'House of Cards' Showrunners Unravel Series Finale Death Mystery

Showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson speak to The Hollywood Reporter about why the Robin Wright political saga had to end with an "inevitable showdown."
Courtesy of Netflix; Inset: Getty Images
Robin Wright on 'House of Cards'; Inset: Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson

[This story contains MAJOR spoilers from the entire sixth and final season of Netflix's House of Cards.]

"There. No more pain."

Those were the final words spoken by the surviving character on House of Cards — Claire Hale — before the Robin Wright-starring political saga faded to black for the final time. To hear showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson tell it, the series finale of Netflix's first original series ended with an "inevitable showdown" between Claire (Wright) and Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) over who killed Francis J. Underwood (formerly played by Kevin Spacey).

After firing Spacey over sexual assault allegations and reworking the final season without the disgraced star, the sixth cycle of House of Cards (which bowed in full on Nov. 2) revealed quickly that Frank was dead. The mystery surrounding Frank's death, however, cast an intended shadow over the entire season. It wasn't until the final face-off between the two people closest to the former President Underwood that Doug confessed to Claire (who relinquished her Underwood name) that he killed Frank to protect "the legacy from the man." Frank was going to the White House to murder Claire following the events of the season five finale and Doug poisoned Frank to stop him. The confession explains the story Claire had crafted: after finding Frank dead, Claire told the public Frank died by her side in bed from an accidental overdose; she told the audience, however, that he was murdered.

During the final showdown in the Oval Office, Doug wants Claire — who is pregnant with Frank's unborn child — to admit that Frank made her who she is, and she refuses. He threatens Claire with a letter opener, superficially cutting her and sending blood down her neck. (The color red along with the "pain" reference were nods to how the series began, says Pugliese.) Doug, however, fails to go through with the act and Claire turns the weapon on him, stabbing him in the stomach. Doug dies in her arms and — in what James Gibson calls a "full circle" series moment — Claire flashes one last look to the audience after silencing the person who knows all of her secrets.

"Claire reveals herself to be as much of an antihero as Francis ever was," says James Gibson, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter along with Pugliese about how to interpret the ending. "She’s allowed to be as complicated and surprising and dark and everything he ever was."

Below, in a chat with THR, the executive producers unpack the motivations behind the main characters in the final season — from Doug's fourth-wall break to Claire "weaponizing motherhood" — and explain why Frank's (and by extension, Spacey's) likeness was erased entirely from the final eight-episode story. Pugliese and James Gibson also answer questions about the future of the franchise, and imagine what life looks for President Claire Hale beyond the moment when House of Cards finally falls.

Frank Underwood’s fate cast a shadow over the entire season and wasn't resolved until the final scene. At what point in the process of plotting and restructuring the season after Kevin Spacey's exit did you decide that this is how the show would end? That Doug Stamper would murder Frank and that Claire Hale would end up killing Doug?

Melissa James Gibson: It’s always hard to pinpoint the exact moment, because it was such an organic process of discovery. We knew that we wanted the end to feel surprising but inevitable. It needed to be both those things. We really did explore every possibility, but just in terms of Claire’s psychology — and actually Doug Stamper’s as well — until that was what became clear as the right thing to do. It started with the seeds of the relationships throughout the series, but also from that dinner the three of them shared at the end of season five where [Claire and Frank] ask Doug to take the fall for them.

Frank Pugliese: We knew we wanted the ending to be cathartic and for it to be some sort of release; the complicated reveal of many aspects of Claire’s character. Exactly how that was going to happen and if somebody was going to die, or pay the price, for all that, we didn’t know until we got close to the ending. Also, during the course of working on the season, you start to realize that the two characters who had the most invested in each other, either by potentially being allies or actually by being the existential threat to the other, were Doug and Claire now that Francis was off the screen. It seemed like the showdown was the inevitable showdown.

Claire looked both sad and happy when she stabs the letter opener into Doug. What were her motivations in that moment as to why she had to kill him?

Pugliese: What you were feeling watching that, there’s something to that. She’s ultimately free and released and yet, there’s an enormous amount of price she paid to get there.

James Gibson: But she’s also setting Doug free in a way. She’s fulfilling his fate that he has helped author. The two of them have been in a symbiotic relationship all season long, where they’ve been negotiating everything they did with Frank and everything that’s possible for them beyond Frank.

As Doug was dying in her arms, Claire said, "There. No more pain." That quote (borrowed from Frank in the House of Cards pilot) was also how Claire opened this season. 

James Gibson: Exactly. That goes back to the seeds of the whole show and the first scene [of the series], which was very much on our minds as we figured this out.

Pugliese: To your point about the sometimes contradictory feelings of that ending, is that Claire has been negotiating the whole season around who is going to partner with her. Ultimately, maybe there’s a realization that she has to do it all by herself. There’s an isolation that comes with that. So it’s a feeling that she’s both free and there’s a relief, but ultimately alone because of it.

What was Claire conveying with her final look to the camera?

James Gibson: There’s a full-circle element to all of this. The series opened on Francis Underwood killing an injured dog, putting it out of its pain and then holding forth on the nature of pain. In the end, Claire is, to some degree, freeing Doug Stamper and looking at us in a full-circle way. How Francis invited us in at the beginning — it’s the coda to that.

Before the final scene, Claire listened to a recording from Frank's audio diary. The audience didn't hear it, and Claire has a visceral reaction. What was on that tape?

Pugliese: All that matters is that it was Francis’ voice. There’s something about remembering someone and then there’s something about actually remembering their voice that sort of embodies them or makes them present in a way that’s deep.

James Gibson: In a funny sense, that was the most threatening thing to her and the thing she feared most, because his voice was a powerful and destructive force.

Pugliese: Destructive and productive. We sort of played with his voice and his direct address. The complicity that the show was always negotiating was manifested in his voice. Claire is wrestling with that idea for herself and there she is, hearing this voice she was complicit with and asks for complicity.

Doug became the next character to break the fourth wall and speak to the audience in the final two episodes. How did that signify a change for his final arc?

Pugliese: All kinds of characters are negotiating or wrestling with the narrative over the course of the season, and that’s Doug overtly stating his version or his attempt to control the narrative as well.

James Gibson: He gained a certain kind of agency. Quite literally in the first episode of this season, Claire is attempting to declare independence on the Fourth of July. There are a whole lot of characters who are trying to prevent that from happening and one of them is Doug Stamper, who is desperately navigating his own legacy, one that is so entwined with Francis’. Doug's self-worth was entirely wrapped up in Francis’ regard. Claire was trying to move on and change the rules of the show in a way and Doug is not going to let that happen without a fight, because his own identity and fate is tied up.

Pugliese: There’s real opportunity in that character because of everything that had happened to Doug and how he hits bottom and comes back from it. Surprisingly for this season, he became the voice for a certain kind of humanity. Our show has always had a precarious relationship to humanity. If you’re too human as you pursue power, you usually pay a price on our show. So Doug suddenly being that voice and knowing he may pay the price for it — and then that he ultimately does — was a trajectory that we got to explore and play with.

James Gibson: It was an exciting discovery that we made in concert with our amazing actor, Michael [Kelly].

All along, it was easy to assume Claire killed Frank and that she was lying to the audience. Does this mean she was telling the truth in her direct addresses?

James Gibson: Well, she’s telling her version of the truth. The drama comes from her need to believe what she’s saying. One of the really fascinating questions is: Who is the biggest monster of them all?

Pugliese: What I also find intriguing, and this is partially what Robin did with the character, is that as far as facts go, is she telling the truth? Who knows. But I started to really believe her emotional truth. I felt that whatever she was feeling and expressing to us, I actually trusted that. I felt like that was honest and present and real. There’s something about the last three episodes where she pivots to be more emotionally available to the audience and expressive. And sort of expressing the consequences that come for all the stories that have been in place for the year and maybe for a few years before as well.

James Gibson: I agree. The character had the need to believe everything she was saying and as much as she was convincing us, she was convincing herself and really believing that she could control this. I don’t think that Claire entered the season wanting what happens in the finale to happen. But there’s no other way.

In the book, the Frank character dies. At the end of last season, you said that at that point, Frank could kill Claire or visa versa, and that they were each capable of anything. The Spacey of it all obviously rushed that decision, but was the plan always that Frank was going to die?

James Gibson: We knew the stakes would be life and death for both of them and that it would be a bloody civil war. How literal that got was part of the discovery. But this partnership [between Claire and Frank] was no longer tenable and I think that got exposed and became clear by the end of season five. This was to be the season of the showdown, and I think it still is. It’s just without him on screen and with other characters filling the void.

Pugliese: I don’t think you could call it a plan. Essentially, the approach — and this is the approach to writing the show since coming on for season three — was to let the story that we were telling tell itself as we told it. So maybe it was an option, for sure, especially since it’s been an option in the versions of the story that had been told before from the book to the BBC series. So it was an option. But I don’t think ever a plan.

Did you toy with having Claire be the one to kill Frank in the end? 

James Gibson: We definitely considered it. In order to come up with the best and most correct decision, every possibility was important to consider seriously and play out with all of the implications.

Pugliese: Some of the most enjoyable aspects of a writers room and working on a TV show is just that: Playing with every option and possibility and seeing it through, and telling that story and then going back and telling it another way or seeing how it works or doesn’t work. Something that the season plays with is: Who is the better wife? Based on previous versions of this story, people protecting the legacy of the male character, I think he’s actually being a better wife by killing Francis. And that may be something that potentially reveals Doug to himself that’s very hard for him to handle.

James Gibson: And it really enrages Doug that she thinks she can just go on without Francis. It actually offends him, which was a really animating dynamic.

There was a scene released ahead of the season's launch that showed Claire visiting Frank's grave in Gaffney, and giving a speech about how she will have a burial much more fit for a president. That clip confirmed the speculation that Frank would indeed die in the final season. But that scene never aired in the final cut — why? 

Pugliese: Correct. That all happens, in a way, before our season starts. It also plays off an earlier season. There are some callbacks in this season and this is one about Francis’ relationship to his father and that graveyard.

James Gibson: Season three started with Frank at his father’s grave and peeing on it. But the Gaffney burial is also a huge clue to Doug, because he knows that Claire is not honoring Francis’ wishes in the least. Francis is rolling over in his grave at the thought of being next to his father, for whom he felt no respect. 

In addition to cutting that scene, Frank’s — and by extension, Spacey's — likeness is gone from the season. There are no pictures of him and his voice is never heard. What was the decision behind erasing him in that way?

Pugliese: We made a decision that the most powerful place Francis Underwood could live at this point is in the imagination of the viewer.

James Gibson: And the characters. That’s where he’s most threatening. The character of Francis is more so haunting the show and casting a shadow over it, and trying to insist on a place within it. Whereas Claire is very much moving on.

Pugliese: It gets reductive if we show any aspect of him or any piece of it. I think he’d get smaller.

A lot of stories are being written or re-written to have #MeToo-inspired endings. Claire is empowered, but also a murderer. When it comes to sealing her fate, how did you approach that predicament of giving her the ending she deserves?

James Gibson: Some of the questions are really interesting, especially what happens with female characters about likability. I don’t think Claire as a character herself has ever been interested in being likable. She doesn't care about that. When she — to borrow Robin [Wright’s] words — fucked Tom Yates to death, she went to Francis' level. She proved her hands were just as bloody as his. They were equal — she even said that. What felt true to us is that she reveals herself to be every much of an antihero as Francis ever was. She’s allowed to be as complicated and surprising and dark and everything he ever was.

Pugliese: This is a territory where themes and issues that you approach get complicated. Because, in a way, Francis is allowed to exist within the rules of this show. Sometimes there’s a pressure or want for Claire’s character to be representative somehow of a female president or some aspect of a representative beyond the rules of the show. To be fair to her and to give her her due, as any other character, she wins and succeeds with things consistent with the rules of our show.

James Gibson: Even at the same time that Claire is trying to establish her own rules with the show and establish her own particular relationship with us due to the direct address — as she told us last season when she said, “I always knew you were there, I just didn’t know how I felt about you” — she is trying to rewrite the rules and expand the vocabulary, and there are forces within the world of the show that resist.

After the screen fades to black, what does life look like for Claire moving forward? How does she possibly stay in charge and get out of this murder in the Oval — and how do you imagine motherhood would change her? 

James Gibson: One of the great discoveries of the season for us with the character and through Robin’s performance as well is that, here’s Claire essentially weaponizing motherhood in a rather ruthless way. And then the great surprise is that she doesn’t feel what she expects to feel. It’s much more complicated. It makes things more challenging in some ways and, to Frank’s point about humanity, it tethers her to earthly feelings that she tried to banish after the Tom Yates murder. It complicates things for her in a way that made it exciting.

Pugliese: You are also watching Doug and Claire negotiate that in that last scene. Doug accuses her of using her motherhood that way, but it’s not that simple. It’s more complicated for Claire. The thing about the finale and you asking about what comes after, this show has always existed in relationship with the audience, which has been a big part of the direct address and in the conversation with the viewer. So the finale itself is not really final until it’s played out with the audience. Whatever the audience imagines after is all part of the end of the show. And there are questions. No doubt about it. What story is she going to tell? How is she going to get away with this? Now that she’s done with this last piece, will she really move on? But that’s left up to the audience and their imagination.

James Gibson: The audience, especially in the world of this show because of its vocabulary from the get-go, are really active participants. Because they’ve been invited in, in a way that the direct address device really underscores. One of the themes hanging over this season, as we talked about, is complicity and I think it raises questions on every side about this journey that we’ve been on for six seasons.

Pugliese: We made an active choice to leave the ending where it is so that anything after plays out in a way where it’s up for the audience to decide or figure out for themselves what happened.

I imagine she’ll start with her list of enemies sitting on the Resolute Desk.

Pugliese: Or she’ll come up with an amazing story about how she got away with killing someone in the Oval Office!

James Gibson: If anyone could do it, she could. Perhaps weaponizing assumptions that are made about her as a woman, and turning those on their head.

Pugliese: So when it finally gets to the papers, the headline of Doug's death reads: “He died of a nose bleed.” (Laughs.)

In the era of the reboot craze, is keeping Claire alive more appealing? Before the Spacey scandal, there were talks of House of Cards spinoffs being in the works. Are any of those projects moving forward and if they do, would you want to be involved?

James Gibson: Our concern writing it — and I’m just being totally honest — was nothing beyond the show. It was about finishing this story properly. It was really about, “What is the best thing? How do we look at these six years, starting with that pilot episode, and how do we end the story in a way that fits right and feels correct?” That was our only concern. Because I think the second you start thinking about possible stories that would spin out of it, it dilutes the integrity.

Pugliese: We were coming up with an ending and it seemed most compelling that it’s an ending that says: It’s not over. But that’s because that’s the best ending for this story. It seemed right for Claire and for the Claire-Francis story.

Gibson: There was nothing calculated about that.

In what other ways does this series finale bring House of Cards full-circle?

Pugliese: There was a rigor that [creator] Beau Willimon and David Fincher put in place with the show as far as storytelling and even visually. And what became an amazing opportunity for us in that last episode was the fact that the color red is never used on our show. Visually and cinematically, finally using that and filling the Oval Office with that red was a break. It was an ending — some form of punctuation. And it was an opportunity found from the rules of this show from the previous six years.

James Gibson: And Claire exerting herself and taking a stand in that final way. She is having an imprint to the same degree and making her own mark. No pun intended.