House of Cards season 6 review: Final season of flagship Netflix show will make you miss Kevin Spacey, and that’s a problem
House of Cards (Season 6)
Cast - Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Campbell Scott, Greg Kinnear, Diane Lane
Rating - 3/5
“Are you still there?” Claire Underwood asks us, breaking the fourth wall for the first time in the final season of Netflix’s flagship original series, House of Cards. “Do you miss Francis?” she wonders.
Of course we’re still here. We have been for six years. We’ve watched in silence as despicable people have done despicable deeds. We’ve stood by and witnessed murder, mayhem and impromptu threesomes. We’ve sat in shock as one man rose up the ranks of power, suggesting perhaps that the key to success in this terrible, terrible world is to be a sociopath. And we’ve done nothing about it. We are, as they say these days, complicit.
Watch the House of Cards season 6 trailer here
But do we miss Francis J Underwood? That’s a tricky one. The easy answer — the correct answer — would be ‘no’. We don’t miss him because he represents pure evil, and he was played by a man who has been accused of committing the most reprehensible crimes imaginable. So good riddance. But it seems as though Claire’s question was directed inwards as much as it was towards us, the silent accomplices.
Virtually every time she breaks the fourth wall — a trick she learnt from Frank, by the way — Claire makes a deliberate, and often dismissive reference to her husband, who we are informed died sometime between seasons five and six. How exactly President Frank Underwood lost his life remains a source of great mystery — at least until the first five episodes, which is how many were made available for preview, but it is strongly implied that he died an unnatural death.
The show’s insistence of not letting go of Frank — and by extension Spacey — sort of backfires in its face. Because every time Frank is invoked, which is often, he is the butt of some joke, the moral of some ambiguous story, the punchline in a series of lessons. It is as if the writers are going to extra lengths to not only correct certain aspects of the show’s past, but to actively trample on its face. They are, in essence, writing their own bill and passing it, too.
But by replacing Frank with a character who might arguably be even worse is dicey, especially when the show positively shoehorns in moments that are clearly meant to reflect its newfound sense of feminism. On many occasions, Claire makes tired statements such as ‘We can’t let men tell us what to do anymore’ or ‘The time of the white male is over’ or ‘Would you have asked this if I were a man?”. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. On several other occasions she interjects with reminders about the (in)correct use of male pronouns. All this would be fine in a lesser show, a show about something else. But in House of Cards it just feels lazy; an easy, almost pandering way to get the audience on your side — sort of the equivalent of a stand up comedian performing to a New Delhi crowd and yelling, “New Delhi make some noise!” at them.
For instance, is presenting Claire Underwood as a feminist role model a thoughtful decision? She’s hardly someone to look up to. Comic book villains might observe her for tips, maybe, but surely not progressive-minded young girls looking to build a better future for themselves.
By putting Claire in a corner, the show writes itself a wide selection of situations with which to unleash her emergence. Like her husband, it is understood that she did not win the office of the President of the United States under fair circumstances. So she must prove herself, and as the actual 2016 US presidential election showed us, Americans can be more sexist than racist.
In a plot thread that reminded me of the first Godfather movie — there are other arcs, arcs about business expansion and the collision of the private sector into government that will remind you of The Godfather Part II — Claire blames her administration’s lack of focus on not having a Chief of Staff, much like how Sonny Corleone complained that his brother Tom Hagen was not a wartime consigliere to the Corleone family. The man filling that position temporarily is Mark Usher, Claire’s Vice President, played by the great Campbell Scott, about whom not nearly enough is written, in my opinion.
Every recent season of the show, it seems, has been presented with a new series of challenges to overcome. A couple of years ago House of Cards lost its creator and primary driving force, Beau Willimon, who left to spearhead the recent Hulu series, The First. And then came the trouble of having to continue pushing the boundaries of outlandishness in a political climate that broke new rules everyday. But there has been no greater difficulty than losing lead actor Kevin Spacey (rightly so) and having to rework an entire season under a condensed schedule.
Against all odds, though, the final season of House of Cards isn’t the complete train wreck that it could so easily have been. It’s less engaging than those spectacular early seasons, where it didn’t really matter if you were keeping up with all the skullduggery; just the knowledge of something being amiss, and the possibility of it also happening in real life, was enough.
But season six feels unmistakably slighter, as if they shot the regular 13 episodes, but slashed out random ones in between. Many times, I had to double check if I hadn’t mistakenly skipped an episode or two. Claire’s ultimate plan takes time in unraveling, but when it does, it’s less to do with Washington politics and more in line with your average soap opera, populated by senators and congressmen (and women).
So yes. We do miss Frank, and it feels terrible.