Two words say it all when it comes to looking into the future of House of Cards.
In the final moments of the fifth season (now streaming on Netflix), newly inaugurated President Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) looked into the camera and told the audience: “My turn.” The moment marked Claire’s second fourth-wall address of the season, a House of Cards trope that up until now has been reserved for Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) only.
After hinting that Claire’s moment alone with the audience might come in the fourth-season finale when she looked into the camera, Claire truly broke the fourth wall in the 11th episode of season five. The show also teased the moment during a cheeky premiere scene when Claire delivered an address to the nation. “Just to be clear, it’s not that I haven’t always known you were there,” she said, finally addressing her hesitations, while looking directly into the camera. “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.”
Claire’s decision to address the elephant in the room — the audience — was a promise new House of Cards‘ co-showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson say they wanted to keep when taking over from creator Beau Willimon, who stepped down after season four.
“The fourth-wall break at the end of season four was a very provocative hint and we wanted to pay that off, but also explore it,” James Gibson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Claire being Claire, her relationship with the audience is inevitably different. She and Frank are very different characters and have different needs in terms of that relationship. When she breaks the fourth wall for the first time and says, ‘It’s not that I haven’t known you were there,’ that points to our exploration of what’s different about her relationship with the audience.”
Frank’s famous conversations with the audience are always insightful, providing motives and musings to the inner workings of the now ex-president’s scheming. Claire’s words, however, leave much to be desired.
“Francis has always used the direct address to create a certain kind of complicity with the audience,” Pugliese tells THR. Spacey himself once joked that when he speaks to the camera, he’s directly addressing Donald Trump. “There’s something kind of charming and exciting about it. In a way, it’s almost like a form of campaigning in itself. At the same time that it’s an infiltration to whatever Machiavellian stuff he’s going to do, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to see what Claire’s version of that complicity might be now that she’s become more ambitious, or more pronounced with her ambitions.”
The fifth season documented a role reversal with Claire and husband Frank, with the latter resigning as president as part of an elaborate scheme to keep his guilty hands clean from the season-two murder of journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Instead, Frank’s right-hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) took the fall, and Frank traded his resignation, along with a blackmail threat, as a quid pro quo to get the hungry special counselor investigating his misdeeds off his back.
To create some distance between the controversial ex-president and the new one, his wife, Frank moves out of the White House pending an immunity pardon from Claire. When he calls her from down the road — the White House relegated to being in distant view out of his window — Claire ignores his calls. That’s when she utters those final two words.
“Those words at the end almost speak for themselves,” says James Gibson. After killing her lover Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) — Claire’s first murder, as far as the audience knows — and taking the Oval, the fifth season provided a shift in the woman that has stood by Frank’s side since House of Cards began. “Her killing Tom is a huge milestone in the trajectory of the character. [Robin’s] performance is so extraordinary in that final scene between them where you really feel the cost of that action. Both she and Frank are now capable of everything, that’s the point they’re at.”
But what will an America under a different Underwood look like? With a season-six pickup pending from Netflix, Pugliese says that is the big question.
“The show has always wrestled with this idea of: How much humanity do you sacrifice in the pursuit of power?” he says. “There’s the almost extreme version of it with Claire killing Tom Yates, who is demanding humanity of Claire. While Francis has always tried to create an allegiance with the audience and has sort of invited you in, now that Claire is finally speaking about the ambitions that she has, we were curious about what her complicity with the audience looks like and how she manifests those ambitions in the audience and, eventually, the voter.”
For the second time in a row, the House of Cards free world has a murderer at its head — albeit, a very different type of one. When Claire takes office, adviser Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) suggests she continue to rise out of her husband’s shadow by being a “renegade” and filling her cabinet with oil and business tycoons. Meanwhile, Frank has set his sights on the “power behind the power” and has launched a new agenda to control the White House from the outside with Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson). Because of Trump, this potential season-six storyline seems relevant, but the pair say those paths were discussed before the season even began, which puts their conception well ahead of Trump’s campaign and subsequent election. Exploring the powers outside of the White House seemed to be an “organic place” for the show.
Which poses an even larger question: What does House of Cards look like if the Underwoods are truly separated?
“At the end of season four, the Underwoods seem to have come to an agreement that both of their ambitions were valid and that they would be able to navigate them together and support each other and serve each other,” says James Gibson. “Season five really explored if that was possible and I think those last few lines indicate: maybe not.”
Shortly ahead of Claire’s parting words, Frank, speaking to the audience, threatened to kill his wife if she didn’t come through on his pardon — a vow that Pugliese says viewers shouldn’t take lightly.
“He’s done some terrible things. He is capable,” says the co-showrunner. “There might be a desire in both their parts to be able to do this alone, but I don’t know if they’re going to be able to do it without each other. Or maybe they will. That’s a question for season six.”
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