'House of Cards' season 6 review: The final season marks a return to more nostalgic times
How does 'House of Cards' fare without the much-maligned Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood? Surprisingly well.
'House of Cards' returns for its long-awaited sixth and final season this coming Friday on November 2, and unless you've been living a rock you know that former lead Kevin Spacey will no longer be a part of the show. The numerous allegations of sexual assault against the Academy Award-winning actor left Netflix with little choice but to terminate him from the show, as well as all other pending contracts with the network. It cost them an estimated $39 million dollars in the process and possibly a non-insignificant chunk of the 'House of Cards' fanbase that had tuned in for what had been a sub-par season 4 and season 5 (in comparison to the first three seasons) just because of Frank Underwood's continued Machiavelian exploits, ruthless pragmatism and unfettered ambition.
The production for season 6 was put on indefinite hold and the fate of the show, as well as the few thousand cast and crew members that had poured their blood, sweat, and tears into the drama, looked uncertain. But thanks to Robin Wright's campaigning, season 6 went back into production — albeit for eight episodes instead of the usual 13 — and it was announced that the former 'Princess Bride' actress' Claire Underwood would be taking center-stage. Understandably, there was apprehension that accompanied the news, and no one was quite sure how Claire would fare without her husband by her side. Could someone who had been the ever-supportive foil to his nefarious scheming suddenly take center stage and change roles to become the aggressor?
If you're one of those who asked that question, I can assure you that the first five episodes of season 6 answer that question with an emphatic yes. But if you'd paid attention to the five-season lead-up to this season, I doubt you would have entertained such nonsensical concerns. Claire seizing power and claiming the Oval Office for herself has been in the works for quite some time and is not something that showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa Gibson came up on a whim as a stop-gap measure. While Frank was stagnating in his increasingly desperate bids to keep the circling wolves away from his failing presidency, the overarching story of Claire saw genuine progress: she went from the head of an NGO to UN ambassador, to aspiring politician, to vice president, to acting president, and then, finally, to president.
That she happened to rise to the top at the end of season 5 was just a happy, and yes, a lucky coincidence. Aware that her husband's grand show of stepping down was just that, she had cut him off, and in what could almost be described as a passing-of-the-torch moment, had broken the fourth wall with the audience just as Frank had done all those times in the past. Her declaration of 'My turn' would prove prophetic, and I for one am maybe a little glad that we get to see what 'House of Cards' looks with a leading character that's not past her sell-by date.
The first episode of season 6 opens with a flashback into Claire's childhood, where she's first shown smoking and then later, bullied by a group of other children, as well as a scene in the Oval Office where a secret service agent describes in great detail how one of the new president's dissidents wants to skin her and arrange her in the parts to resemble the star-spangled banner. It's a running theme throughout the rest of the season where it's made abundantly clear that the first woman commander-in-chief faces uphill battles and opposition from forces that are much beyond her control. In doing so, both Pugliese and Gibson have tried to establish a narrative that attempts to shift focus away from Frank, and to new lady-in-charge. But to give a genuine verdict on how successful they've been, I get the feeling that I'd still need to watch the last three episodes.
However, the specter of Frank Underwood still ominously looms, threatening to rain down on Claire's much-deserved ascension at the slightest misstep. "The reign of the middle-aged white man is over," Claire proclaims, but at whatever subliminal level, her actions are still being guided by her husband's cold, dead hands. The overcompensation is evident in every decision she takes, as she announces time and again how she is not her husband and how his words no longer hold water, going out of her way to break past promises to establish her foothold in the muddled, cynical world of Washington politics. Ironic as it is, it's still perfectly in character for Frank. His lust for power and control extends its black, oily tendrils beyond the grave, ever present in its refusal to loosen the iron grip its established over the past five years.
It's a testament to the writers then, that despite killing off such a pivotal character, they've still been able to create a sense of intrigue and suspense that's prevalent through the first five episodes. That's also thanks, in part, to the show's newest antagonists: Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane). As the real-life portrayals of the so-called American oligarchs that Claire says she has to protect the government from, the brother-sister duo present a genuinely formidable challenge to the president. And it's their constant back-and-forth and politicking that gives the season an edge that's been missing in some of the drama's more recent renditions. Turns out that what 'House of Cards' really needed was a fresh injection of some compelling, multi-dimensional characters that weren't just dumpster fodder to the Underwoods, and who they couldn't just walk circles around without breaking the slightest sweat. Who would have thought?
That's not to say it's all peachy, of course. Maybe it's just me, but I do not like the dynamic between Claire and Annette one bit. Supposedly "life-long friends" who'd known each other since their schooling days, their conversations consist of one paying the other a backhanded compliment only for the other to return a more biting backhanded compliment. It's got a very soap-opera, mother-in-law daughter-in-law bickering vibe to it that doesn't do Claire any justice whatsoever. If the writers' aim was to portray her as the natural, equally unrelenting, Nixonian successor to Frank and rid her of her inner Lady Macbeth, why engage her in such petty altercations?
Another, possibly more controversial, point I would like to raise is how as the seasons have progressed, 'House of Cards' has increasingly desensitized deaths. You could understand why, at some twisted level, Frank had Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) killed and it was because they posed a threat to his elaborate blueprints for the presidency. But from there on out, every following death has seemed a little needless, and excessive if you will. In the end, these are politicians after all and not some mafioso kingpins. But negatives aside, 'House of Cards' sustains the high-production value that made it so popular amongst critics and audiences alike. The cinematography is as gripping and mesmerizing as ever and the direction, for what feels like the first time in a long time, is very much on point. Each episode flows from point A to point B without the mildly infuriating and pointless bandying, and the storytelling and pacing feel natural and unforced.
Most notably, season 6 also marks a return to more nostalgic times with multiple, simultaneously unspooling storylines giving you no time to stop and think what you just saw on the screen or how it connects to the big picture. It's a pleasant change of pace from when you knew everything boiled down to Frank thugging and bullying his way to whatever perceived prize he saw next and this air of unpredictability will no doubt do this final season a world of good. Every scene is pregnant with tension, and you'll find yourself binging your way through the episodes in the search for your next fix, only to realize that, before you know it, it's all over.