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Honestly? Not an iota.
Eschewing conversation about the misconduct that forced the show’s hand, losing the character of Frank Underwood was the best thing that could possibly have happened to House of Cards.
Right up front, you can tell if this review is going to speak to your own feelings about House of Cards, which will begin its eight-episode final season on Nov. 2. If you continued to love Kevin Spacey’s hammy and increasingly dreadful lead performance and the repetitive storytelling that Frank’s well-past-parody scheming generated, you’ll surely find something missing in these closing chapters. Otherwise, the shift in focus from Frank to Claire Underwood finds the series somewhat reinvigorated through its first five new episodes. It’s a change that comes far too late for the show to escape many of its worst narrative instincts, or a surplus of flat recurring characters, but for the first time in years, House of Cards has something new and frequently interesting to say.
With Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson now running the show, it begins with President Claire Underwood listening to reports of death threats that have spiked since she took the Oval Office. It turns out that the idea of a female president doesn’t bring out the best in some people. Claire’s got bigger problems than that.
This season’s grand cautionary theme is about American oligarchy and the threat of wealthy families and corporate interests manipulating government into servicing only the upper one percent and not the common good. There’s a certain timeliness here in a Koch/Soros vein, without the kind of aggressive headline-ripping House of Cards has never been very good at and that left last season feeling like such a pale imitation of our real-world circus.
Here, we’re introduced to the Shepherd clan, with their fingers in the media, military contracting and industry. They’re so powerful and ubiquitous, you’ll wonder why the show never mentioned them or their influence previously. Not content with riches, the Shepherds have their eyes on controlling the White House thanks to five seasons of copious blackmail material and Annette Shepherd’s (Diane Lane) prep school ties with Claire and more current relationship with Vice President Usher (Campbell Scott). Annette’s chilly, impatient brother Bill (Greg Kinnear) is the behind-the-scenes puppet master, while Annette’s son Duncan (Cody Fern) is expanding the family reach with newspapers, TV stations and a cellphone app he’s especially excited about.
As Claire begins to recognize the Shepherd influence in a recent factory catastrophe in Ohio and the ongoing conflict in Syria, she’s forced to wonder if her presidency is her own or if, after all of the lying, cheating and all-too-frequent bloodshed, the Underwood name is too compromised to govern.
If the American oligarchy backdrop is going to feel like a less darkly delicious version of Succession — Kinnear and Fern are both slithery, watchable and familiar — it’s really just an excuse to get Lane and Wright onscreen together for a much more satisfying examination of female power, how ready our country is or isn’t for manifestations of strength and ruthlessness when they come from women rather than men. Macbeth is a frequent point of reference — “She can’t decide if she’s Lady Macbeth or Macbeth,” Annette says of Claire — in a season delving into the blurring of manipulation and might.
Annette is a better foil for Claire than the show was ever able to give Frank. Although Lane barely broken a sweat in the episodes I’ve seen, she brings out something better in Wright than scene-hogging Spacey did, an excellence that only makes it feel more simplistic and reductive when the series is content to just paint Claire’s conniving cleverness as a variation of what her husband used to exhibit. When House of Cards just puts Wright and Lane together and lets them whisper threateningly through feigned public smiles, there’s a pleasure I haven’t felt from the show since the first season, when it still had the British original to lean on. The second episode includes a scene, a bathroom conversation between Annette and Claire fueled by decades of shared secrets and diverging ambition, that’s probably my favorite five minutes the series has ever produced.
Add in Patricia Clarkson, still enjoyably playing a character whose eccentricities are ill-fitting with the show around her, and that ought to be a trinity of compulsively watchable variations on female agency for the series to build around — with occasional visits from the likes of Constance Zimmer’s Janine, Jayne Atkinson’s Cathy and Sakina Jaffrey’s Linda. If only this was the totality of the new season.
Instead, House of Cards, like Claire, struggles to escape Frank’s legacy, embodied by Michael Kelly’s endlessly dour Doug Stamper, who begins the season under psychiatric observation, only to swiftly resume his capacity as grumpy-guy-waiting-for-you-in-a-chair-in-your-darkened-house-when-you-turn-on-the-lights. Doug was a character I enjoyed in the first season, and Kelly’s performance was justly lauded. He has subsequently become one of those dead-end characters who only has one set of moves and has long outlived his usefulness because the writers can’t decide what an appropriate fate would be.
The show can’t quit Derek Cecil’s Seth Grayson and Boris McGiver’s Tom Hammerschmidt, who could also, by reasonable standards, have been written out long ago. Doug, Tom, VP Usher and, to a much lesser degree, Seth, were characters who served purposes in earlier versions of the show only to now be adding mopey masculine energy to a season that thrives on feminine energy.
Claire may boast, “The reign of the middle-aged white man is over,” but House of Cards spends too long investing in the character arcs of middle-aged white men for this final season to be a full reboot — to the show’s detriment. The specifics of what happened to Frank are discussed ad nauseum, as are the utterly and goofily cartoonish events that transpired at the end of last season when, after dedicating nearly two-thirds of the time to a protracted election arc, the writers just decided to go wildly off the plausibility rails.
With or without Spacey, House of Cards was probably heading toward a conclusion in these new episodes, and there’s a resultant feeling of a show with one foot in the future and one foot in Frank’s grave in South Carolina — half “Here’s the fresh show we wish we could just be making” and half “Here’s the crumbling old show we can’t escape.” The old show was one I’ve disliked for a long time. The newer show is one I can imagine missing. I wish there were some way the ties could have been severed immediately.
House of Cards is produced by MRC. MRC is a division of Valence Media, which also owns The Hollywood Reporter.
Cast: Robin Wright, Diane Lane, Greg Kinnear, Cody Fern, Michael Kelly, Derek Cecil, Jayne Atkinson, Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson.
Creator: Developed for American TV by Beau Willimon
Showrunners: Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese
Premieres: Friday, Nov. 2 (Netflix)