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It’s no spoiler to say Frank Underwood doesn’t make it into the sixth and final season of House of Cards. Netflix announced the character’s offscreen demise , following accusations of sexual harassment against actor Kevin Spacey.
But let’s not dwell on Spacey. A huge part of the show’s appeal has been the interplay between Spacey’s Frank Underwood and his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright. And in season 6, streaming on Netflix now, the show finally belongs to Claire, and to Wright.
She’s so good, so believable, I couldn’t help but wonder if House of Cards should have killed off Francis Underwood even sooner. As influential a character as she’s been all along, Claire’s always been Frank’s wife. Now she’s just a strong individual, who also happens to be president, and it’s a pleasure to watch her fight to be defined on her own terms, not Frank’s.
Women in charge
There’s a moment in this season’s third episode where three women over 50 — Robin Wright, Diane Lane and Patricia Clarkson — meet in the Oval Office and discuss 1949’s feminist manifesto The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Lane’s character, Annette Shepherd, a millionaire and childhood friend of Claire’s, didn’t like it. Clarkson’s Jane Davis says the book was right about everything. Claire doesn’t specify her literary preferences — but I like to think she’s with Jane.
This season’s feminism is right there on screen. And behind the camera too, as women fill writing and directing roles, and Wright is an executive producer.
Wright looks straight into the camera the same way her husband used to. “Are you still there? Do you miss Francis?” she asks one of first times she breaks the fourth wall this season. “Here’s the thing,” she adds. “Whatever Francis told you the last five years, don’t believe a word of it. It’s going to be different for you and me. I’m going to tell you the truth.”
Maybe because it’s impossible not to empathize with Claire the way the accomplished Wright plays her, I found myself rooting for the new fictional president the whole time. Even when she does some pretty questionable things (she can play a few of Frank’s old tricks).
Claire has lots of problems when we see her again at the beginning of season 6. She’s in the first 100 days of her presidency and the Secret Service informs her threats against the office have gone up significantly since she became commander in chief.
Her vice president and de facto chief of staff, Mark Usher, played by Campbell Scott, is trying to mold her decisions to the desires of millionaire siblings Annette and Bill Shepherd, played by Lane and Greg Kinnear. These new characters, in true HoC form and for very complicated reasons, have a hold over Claire that’s difficult for her to shake. What did Francis tell them before he died?
And yes, the conditions surrounding Frank’s death are suspicious to say the least.
Today’s political climate comes up often. Like when Claire forces the Ohio governor to declare a state of emergency in the fictional town of Bellport. There’s been a leak of hydrogen sulfide from a manufacturing plant in a plot that closely resembles the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
There are also references to Donald Trump’s administration. At one point, Claire is interviewing a somewhat misogynistic candidate for the Supreme Court, evoking the controversy around Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment. And Section 4 of the 25th Amendment comes up, reminding us of the impeachment process the vice president and cabinet have to follow if they deem the president unfit to govern.
Yes, at least one character utters the words “collusion with Russia” in the first five episodes.
No escapism here
Don’t expect to find any solace from the real world with this season of House of Cards, and don’t expect to watch with half your brain. Your mind has to constantly function at high level to catch all the references and connect the dots — the many plot turns can be difficult to follow, and there are lots of grandfathered characters and storylines from past seasons.
I would have preferred less constant reminders about the past. I really didn’t need that plot about Frank’s will or so much Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). And when Cathy Durant (Jane Atkinson) or Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) first appeared this season, I really needed to scratch my head to remember the ins and outs of their character arcs. Still, in a season where Claire says things like “Playing incompetent is so exhausting” or “The reign of the white middle-aged men is over,” I have only one true complaint. They should have put Claire front and center a long time ago.
Now, should we start with the #RenewHoC campaign already? Or go straight to #ClaireDesevesHerOwnShow?
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