“Don’t be fooled by her beauty, my wife is ruthless,” goes one of the grievances of Frank Underwood as conveyed by Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), like a snarling, restless wraith through a medium that’s exhausted and crazed now that Season 6 opens sans its votive and polarizing protagonist.
Frank is dead, ostensibly from natural causes, and in the real world, Kevin Spacey has been removed from Hollywood like a suppurating thorn by the pliers of the #MeToo movement.
Former President Frank Underwood is dead, but hail to the Queen, the first woman president of the US.
The final season of this series, that started in 2013, tackles those two subjects to close off its arc of power and politics: the newly widowed Claire Hale Underwood (Robin Wright) as the first woman on the throne constantly being underestimated by her enemies and allies, and the void that Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) left that’s also constantly making those he left behind haunted as a striking metaphor for the thespian vacuum that was created when Hollywood made him almost an overnight pariah.
To be fair, the husband and wife team of Frank and Claire balanced each other as the yang and yin of American praxis-seizures. Frank provided the masculine, fast-rhyming, jive-talking rooster heat prone to bouts of frozen self-doubt, while Claire was the calculating and frosty blonde beast whose emotional outbursts and attacks of sudden recklessness tended to destabilize everything.
The complexity of their relationship and how they brutalized, cajoled, teased, or tricked their way out of the sheer immensity of forces sometimes arrayed against them were what made it riveting TV. It’s also what earned them a ton of accolades from Emmys to Golden Globes and SAG Awards. It’s what kept us streaming and binge-ing through five seasons.
Which is why this final season is such a letdown.
This atrocity of uneven writing, ludicrous plot development, and an utterly absurd and abrupt ending (trust us, you’ll hate it just as much as The Sopranos finale)
As Frank might say, “Show some ambition!”
It starts off slowly and tentatively as if to analogize the nervous and almost reluctant way that Claire can now unbelievingly clasp her hands fully around the reins of power. When the show opens, the Secret Service is reciting a litany of threats against Claire that, they state, in the 100 days since she got the position, has been more than what her husband got during all his days in office.
“Give me a chance, I’ll show you,” is what all her fourth-wall breaking moments mostly amount to, as well as musing about what might really have been the cause of Frank’s death. She’s a haunted woman with her enemies already massing against her.
This season the villains are mainly Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear as Annette and Bill Shepherd, powerful brother and sister technologists who have controlling interests in the future of the Underwood administration. Especially since Frank apparently promised them some very choice parcels of American mercantile policy before he was forced off the throne. Followers of American politics would be right to assume that the Shepherds are meant to evoke the meddling Koch brothers.
Throughout all this Claire just keeps fucking it up for both awful and good reasons and while Wright does her level best to breathe humanity and humor into the frozen tundra of the new president’s character, there’s very little that was likeable or relatable to begin with from a well-educated, wealthy girl who married the ambitious talker with big dreams.
And while HoC is, like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, predicated on the narrative of making us root for basically detestable characters, Claire was never an underdog or a sympathetic character even when Frank was doing heinously unloving, un-husbandly things to his wife.
Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its genuine bravura moments.
When Claire finally gets off her heels and goes on the attack against the Shepherds, it's a superb, "go-girl" moment. But it only comes around by Episode 4.
Between that and the final episode various big issues are tackled and given their trouncing under the new Underwood administration, including: new media and politico bloggers, the new feminism and #MeToo, the changing face of family and American values, and the giant elephant in the room of what to do when a woman president starts acting too much like a woman.
“Do you even have a plan?” snidely remarks a Marine (black, a woman) on one of Claire’s first visits to the military.
“Would you be asking me that if I were a man?” counters President Claire and shuts up the sassy Marine, then walks off with a silent mic drop.
When Claire successfully spars with her domestic rivals in the recurring characters it’s a sincere joy, like against formidable but duplicitous adviser Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson), the insane and marauding fixer with a perennial man-crush on Frank, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), and the conniving vice-president Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) who would be the poster boy equivalent for our bayong-wearing makapili.
One of the two things that stood out were the times she’d have with Russian President Petrov, mostly on private calls when they’d talk shop but also inevitably turn to their personal feelings and troubles because, well, in the end, they can only really relate to each other and absolute power isolates absolutely. Petrov is an even more sympathetic character than Claire, and that seems quite apt.
The other joyous, brilliant thing here are those flashback she’d have, mostly with Annette Spencer (Diane Lane) as a young girl in the university where they’d riff on the pains and changing bonds of sisterhood. “I want every door wide open,” declared a young and beautiful Claire in another flashback to her college sweetie; then she proceeds to call Frank and accept his engagement proposal as said boyfriend lies sleeping post-coitus. All of which are meant to convey: she’s more powerful than you think and her moral boundaries are nil.
Neither Wright’s darndest best (which already won her a Golden Globe and a Satellite Award) or the few shining moments of women-on-top (some Godfather-worthy moments, too) can save this last season from being a hot mess that never quite gets its act together.
And since this is the final one, we’re going to have to send it off like we should all politicos who’ve overstayed their welcome and left things worse off than they were: with a middle-finger and consigned to the trash heap of history.
House of Cards Season 6 is now streaming on Netflix