How 'House of Cards' Pulled Off That Timely, Feminist Coup

Robin Wright's POTUS flipped the table on her male-dominated White House in a season well-timed to the historic results of the 2018 midterm elections.
Courtesy of Netflix
Robin Wright in the final season of 'House of Cards'

[This story contains spoilers from the first five episodes of the sixth and final season of Netflix's House of Cards.]

House of Cards delivered one of its biggest political twists in its final season.

Halfway through the sixth and final season of the Netflix political saga (which is now streaming), President Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) reveals to viewers that she has a plan to wiggle herself out from under the thumb of the Washington, D.C., patriarchy. To borrow a phrase from the showrunners, how she accomplishes that is by "weaponizing" the assumptions that are made about women, and specifically women who hold a position of power.

"Claire walks into this White House and instantly everyone is trying to manage her and control her," co-showrunner Melissa James Gibson tells The Hollywood Reporter about what the show's first female president is up against in the final season. "She just wants to wipe the slate clean of anyone who is trying to prevent her from leading."

In the fifth episode, it is revealed that she has accomplished exactly that. 

After a polarizing peace deal with Russia, Claire becomes a shut-in. Refusing to leave the White House and appear in public, her advisers, the media and the American public speculate about whether she is fit to lead the country. But it's all an act. "I have to imagine the perfect combination of things. Here's the recipe: First, I have to think about all the ways men have tried to manage me my whole life. Then I think of America's worst fear when it comes to a female in the Oval Office. And then finally, my biggest regret: Francis J. Underwood," she explains in a fourth-wall break to the audience about the motivation behind her crying face, mascara running, that was captured by the news media.

But in the 11th hour, when her Vice President Mark Usher (Scott Campbell) is holding a meeting with her cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove her from office, Claire reveals her true hand to both viewers and the men (and women, namely Diane Lane's Annette Shepherd) who are trying to control her presidency. 

In the blink of an eye, Claire finds her resolve and reveals that she has instigated an FBI investigation into her most-trusted advisers. She is able to fire all of the secretaries who are being investigating for colluding with Russia and makes way for the first-ever, all-female cabinet in U.S. history. "Our work begins today," she announces as she holds open the door to reveal a cabinet room dominated by women.

While it appears Claire's feminist coup may have been written with wishful thinking, the twist ended up foreshadowing an empowering narrative that has emerged from the 2018 midterm elections. The final season was released only days ahead of Election Day and Nov. 6 brought with it a record number of women elected to Congress. House of Cards celebrated the news by sharing Claire's all-female cabinet reveal on Twitter.

And while the table-turning move is reflective of a culture that is increasingly placing women in positions of power on the small screen, it's also based in a feasible reality. The president would theoretically be able to swap out her, or his, cabinet members thanks to a "fascinating loophole," James Gibson explains. "You can do it if all the cabinet members have been pre-approved by the Senate for other positions. No matter what the positions are you can put them into the cabinet," Pugliese adds.

House of Cards invites political consultants and experts into its writers room on a weekly basis to have a dialogue and fact-check that storylines are "at least possible," even if they have never happened in real life. "We did a lot of research into finding out and then breaking some versions of how a 25th Amendment would happen," Pugliese says. "And then it seemed right that Claire would subvert that and turn that against whoever was using it against her. I will say, there are a lot of pictures of all-male cabinets that are sort of fascinating to look at. But in Claire’s relationship to her feminism, it seemed right for her and for her in the show to try to weaponize that as well. That’s how it works in House of Cards."

The series also lent extra authenticity by casting real-life journalist Elizabeth Thorp, who formerly ran the glossy D.C. publication Capitol File, in one of the roles. The co-showrunners acknowledge that the female-dominated White House serves as an antidote to Trump's cabinet, and that their casting choices were also a political commentary. "Part of what we wanted to focus on this season is getting powerful women in the room together, all of whom have drawn different lines in the sand," James Gibson said. "It's a luxury we tend to afford men — that we allow there to be different kinds of powerful men in a room, so why not explore that with women?"

Editor's note: The interviews with Pugliese, James Gibson were conducted before Election Day.