’s firing, it proved to be prophetic. In the earliest stages of planning, Pugliese said they planned on Claire serving as not just the President, but as a narrator of her own story. It was “where we wanted to go for Season 6 — no matter what happened, no matter what the circumstances, we knew we had that.”
“The other thing that we had in play, that we had planned out in Season 5, was that Season 6 would be about who owns the White House,” he said.
If Spacey hadn’t been fired, that would have largely boiled down to a fight between Claire and Frank. “Essentially at the end of Season 5 there’s a promise Francis makes, that he’s going to own the White House by owning Claire,” Pugliese said.
Added Gibson, “He tried to present it as a partnership to her, but she, you know, read that otherwise.”
“So again, [in] Season 6 we knew that all these forces were trying to control her and own her,” Pugliese said. “That seemed like something we wanted to explore and dramatize. That was always something we wanted as well.”
Retooling Season 6, as it’s been previously revealed by promotional material, meant a “The Conners”-esque decision to reveal that Francis Underwood died off-screen in the time between seasons.
While this meant significant changes to the overall story, for many of the actors it didn’t represent a huge shift for their characters. Zimmer, for example, didn’t see too many ramifications. “Janine’s storyline in general, since day one, has been fighting to get the truth out. And so as far as that goes, that didn’t change. Because that’s always been her drive: to take the people down who are responsible for the evil-doing.”
Lane, who plays Claire’s longtime friend and political operative, was in a similar position. While she shot scenes with Spacey prior to the shutdown, the shift wasn’t a huge one for her. “They managed to find the same trajectory for my character in terms of what she means to Claire, what she interrupts, what she represents,” she said. “They checked every box. So I was lucky.”
In addition, as IndieWire critic Ben Travers already noted, Frank is still very much a part of the season. The character is still trying to make an impact, but, as Gibson said, “he’s doing so from the grave, true to character.”
This might feel awkward, given the fact that Spacey’s exit from the show was mired in scandal, rather than motivated by plot. But Pugliese explained Frank haunting the show was necessary because “he was such a big part of the first five seasons. It seems a little disingenuous to erase him.”
Also, he added, “I think it’s even disingenuous for Claire to try to erase him. She may try to close the door on him and move past him because that was where the story was going anyway, but that can’t be easy. If that had been easy, I think it would have sold out the first five years, somehow.”
“House of Cards” Season 6 premieres Friday, November 2, on Netflix.