There’s a thing that happens in the first episode of the final season of House of Cards — Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), now the president, which is not really a spoiler because of real-world events (more on that shortly) and because the show has been pretty up-front about it in the promotional materials, pauses during a big speech to military personnel and turns her face directly toward the camera to address us at home like her husband used to do. She lets the look hold for a beat and then asks us “Do you miss Francis?”
And I, the professional analyst of culture, the reserved arbiter of taste and quality, let out a resounding “Nope!”
This brings us to the elephant in the room — Kevin Spacey is no longer on House of Cards, the show that kicked off Netflix’s push towards quality original content and won him a handful of fancy awards. The reasons for this are well-documented and easily Google-able and have very little to do with his on-screen performance. The truth is, though, his exit was probably overdue creatively, too. Frank Underwood was a reasonably interesting character when he was hungry and striving for power, but by the later seasons, his schtick had grown very stale. The cartoonish Southern accent had lost its charm. The budget was skyrocketing from having to replace all the scenery he devoured. (I assume.) Things weren’t great on a number of fronts.
And so, adios Frank, hello President Claire. Season 6 opens with Claire in the White House after the mysterious death of her husband. She’s in charge now. She’s running the show, or at least trying to while dealing with the various alliances and enemies and promises Frank juggled. It’s better. It’s definitely better. Claire has been the show’s best or second-best character for at least half of the show’s run now (depending on where you rank Mahershala Ali’s slick lobbyist Remy Danton). Giving her more power and more responsibility is a step in the right direction.
Giving her new adversaries is good, too. This season, those adversaries come in the form of a powerful free-market-crazed set of billionaire siblings played by Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane. Lane’s character, Annette, is a blast. Within the first two or three episodes we learn the following about her:
- She knows a lot about fireworks
- She likes to steal things from jackets rich people leave in coat rooms
- She was Claire’s childhood friend
- She has a devious Jared Kushner-like son who is building a shady media mini-empire
- She spends most of her time menacingly gliding around mansions and galas in designer clothing that costs more than your car
The scenes with Annette and Claire are the highlight of the early part of the season. There’s an admiration/rivalry/hatred cocktail being stirred up. The cocktail will probably be poisoned before it is served because, I mean, this is House of Cards, after all.
Which is to say, yes, a lot of the same general problems are lingering about. The show still takes itself entirely too seriously for something as pulpy and crazy as it is on paper. Doug Stamper is still frumping around doing all sorts of Doug Stamper things and the action grinds to a halt whenever he’s on screen. The metaphors are still as subtle as hammer to the back of the skull. Claire finds a bird and lets it fly away to be free of its gilded prison. The Vice President — continuing a long line of duplicitous television vice presidents — carries a lighter even though he no longer smokes because he “likes to play with it.” The fire. Do you get it? He likes to play with fire. Thwack, hammer to the head.
The plot is still… too much. It’s too much. Like, guess how long it takes the show to kill off an important character from seasons past. And guess how long it takes someone to use a corpse as part of a blackmail scheme. And guess if both of those things happen in the same episode and involve different dead characters. Spoilers: Not long, not long, yup, and yup. Half the time I barely remember who it is the characters are having hushed conversations about.
Oh snap, Doug is going to frame the lobbyist for Rainer’s murder?
Wait, how did Rainer die?
And who killed him?
And… who was Rainer?
And so on. You probably don’t remember, either. With good reason. I just made up Rainer 30 seconds ago. I bet you still started looking it up to check. That’s my point. So many things happen and so many people die that I probably could have dragged out the Rainer ruse much longer.
Short version: House of Cards is off to a much better start this season, thanks in large part to the notable subtraction and subsequent elevation of its stars, but it is still very much House of Cards, different in good ways but still the same in the bad ones.