SERIES "House of Cards"
WHEN | WHERE Sixth and final season starts streaming Friday on Netflix.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) is now president of the United States following the death — a suspicious one, by the way — of her husband, Francis. (Kevin Spacey, who was fired from the show last fall after charges of on-set sexual harassment). Frank's longtime hatchet man/fixer, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is in jail for confessing to the murder of reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Intrepid editor Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) believes other culprits were behind her murder. Meanwhile, Claire's hold on power is tenuous: Russian boss Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) wants her to divide up Syria with him; her chief of staff, Mark Usher (Campbell Scott), wants her to sign a bill that would be hugely advantageous to villainous billionaires, Bill Shepherd (Greg Kinnear) and his sister, also Claire's childhood friend, Annette Shepherd (Diane Lane). Her husband's body is barely cold and a nation suspicious about the first female president wants her head.
This review is based on the first five episodes of this final eight-episode season -- all that were made available.
MY SAY The show that launched the Netflix revolution had to go out with a bang, or failing that, at least a big splash. But after Spacey was fired, a whimper looked inevitable. Consider the magnitude of the challenge after "Cards" kick-started production last October without him. The show a.) needed to re-think the entire final season; b.) tie up countless loose ends; c.) put Claire in charge; and d.) give her a whole new set of antagonists because so many of the others were six feet under. And, by the way, all this had to be done in just eight episodes as opposed to the usual dozen.
After the panic subsided, the producers — who include Wright — appear to have settled on the most obvious path forward which has turned out to be the best one. Make "House of Cards" all about Claire — it always wanted to be anyway— and change as little else as possible. Even Frank is still in the show, or his ghost, so to speak. His malevolence didn't die with him, but just re-seeded into other forms.
The guiding narrative principle of "Cards" remains intact as well -- how one cover-up invariably leads to another cover-up which then demands another cover-up, and so on, until you/they forget what was supposed to be covered up in the first place. Those pesky truth-seekers (usually reporters) who ask too many questions do so at their own peril lest they too become Underwood casualties.
Meanwhile, the central antihero is now female. As sitting president, Claire instantly becomes a target for every misogynist yahoo with a social media account, and after her staff reads her some of the more colorful jeremiads, she says, "I thought everyone loves a widow."
That's just in the first scene. Men cut her off when she says something, or roll their eyes when her back is turned. Her own personal Brutus, Mark Usher, can barely contain his disdain, while actively siding (or plotting) with the Shepherd siblings. In a bid for sisterhood, Claire brings old friend, also deputy undersecretary of commerce, Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson) into her inner inner circle, by literally giving her the bedroom across from her own in the White House. But shrewd and hyper-pragmatic Jane knows well enough that this chief executive is no champion of feminism. She's a murderously ruthless champion of herself and has the trail of bodies, a few of them female, as proof.
Where do Claire and "House of Cards" end up? The best part of these first five episodes is that they offer few clues other than some broad-stroke ones that smell suspiciously like red herrings. Claire, who breaks the fourth wall a few more times this season (she began that annoying habit in the 5th) isn't about to offer any clues either, but her few asides do suggest she knows the endgame, or thinks she does.
She probably doesn't, but the show that has now become hers is clearly ambivalent about letting her go. That's understandable. Like Walter White, she's the antihero we love to love — conflicted, intelligent, seductive, and human-all-too-human. Claire will be done in just eight episodes. A shame because she was just getting started.
BOTTOM LINE Claire's turn and she makes it count.