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Claire Underwood assumes ownership of a House of Cards trademark in the final season.
The new president Underwood — and the first female POTUS in the world of the Netflix political thriller — is trying her hand at many tasks when she enters the Oval Office in the sixth season (all eight episodes arrive Friday). And one of those challenges will be refining her relationship with the audience.
The last five seasons of House of Cards set up a thorny marriage between viewers and former starring character Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey). Utilizing the staple storytelling device of the Beau Willimon-created drama, Frank constantly broke the fourth wall to speak privately to viewers. His direct-to-camera monologues, quips and rants were an attempt by Frank to gain the trust of a skeptical audience — and make himself feel better about his lying, manipulation and deadly deeds in the process. Claire, meanwhile, ignored the audience, allowing the asides to be reserved for Frank.
That is, until now.
“We just decided, wouldn’t it be great if Claire was brutally honest and she shared her vulnerability and her insecurities — and her lies — with the audience?” Wright tells The Hollywood Reporter of the final season.
The first hint that Claire would break the fourth wall came at the tail end of season four, with the finale look she flashed to the camera. The fifth season made good on that promise in its premiere when Claire proclaimed: “Just to be clear, it’s not that I haven’t always known you were there. It’s that I have mixed feelings about you. I question your intentions. And I’m ambivalent about attention. But don’t take it personally. It’s how I feel about most everybody.” But her series-defining moment came at the very end of the fifth-season finale when, after taking the power from her counterpart and husband to become president, she spoke the final two words of the season to the audience: “My turn.”
The fifth season bowed in May 2017. When Claire Underwood proclaimed that House of Cards shift on camera, it was nearly six months before Spacey would be fired from the series over sexual assault allegations at the height of the #MeToo movement. “We had a lot of conversations about season five and we ended up with ‘My turn,'” Frank Pugliese, showrunner along with Melissa James Gibson, recently told THR. “And it felt like it was maybe indicative of something that was in the air before it hit the mainstream.”
The new season of House of Cards wastes no time tackling Frank’s fate. The first scene — as has been revealed in the season’s marketing — announces that Frank is dead and Claire is a widow; a president buried a president. With Frank out of the way, Claire steps into his political and narrative shoes to set a few things straight with the audience. “Are you still there?” she asks, fully knowing the answer. “Do you miss Francis? Here’s the thing. Whatever Francis told you the last five years? Don’t believe a word of it. It’s going to be different for you and me. I’m going to tell you the truth.”
To hear Wright tell it, speaking into the camera made her feel empowered in her on-camera role. Behind the camera, the star and executive director directed both the fifth- and sixth-season finales.
“I felt like I was not allowed to be looking into the camera at the end of season five,” said Wright at a recent THR panel. “I was like, ‘That’s not my place. I can’t do that.’ Then, once you own it, you feel like you’re in the room with all of you. You really are complicit with me. And then it’s very freeing — the feeling of powerfulness.”
There is a stark difference between what Frank wanted out of his famous conversations with the audience and what Claire desires now that she is coming forward with her ambitions.
“That was a big part of the discussion: How is her relationship with the audience going to be different than Francis’?” said Wright. “Frank [Pugliese] would always say, ‘[Francis is] always campaigning to you guys.’ No matter what he was unveiling, sharing or lying about, he was campaigning for your attention and for your loyalty. And Claire is saying, ‘Not only am I going to tell you the truth, but I’m going to let you know how vulnerable I am as well. How scared I am sometimes.’ And pose questions to the audience and want their help.”
Claire, in fact, is “negotiating” her trust of the audience, says Pugliese. And the one question he and Gibson hope the audience will ask is: Can we trust her?
“The show has always been a meditation on and an exploration of complicity,” he explained. “[There is] Claire’s complicity with the audience and trying to get people on board, and then there’s her version of what that complicity is, and trust is a big part of that. There are many ways to trust the character. There’s a moment where you maybe go past the words and it’s the actions and the emotions. It becomes about that; not just the words. So, that question [of whether or not the audience can trust Claire] is actually what we were working toward.”
In fitting House of Cards fashion, the first episode of season six is also bookended with a Claire moment that only viewers see. After discovering that one of Frank’s belongings has been left for her — as a warning —Claire responds with a gesture of her own. The moment, says Pugliese, is for all the enemies who are now coming after her in Francis’ wake.
“One of the big themes for the season is: Who owns the White House?” Gibson explained of the road Claire will face in season six. “In the first episode, Claire is receiving a lot of messages about various people trying to own her, including her dead husband. And I think Claire is feeling like no one is the boss of her.”
Pugliese added of the premiere moment, “That last gesture is some form of direct address. But it’s both a statement and warning. It pretty much says, ‘Beware’ and ‘I’m here.’ It says a lot of things just in a gesture, which is true to how Claire does direct addresses as opposed to how Francis did them.”
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