Arts, Television, Review

In Absence of Spacey, ‘House of Cards’ Stands Strong

Just in time for Election Day, Netflix’s Emmy Award-winning political drama House of Cards returned for its sixth and final season. Scandal abounds in the show’s return both on and off the screen: Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) pushes through the first days of her new presidency while grappling with the death of her husband Frank (Kevin Spacey), the former president of the United States. This plotline that was created to address Spacey’s leaving the show after being confronted with numerous allegations of sexual assault in 2017.

The last moments of Season 5 saw Claire’s ascendancy to the highest political office after leaks in President Frank Underwood’s White House reveal his involvement in the murder of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a crime for which Frank’s fiercely loyal Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) takes the blame. Vice president to her husband and next in line, Claire is sworn into the presidency as Frank makes an aside about power, the camera following him in his mental power trip as Claire makes history and becomes the first female president of the United States. Even after leaving the White House, Frank tries to continue to pull the strings in the early days of Claire’s presidency, orchestrating schemes between members of Washington D.C.’s elite. The final scene of the season sees Claire rejecting an incoming call from Frank before offering a stern reclamation of her own presidency: Wright looks directly into the camera and declares, “My turn.”

Season 6 picks up in a moment that happened long before Claire or Frank took office: A preteen Claire stands in a field in a white dress holding a cigarette, staring at something beyond the camera. The memory quickly disappears to reveal present day Claire fielding briefs on threats against her—many of them involving killing her—but the memory does not stay buried for long and viewers quickly find her early encounters with boys to be similar to those she has in the present. Vice President Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) advises her to cancel a scheduled appearance in the interest of her safety.

“The first female president of the United States is not going to keep her mouth shut on the Fourth of f—king July,” Claire laments, setting the tone for Wright’s character’s final season.

Claire Underwood has never been one to cower at the request of men—her relationship with Frank often played more like a complex struggle for power rather than a marriage throughout the first five seasons. Even after seasons of manipulation and backstabbing, Claire remains the only person who can call Frank “Francis.”

What is different about the final season is that Claire is finally able to step out of the shadows, and most importantly free herself from the overbearing shadow of her husband. This new exposure to the world at large presents Claire with a slew of challenges, most of which originate from her gender—one scene in the first episode depicts a female military officer asking Claire if she has a plan that won’t get all the soldiers killed, a question to which she responds “Would you have asked me that if I were a man?”

The military base scene is one of the strongest in the first couple episodes of the final season, perfectly executing the cinematic brilliance that elevated the Netflix series to the Emmy stage in the first place. Claire stands at a podium in front of a massive American flag background, delivering asides such as “Are you still there?” and “Do you miss Francis?” between speech lines. This kind of Shakespearean introspection ensures the audience sees the internal battle Claire fights as a woman in office. The pressure is palpable and real, and the audience is forced to acknowledge the vastly different experiences of the self-assured Frank and the constantly-fighting Claire in office. The two presidencies find common ground during an attempted assassination, however, as Claire becomes the second Underwood to be shot at in office.

Doug Stamper finds himself in a peculiar position in the beginning of Season 6. For the entirety of the first episode, Stamper plays a cold and calculating criminal, insisting upon his guilt even after Frank is long gone. Always plotting, Stamper eventually finds a way to bargain his way out of the psych ward and into the Oval Office during the second episode.

House of Cards proves to handle the Spacey dilemma with seamless grace, adding an element of mystery to the domineering Frank Underwood’s death: Throughout the first two episodes, the audience gets bits and pieces of information about the former president’s final moments, which appear to be punctuated by a natural health-related cause. But as with any House of Cards plotline, it can only be deconstructed through delicate dialogue and shocking revelations. In the final minutes of the second episode, Claire airs her suspicions of foul play, therefore declaring that House of Cards will not fall with a whimper, but with a bang.

Featured Image by Netflix

November 4, 2018