“House of Cards” ends with two people fighting over a dead guy’s legacy. That may seem fitting for a show that serves as the last gasp of Kevin Spacey’s career, but Netflix’s torchbearer series goes out with all smoke and no fire. It’s a hazy, empty ending that begs the question: Why make this at all?
The final episode circles around the same question as the final season: Who killed Frank Underwood? Setting aside the misguided nature of structuring Robin Wright’s first season as the lead around her disgraced co-star’s dead character, let’s cut to the chase: Doug Stamper did it. On the night in question, Doug (Michael Kelly) intercepted the former president when he went to the White House to kill his wife. Frank (Spacey, unseen and unheard throughout Season 6) was pissed at Claire (Wright) for refusing to pardon him, and Doug panicked.
“I didn’t have a plan,” Doug tells Claire in a melodramatic Oval Office confessional. “I used his med. I didn’t know how long it would take [to kill him], but I knew [it would]. I couldn’t let him destroy everything we built. I had to protect the legacy from the man.”
That’s exactly what the show fails to do in its final season. These closing chapters were meant to separate the narrative from Spacey and protect the “House of Cards” legacy from his despicable actions. Instead, the season revolved around his character rather than Claire, only reinforcing that Frank was the priority.
Right after Doug’s confession, he turns on the sitting president and demands she admit Frank put her in power. When Claire refuses, he puts a letter opener to her throat — Frank’s old letter opener — and when he sees blood drip from a small cut, he immediately apologizes. Claire, in turn, stabs him in the gut. She holds him in her arms as he dies, kisses his head, and tells him everything is going to be all right. Claire then cuts off his air supply and he drowns in his own blood.
“There. No more pain,” and with one final glance into the camera, “House of Cards” ends.
These final minutes are so strange, it’s a bit perplexing why this ending needed to be shot, edited, and streamed: Even the most die-hard “House of Cards” viewer has to feel frustrated with such an open-ended conclusion. What happens to Claire when the secret service busts in and finds a dead guy in her arms? Will she plead self-defense? If that somehow worked, will she be reelected? If it doesn’t, does she go to prison? What about the nuclear threat she drummed up to expose Doug, her would-be assassin? And what happened to the Koch brothers stand-ins, a dying Bill (Greg Kinnear) and very lively Annette Shepherd (Diane Lane)? Did Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) ever publish her article?
That’s a lot of loose threads for a series finale, and these aren’t questions that invite deeper thought or meaningful ambiguity. This isn’t a reflection on the corrupt nature of politics, or how those fighting for absolute power see life as disposable. However, it does exemplify the value Netflix puts on content, even when it’s disposable.
When “House of Cards” premiered, no one knew what to make of it. Netflix dumped the first season all at once on a streaming platform that existed before anyone knew what the term “streaming platform” meant. Would people watch? Would the industry treat it like other TV shows? Would successful Hollywood figures like Spacey and David Fincher regret tarnishing their brand with what was then considered a web series?
As far as anyone can tell, given Netflix’s data secrecy, people did watch. The industry did treat it like other prestigious TV shows, and Netflix ultimately regretted hiring Spacey, rather than the other way around. By those metrics, “House of Cards” is a roaring success, but the series also embodies many of Netflix’s present problems.
The final season doesn’t feel like a final chapter; it feels like content. Sure, Netflix executives can say “House of Cards” is complete — to entice any new viewers who have been waiting to binge it all the way through — but the body of work feels more valuable than the work itself. Making original content is more important to Netflix than making great programming. (There are many examples of this mindset, but look no further than the recent renewal of “Insatiable” despite near-unanimous disdain.)
Success as a business model is a question for finance folks, but Netflix has not found a prestigious series that can match “House of Cards.” Back in 2017, before the release of “Mindhunter,” IndieWire wondered if Fincher’s new series could replace “House of Cards” at the Emmys. The answer was no, but maybe the question should have been: Does it need a replacement? If it Netflix keeps making enough expensive, ambitious programming, it will continue to rack up nominations and wins. More to the point, it will have a library of content so vast, viewers will always have something to watch and thus no reason to cancel the subscription.
The value of prestige drama has changed for Netflix. Given the competition for viewers, can’t-miss shows still feel important, but Netflix is gaining control of the conversation. “House of Cards” opened doors for the tech giant, but now it’s just another piece of disposable content. If Netflix cares about the legacy of its seminal series, this ending didn’t reflect it.
“House of Cards” is streaming now on Netflix.