Denisa Bogdan discusses whether Robin Wright and Michael Kelly rise to the challenge in the final season of Netflix’s House of Cards.
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
There is no doubt that the final season of House of Cards airs amid mixed feelings from audiences, critics and professionals in the industry alike. Kevin Spacey’s exit, due to sexual misconduct accusations, leaves us feeling uneasy. The question looms over us like the angled blade of a guillotine: is House of Cards the same addicting, bone-chilling show without the former lead actor?
Robin Wright was the first performer to win a Golden Globe for a web television series, and rightly so: her portrayal of the stony-hearted Claire Underwood has captured our interest from the show’s very inception. The character’s rise to power has been foreshadowed and widely acclaimed. Combining novel flashbacks from Claire’s youth, frequent breaking of the fourth wall and a wardrobe to kill for, this season delivers on most, if not all planes imaginable.
No stone is left unturned by the writers in this final attempt at tying up the loose ends of the characters and plots we have loved over the years. Not without its weak moments, the sixth season manages to provide a viable end to a multi-chapter story that desperately seeks its conclusion.
Claire’s flagrant displays of what is sometimes dubbed ‘white feminism’ have been undoubtedly hard to stomach. Fellow women around the table in the Situation Room shudder at her faux-feminist remarks. And yet, as an audience, it is unclear to us whether her words are genuine or merely good attempts at playing naïve and incompetent.
The final moments of the finale shine some light on Claire: the menacing woman capable of killing her husband reveals an exceptional ruthlessness in making the most out of (and untangling herself from) a web weaved by the man she married. She presents two greatly different faces, in-universe and to the audience respectively. On one hand, she is a devoted president and caring soon-to-be mother, yet on the other, she has proved her unrelenting thirst for power, at her husband’s side and beyond. Does her true nature lie somewhere in the middle?
The two main playing cards of the season, Claire and Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), revealed themselves as more versatile players after all: the merciless queen and the devoted jack are more humane than we could have ever imagined. Claire kisses Doug’s forehead in a real display of sympathy as he lies dying in her arms.
This final scene in the Oval Office is filled with naked distress from both parts, and their genuine motivations alight briefly: in the end, perhaps Claire Underwood only wants to be Claire Hale once again and build a legacy for herself (and for women) like never before. And perhaps Doug Stamper, worn down by the awful, dirty deeds he performed for the past twenty years of his life, had finally cracked and destroyed his creator to save his legacy before seeing his idol fall.
The true significance is left for us to ponder. How much of what we see in the final season is true? Moreover, how much of what we have seen during the entire run of the show is true? Claire warns us in the premiere, “It’s not true, what he told you all those years ago”. Instead of crushing the bird in her hand in a characteristic show of cruelty, as expected, Claire lets it fly away, unharmed. Have we been wrong about her this whole time?
In this final season, the strong performances, the visuals and the writing reminded us that it was not just Spacey’s brilliance that propelled the show forward. The return of old series regulars, such as Constance Zimmer as Janine Skorsky and Sakina Jaffrey as Linda Vasquez, among others, make this season feel authentic. Perhaps most noteworthy is Michael Kelly’s layered and nuanced performance, especially in the series finale: the right-hand man unravels like we never thought he would, tastefully and one step at a time.
There are two kinds of pain, Frank Underwood famously said, and these words appear as a motif throughout the season: the pain that makes you strong and the pain that is just suffering. Denying oneself the pleasure of seeing Robin Wright soar in the role of the protagonist certainly falls in the latter category. Anxiety over this season is largely unwarranted: Wright leads single-handedly, as if she had been doing so all along.
Before, House of Cards has been known to produce seasons met with mixed reactions, with seasons three and five worthy of mention as probably the lowest points in the show’s trajectory. However, the one thing that cannot be contested, despite Spacey’s sudden exit, is continuity: the show remains unexpectedly coherent till the last cut. Good or bad, the series’ closure will fuel debate for years to come.