Warning: The following contains spoilers for House of Cards season six.
House of Cards’s sixth season is a dense and convoluted morass of political machinations, betrayal, posturing, death, threats, and juicy subtext between the power players that rule America. In short, it's back to being what you once loved about the show before it fell off.
Kevin Spacey’s ruthless Frank Underwood is dead under so-far unrevealed circumstances, infamously written out of the script in the wake of the actor's 2017 sexual assault allegations, but the show is just as gleefully amoral as ever. The plot is utterly unpredictable, and nearly every development is a shocking surprise. The joy of this show is in the melodramatic twists and turns, the uncertainty of different characters’ loyalty and capacity for betrayal in the pursuit of power.
The new episodes pick up after Claire Underwood’s first hundred days as President of the United States. Robin Wright, powerful as ever, is absolutely mesmerizing now that she no longer shares the spotlight. She plows through White House hallways, fancy cocktail parties, and speeches at benefit events with grace and elegance highlighted by her always-killer high-fashion wardrobe. She’s fully taken over the show’s signature gimmick, routinely breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly. While Frank seemed to view the audience as a sort of confidant for his inner thoughts and emotions, Claire is wary. It feels like she has something to prove.
“Whatever Francis told you the last five years, don’t believe a word of it,” she says during an amazing sequence where her direct statements to the audience are intercut with a boilerplate Fourth of July speech to the military. “It’s going to be different for you and me. I’m going to tell you the truth.”
She must be wary in combating her primary antagonists in the episodes released to the press: Annette and Bill Shephard (Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear), creepily intimate sibling oil tycoons who run a conglomerate whose shadowy power is felt throughout the world. Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) is firmly in their camp after he apparently went on to work with Frank after being fired from his position as White House press secretary. Doug Stamper (Emmy winner Michael Kelly) is under psychiatric evaluation after sort of admitting to the murder of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), whose death Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) is doggedly still investigating.
Also in the mix is a surveillance app developed by Annette’s media mogul son Duncan (Cody Fern), a conflict over Syrian oil reserves with Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), negotiations with a lawyer who represents the ISIS-like terrorist group, ICO, and the threat of testimony from former Secretary of State Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson) about all the illegal shit the Underwoods have done. Not the least of these is Frank hospitalizing her by pushing her down the stairs at the end of season five. Claire’s two-faced Vice President Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) poses as her greatest ally, but could be the most insidious threat against her.
While she’s no saint, at one point ordering a woman to assassinate one of her dear friends, Claire’s enemies are the same ones that threaten the United States in real life. Russian aggression. Monied interest groups who blockade campaign finance reform and gun violence legislation while propping up unpopular policies like the Dakota Access Pipeline approval and the repeal of Net Neutrality. Even though she's diabolical and calculating, she still somehow manages to be refreshing compared to the IRL president.
More importantly, five episodes into the final season, Claire seems unstoppable. During one meeting where she appears to be paralyzed and backed into a corner, she turns to the camera and says, “Playing incompetent is so exhausting.” Shortly after, Petrov is talking to Doug in a room full of powerful government types and asks, “Who do you fear the most? Out of all of them?” Doug says, simply, “Her.”
It’s wonderful to watch Claire work without the Shakespearean yoke of Frank’s hubris—the fatal flaw that made him unnecessary enemies and led to his demise when he provoked former President Walker into testifying against him in season five. She’s cold and calculating where Frank was gaudy and bombastic.
In the first episode, Claire catches a bird trapped in the walls of the White House. She clutches it in her hand and takes it outside, and begins monologuing. "It's not true, what he told you all those years ago." She's referring to Spacey's own season one monologue describing the difference between "the kind of pain that makes you strong" and "useless pain," before strangling a dog that had been hit by a car. "There's only one kind. Pain is pain," she says. In that moment, it looks like she's going to crush the poor bird in her fingers just to prove a point. That's how well the show has conditioned us to expect needless cruelty over the past five seasons. But instead, she lets it go. "Francis, I'm done with you," she says, and the bird flies away.
Claire is certainly not free from Frank's impact on her life. Every conflict throughout this season makes that clear. But it's awesome to watch her work to move past his toxic legacy, even while possibly creating her own.
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