Frank Underwood was already on his way out when Kevin Spacey was fired from House of Cards, following a string of sexual assault and misconduct allegations against the actor. As such, the shift to a completely Frank Underwood-less final season of the series isn’t as extreme an adjustment as one might expect. Refocusing the series’ attention solely on Robin Wright’s President Claire Underwood (or Hale, as she later prefers), works in favor of Netflix’s flagship series for reasons that are obvious and maybe not so obvious. Sure, House of Cards is still kind of trashy and kind of silly, but it’s trashy and silly in a less ham-fisted sort of way this time around.
Wright takes full and assured command of the series (and the United States) from the jump, as the shortened final season doesn’t have a lot of time to play around wallowing in the memory of the late Frank Underwood, and neither does his wife. The show takes the necessary steps to explain Frank’s absence, to put into words why he’s no longer around without minimizing the significance of the character’s abrupt departure, despite his already having one foot out the door. The writers perhaps overplay their hand a touch in the symbolism department, but, in their defense, they were painted into a corner and the show hasn’t exactly been shy about doing the same over the past five seasons. Nevertheless, following a literal moment of silence, House of Cards borders on the surreal in bidding farewell (or perhaps good riddance) to Francis J. Underwood, while simultaneously handing the series over to Wright. It may not be terribly elegant or subtle, but those were never really elements in House of Cards’ wheelhouse, anyway.
The handover alters the show in a variety of different ways, though. For one, House of Cards season 6 is less ponderous than seasons past. That’s no doubt due in part to the season being several hours shorter, but it’s also due to the addition of political adversaries, the Shepherds. Bill (Greg Kinnear) and Annette (Diane Lane), are a pair of ultra-wealthy industrialist siblings whose disdain for the new president (she’s been in office for 100 days at the start of the season) is made abundantly clear with a surprising and bold move in the first episode. The Shepards are antagonists in the vein of Raymond Tusk, but with the volume turned up to 11. At the season’s start, Bill is so adamant a new law be signed he literally forces the president’s hand as she’s standing at her desk holding a pen. Annette, meanwhile, is Claire’s never-before mentioned childhood friend/rival, a former schoolmate whose biting passive aggressiveness toward the commander in chief makes for some delightfully petty sparring sessions between Wright and Lane.
The nature of the Shepherds’ power is so all-encompassing — they have their fingers in nearly every pie imaginable — that even Vice President Mark Usher falls under their sway. That puts Claire at an apparent disadvantage, with seemingly no one on her side, beyond her loyal secret service agent Nathan Green (Jeremy Holm), and even he’s not to sure doing things the Hale way is the right way. Claire vs. everyone (the patriarchy, mostly), then, becomes a sort of de facto declaration of the show’s final season, and watching her rise to the challenge, seeing her outwit and outplay her adversaries, no matter how low they go, is a large part of the season’s appeal. After all, House of Cards never really made the Underwoods’ rise to power a difficult one; it was more interested in seeing them feed off everyone and everything in their quest for power, and when, if at all, that consumptive ferocity would come back to bite them.
But it wouldn’t be a season of House of Cards if the balance of power didn’t vacillate numerous times an hour and loyalties weren’t questioned during even the most banal of conversations. Enter Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), the series’ favorite murderous cockroach who just keeps coming back, no matter the how much the odds are stacked against him. Last season, Doug took the fall for Frank’s crimes, on the condition that a full presidential pardon wouldn’t be far behind. House of Cards uses that as leverage to not only compare itself to events in the real-world, but also, and more importantly, to keep the tension between Doug and Claire as high as possible, encouraging them to double-cross and lie to one another with alarming frequency, all while maintaining a tenuous alliance meant to keep the most damaging skeletons of their respective closets from seeing the light of day. In that sense, the series is able to foreground the memory of Frank and all his various misdeeds — with or without Claire — without his ever making an appearance.
The reckoning that seems to be on the horizon is heralded, in part, by editor in chief of The Washington Herald, Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), and the return of Constance Zimmer’s Janine Skorsky. Their roles in the final season call to mind better days on House of Cards, the demise of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), and the ineffectual efforts undertaken by members of the press to bring the Underwoods to justice. It’s a little unclear in the first five episodes just what role the two will wind up playing in the series’ end, especially as it becomes more and more apparent the show sees Claire’s efforts in the White House as having a positive impact on the role of women in government. That angle makes Claire an even more potent antihero than her late husband, as she has a clear agenda that extends beyond pure avarice and, not coincidentally, speaks to a movement unfolding in the real world.
It’s a bit strange that in ordering eight episodes instead of the usual thirteen, Netflix ostensibly validates a common criticism against the streaming giant’s original offerings: they are often too long and don’t have enough story to sustain that many hours of television — binge-watched or not. At times during the first five hours, the final season feels more streamlined, but it also still feels like its stretching various plot and character threads to the point of tearing, and that they're held together only by a seemingly endless parade of familiar faces attending to unfinished business with the president. Though a major turning point at the end of episode five suggests the final stretch aims to shake things up politically, it may be too little too late. Nevertheless, with the show ostensibly in Wright’s capable hands, the final season of House of Cards gets by just fine without Francis J. Underwood, and there’s reason to think it’s even better off without him.
House of Cards final season will stream on Netflix begging Friday, November 2, 2018.