How 'House of Cards' Competed With Trump's White House

"The most terrifying thing is not that we may be like politics, but that politics has become like a TV show," says co-showrunner Frank Pugliese of the Netflix political saga, which released its final season days ahead of the midterm elections.
Courtesy of Netflix
Robin Wright in the final season of 'House of Cards'

The final season of House of Cards wasn't always going to bump up against the 2018 midterm elections. 

After Kevin Spacey was fired from the series over sexual assault allegations, however, production on the Netflix political saga was halted so the sixth season could be reworked. After a significant delay, the resulting final eight episodes were given a launch date of Nov. 2 — the weekend before Americans would head to the polls on Nov. 6 for a day that is being billed as the most important election of a lifetime by both sides.

The final season of House of Cards sees the first female president, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), reckoning with her own complicity as she assumes — and abuses — the power of the Oval Office. Her husband (formerly played by Spacey) is dead and gone, but other Washington, D.C., characters step forward to fill the void as she takes on the political patriarchy. When the season begins, Claire is both a grieving widow and sitting president who faces assassination attempts in her first 100 days and who, by the time midterms roll around, is devising a plan to outsmart the American oligarchs who are trying to control her presidency.

"Politics will be on the audience's minds when they watch the final season," co-showrunner Frank Pugliese acknowledges to The Hollywood Reporter. "At best, I think the show can ask questions about what kind of government you want and how you can be involved. Things like that." His partner, Melissa James Gibson, adds, "I'm really hoping it will get out the vote!"

House of Cards has a long history of trolling real-world politics when it comes to marketing. After releasing empowering footage of the final season just moments before the Christine Blasey Ford-Brett Kavanaugh hearings began on Sept. 27, the political thriller piggybacked off Donald Trump’s Presidential Alert text message to debut the official trailer for its sixth and final season on Oct. 8. A trip back through the House of Cards twitter feed unveils a trove of posts aptly timed to the ever-evolving news cycle. The account also memorably kept an omniscient eye on the 2016 presidential election night results and Trump's then-stunning win.

But Pugliese and James Gibson, the writers who took over the Beau Willimon-created series as co-showrunners in season five, say that the actual content of House of Cards is never written in response to what's happening in the real White House. 

"We try to be symptomatic of the times the way it seems government itself is symptomatic of the times," Pugliese has explained. "You could say our show is one product of the moment, of the culture, of whatever is in the air, the same way however Trump got in office is symptomatic of the culture and the moment and whatever’s in the air. We don’t really try to talk to that or react to it; we’re just responding to the same stuff that’s in the air and trying to create drama out of it."

But for the first time since the show launched in 2013, the fictional drama known for tracking Machiavellian levels of scheming, manipulation and murder from inside the Underwood White House — including at the hands of Claire — is competing with real life. "The most terrifying thing is not that we may be like politics, but that politics has become like a TV show," says Pugliese. "Our job as dramatists is to keep stuff unresolved. You would hope politics is about consensus. It seems that politics is trying to keep things unresolved and sort of be some perverse idea of entertainment to try to keep themselves relevant. It seems an unhealthy way to be relevant. It’s our job to create the drama."

Gibson sums up: "The White House has become the TV show. The show has always been interested in the seams of the institutions of democracy: Where are those limits? I think over the seasons with all branches of government, we’ve started to explore the edge. Real life is, of course, giving us a run for our money."

One of the running themes of season six is: who owns the White House? The fifth season, with Frank's exile from the White House, promised more of an exploration of the power behind the power. Season six has a continuing story of presidential side deals with its Russian president, features a corrupt SCOTUS appointment and an analytics company that is buying up local media and illegally collecting data on Americans. But the biggest challenges for Claire come from the private sector: namely, the Shepherd siblings (played by Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear), who are modeled after the Koch brothers. "There are powers outside the White House — which I think become more obvious every day — that have a lot to do with what’s happening inside the White House. We wanted to play with that [on the show]," Pugliese says.

Another theme — coming amid the #MeToo era and when female candidates on midterm ballots are poised to make history — is whether or not America is ready for a female president or for women to hold the true power. "Is this country going to be comfortable, really deep down, with having a woman as the most powerful person in the world?" Gibson asks. "Will this country let a woman actually have power, even if she is the first female president?" Pugliese echoes. During the season, Claire vows that the "the reign of the middle-aged white man is over."

On Nov. 5, the show's Twitter feed released an Election Day message from Wright's POTUS: "In your upcoming elections, I wish you only candidates with integrity, honesty and will to change. Good luck." As voters head to the polls on Tuesday, perhaps some of the questions posed by the House of Cards pair will resonate.