1:00pm PT by Jackie Strause
'House of Cards' Team on Killing Frank Underwood and Its "Beautifully Macabre" Ending
In the final season of Netflix's House of Cards, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) will have many challenges ahead as the first female president in the world of the political thriller. And one of them is the ghost of her late husband, Frank Underwood.
The character, formerly played by Kevin Spacey, was written out of the show after the actor and executive producer was fired following sexual assault allegations. Production on the forthcoming sixth and final season of the Netflix drama was shut down so the story could be reworked to send Frank six feet under. Ahead of its Nov. 2 return, Netflix has already confirmed that Frank is indeed dead (following the events of the book on which the series is based). The political drama will not waste any time in revealing Frank's fate.
"We didn’t want to be coy about it and we didn’t want to run away from it," co-showrunner Melissa James Gibson explained Wednesday during The Hollywood Reporter's TV Talks series at New York's 92nd Street Y, where she was joined by executive producer Frank Pugliese and stars Robin Wright and Michael Kelly for a discussion after a screening of the season six premiere.
"It would have been a big mistake to in any way pretend that the character didn’t exist or to erase the character somehow," she added of confronting Spacey's departure. "Our way forward — the way we figured out the way forward — was basically to dig into the DNA of the show and honor the seeds of it and figure out what made sense as the next step."
The next step is the legacy of President Claire Underwood, a storyline that had been set up in the season five finale that aired nearly six months before Spacey's ultimate dismissal from the series. Last season, Claire moved into the White House after exiling her husband, Frank, and ended the finale with two, series-defining words spoken directly to the camera.
"Claire this season, there’s a lot of reckoning. She’s reckoning with her past with Francis and setting her own course and her own terms — which was happening anyway," Gibson said of Claire's rise and Frank's fall. "This has been an organic progression. Season five ended with her looking into the camera and saying, 'My turn.'”
As Pugliese explains, that statement set up a certain level of expectations that the House of Cards team had planned to deliver on, even before Spacey's firing. "We actually made a promise to the audience that that’s what we would explore," he said. "So, yes, we had to do another version of what this last season would be. But it was always about her turn."
After years of Machiavellian levels of manipulation, scheming and murder between them, the House of Cards endgame was clear. "When we started on the show we talked about the fact that the core of the show was about a marriage. That’s always been there," Pugliese said. "And during the course of the marriage, they’re exploring their relationship, the ups and downs of it, and within that there is the ascension of Claire Underwood while Frank descends in a way. And that was going to happen no matter what."
Adding of the rewrite, "So yes, there were specifics and we had to regroup and write quickly and we just went for it. But that was always there. That it was about her turn and it was about a character ascending while the other was going down."
Throughout the season, Claire will face a culturally and politically timely uphill battle in Washington, D.C., and in the eyes of Americans as the first female president. And with Frank's departure, her foes will multiply. "All the characters are stepping forward to fill the power void left in Francis’ wake," Gibson says. "The world of the show has been very destabilized."
Producers Media Rights Capital shut down production on the Baltimore-set series in November 2017, extended the hiatus and didn't resume until January. Ahead of the shut down, the season was almost entirely written, sources had told THR, and until the announcement was eventually made, it wasn't always clear that the final season would go on, or that the hundreds of below-the-line crew who count on income from the series would have jobs.
Wright — also an executive producer and director on the series — and co-star Kelly (Doug Stamper) each shed some light on the behind-the-scenes fight to keep the show going. "It was very important to give the people what they deserve. Where you think, 'OK, we are closing this out.' This is six years," said Wright, recalling the emotions on set when shooting the series finale. "[There were] so many tears that last night."
Kelly added, "This was Netflix’s first original streaming show. We have to finish this show. For the crew that we’ve been with for six years. That we know all their families now and we’re good friends with these people. To wrap it all up and to bring it to a conclusion was so important to all of us."
Wright also returned to the director's chair for the series finale, a job that the panel agreed was a fitting one, given her elevation both on and off-camera for the show's final run. The star, who also directed last season's finale, said that "having to keep my mouth shut for the last 15 years as an actor, where you are bursting at the seams" is what initially inspired to direct.
"It was so correct that Robin was the one to direct the finale, and she did such an incredible job, as always," Gibson said. "It’s really a privilege to watch her shift hats so seamlessly. It was really beautiful because the last scene that we shot was the last scene of the series, so it felt like a play that way. We really ended at the end of the story."
Pugliese added, "It seemed so right and copacetic that Robin was directing the last episode, and even the last scene. There is a collaborative aspect to [making a series finale], but we did take our lead also from Robin because there was a sense of responsibility to the story, to the crew, to the audience, to the characters, to the work that had been done over five years."
House of Cards, created by Beau Willimon, played a pivotal role in putting Netflix on the map with scripted originals when it launched in 2013. Now, with Orange Is the New Black also ending next year, the streamer will be saying farewell to two of its brand-defining hits.
Instead of feeling pressure to end the series, Pugliese said the finale was instead an "acknowledgement of that responsibility" of what the cast and crew had been through. The intent was "to try to finish this thing with integrity and true to the DNA of the show, true to the story we‘ve been telling, true to the truths we were experiencing together as artists and as people on that set," he said.
And the way the cast and crew collectively responded to making the final season happen is something Pugliese says he will take with him for what comes next. "The collective approach to how to work on every season and how important that was for this season as a response to how to deal with adversity or whatever comes your way," he explained, "that together, head down, 'Let’s make our response the best work we possibly can' being the only response. That is something I hope I take to every other job that I do after this. It’s something I learned and something I take away, and something I feel fortunate I got to experience."
The panel, as is to be expected, could not go into detail about just how House of Cards will end so as not to spoil the show. Pugliese said that while there was always an "idea" of what the end should look like, there was never a specific ending planned until they sat down to map out the final eight episodes.
"These two really know our characters at such a deep level, so they were crucial," Gibson said of collaborating with Wright and Kelly off-camera during many conversations. "We talked a lot — a lot — about figuring out the right way and all the permutations for how this thing should end that hopefully felt true to each one of their characters."
Wright described the ending as "moving and generous and so macabre and so dark."
"The show is about the battle for position of power, all the way around. So, who wins?" she said. "And I will say that it’s so beautifully macabre. It’s really beautiful."
Kelly added, "What she’s saying is it’s very House of Cards." To which she replied, "It’s so House of Cards. It’s going to shock the shit out of you, basically."
As for what that will mean for Claire's fate in the end, the actress who plays her shared advice she received from executive producer David Fincher, who directed the pilot, during season one that helped shape how she views her character's evolution.
"I wanted to build my own character. But I didn't really know [Claire] outside of this template idea that she was Lady Macbeth and Francis was Richard The III. I said [to Fincher], 'Can you just give me something that I can chew on?'" Wright recalled. Fincher responded by telling her: “You as Claire are a bust. You’re that marble bust that sits in the Capitol and you are kind of an anonymous bust. You could be that president or that leader, you’re not quite sure who she is. And then slowly, as these seasons unveil, her veneer will start to crack and you’ll see the human inside her."
Pugliese said much of what Fincher set up in the early episodes is what he and Gibson toyed with in the final hours. "There’s so much stuff that Fincher laid out in that first season that became opportunities for us in this last season to depart from, to break with, to play with, to finally try to reverse," he said. "And so the minute Claire Underwood decides to separate herself from Francis, or whatever arrangement or relationship she had with Francis, she’s forced to actually try to define herself to us [the audience]. It becomes a great opportunity for the drama and for dramatizing it."
Gibson closed, "I think of Claire as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, I think she’s got both, which is endlessly interesting."
Valence Media, the parent company of The Hollywood Reporter, also owns Media Rights Capital.