And so, the very first Netflix original series (rather an historically significant claim to fame, when you consider the amount of them around now) comes to a close. It’s not the ending we might have envisaged back in 2013, when House of Cards burst onto our laptops as an elegant, clever, well-acted political drama. True, the show had problems long before revelations of sexual misconduct led to the firing of Kevin Spacey, with increasingly overblown storylines hampering the fourth and fifth seasons considerably. It was the actor’s personal downfall, however, that truly banished hopes of a meaningful denouement to the saga, leaving us with a finale that feels somewhat like an exercise in damage limitation.
The awkward business of Frank’s departure is dealt with matter-of-factly, almost within the first minute. He is dead, we are told. One wonders, at this point, whether someone on the show’s production team might be blessed with clairvoyance. Had they not seen fit to insert Claire in the Oval Office in his stead at the end of the fifth season, it would surely have been impossible to engineer a sixth. She gets her chance to take a stab at the presidency, however, if only for eight episodes.
New to proceedings this time around are Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane), the billionaire siblings whose disdain for the curtailments of government regulation lead them to lock horns with Claire. While they assume the role of chief antagonist, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson), and Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) also re-enter the fray, their allegiances predictably unclear.
It’s still cleverly scripted, and the characters cleanly drawn. One gets the impression that the conniving Shepherds had been written into the story before Frank had been written out; hints at the involvement of the private sector at the end of Season 5 suggest that this was always meant to be about them. Lane’s ice queen could be given more to do, but Greg Kinnear brings a delightful pomposity to the staunchly libertarian Bill, whose anti-establishment rants provide interesting insights into the power structures that exist outside the world of politics.
House of Cards has developed an awareness of our rapidly developing sociopolitical landscape, and is eager to reflect on it. Multiple leaks trickle through the channels of social media. Claire weathers abuse from online trolls. Her status as America’s first female president becomes a pivotal point of focus, seeing her accused at one stage of “weaponizing her feminism.” It is ironic that, for a figure with so many superficial similarities to Hillary Clinton, Claire’s despotic disregard for proper political procedure becomes distinctly Trump-like.
In terms of narrative smoothness, the creators have dealt with Frank Underwood’s abrupt departure with reasonable deftness. What has proven more difficult to overcome, however, is the vacuum he leaves behind as a leading man. Claire was (and remains) a well-drawn character, but, as a protagonist, she simply can’t fill the shoes of her dead husband. There was a sublime inscrutability to Frank; a perfectly judged touch of emotional instability that doesn’t feature in the slightly too-perfect Claire. It would be too harsh to call her one-dimensional, but the nuanced characterization that crafted Frank is no longer anywhere to be seen, and it proves a heavy loss.
So, then, where does this all leave us? House of Cards is still smart, good-looking, absorbing drama. It’s still as good as most of its contemporaries. Unfortunately, it’s a pale shadow of its former self. The improbability of the plot has become impossible to ignore, and, while I am anything but keen to sing the praises of Kevin Spacey, it is impossible to deny that the show has suffered badly from the loss of him.
It’s worth a watch, but please, Netflix, do as you promised and just let it die.
STARS: Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Greg Kinnear, Diane Lane, Campbell Scott