House of Cards Finally Delivers A Short Netflix Season
House of Cards season 6 differs from the previous years in more ways than just its leading cast member. The run is just eight episodes long, a full five lower than the others. This is, quite clearly, a result of having to rewrite the majority of the story on a tight deadline, with a smaller episode count making the entire catastrophe of Spacey's firing easier to handle.
Surprisingly, the result is one of the best-paced Netflix Original series yet. Instead of slowing down at the two-third point like many Marvel shows or feeling like it's heading for an ending before having a whole three-hour continuation like House of Cards season 4, this final season moves at a pace which is organically and constantly engaging. Some aspects, such as Bill Shepherd's deteriorating health, could have been given a little more breathing room, and it does make some plot wrap-up (like Claire having Tom Hammerschmidt, Jane Davis and Cathy Durrant all killed just as she forces Mark Usher out of the vice presidency), but it's refreshing all the same considering the bloat felt in recent years of the streaming show.
This is a great example of how creative restrictions can lead to better stories. The House of Cards writers knew what they wanted to achieve and explore in the final season, but had to come up with the plot in a tight spot, and in doing so ditched several unwritten rules - such as Netflix's algorithm-pleasing length - that could have otherwise held them back. And, really, it's that general vision holding true that makes the ending work.
House of Cards Didn't Need Frank To Complete Its Story
Everything we've discussed so far is about how House of Cards season 6 is unilaterally better for the early demise of Frank Underwood, but within that there's one key detail that bears repeating: it was still mostly on plan.
One of the most overt (and unwitting) references to the production adjustment is the repeated explanation for why Bill Shepherd's Washington D.C. apartment is the same one Frank Underwood lived in before his death. Behind-the-scenes, the reasoning is obviously that the set was built and needed to be incorporated in some way. But from a story standpoint, it highlights the economy of the rewrite. House of Cards' season 5's ending set Frank Underwood up as the prime enemy to Claire, using relationships with the corporate sector to destabilize her Presidency once it became she wouldn't pardon him for his past crimes. That's pretty much Bill and Anette's role in the released season - they just adjusted the actors.
Extrapolating, much of what House of Cards season 6 takes on seems to be in the spirit of not just the original plan, but the full scope of the entire series. It strives to resolve the key plot threads with such intensity it almost jumps from political thriller into soap opera, but that does highlight the desire to provide full resolution. That it does all that while allowing a full meditation on what Frank Underwood's death means and how it, ultimately, won't change America, is a bonus that we wouldn't have got otherwise.
The entire Kevin Spacey story is a sorry one, with a dangerous predator getting away with his misdeeds for too long. Fortunately, Netflix dealt with it in the best way possible, and enabled the showrunners in such a way that House of Cards was able to end in a better state than anybody expected.