THE ACE CARD
As it heads into its last season with a female President and no Kevin Spacey, all bets are off with House Of Cards
For cast and crew, going into the final season of a long-running show will always be an emotionally fraught experience. Actors are saying goodbye to characters they’ve lived with for years, and the pressure is sky-high to deliver a satisfying final chapter. But as production unfolded on the sixth and final season of Netflix’s flagship show, House Of Cards, emotions were strained for darker reasons.
On 30 October 2017, production was halted, about two weeks after it had begun, when Anthony Rapp publicly accused Kevin Spacey, the show’s lead, of making unwanted sexual advances towards him in 1986, when Rapp was 14. The following day, Netflix announced that production on Season 6 would be suspended “until further notice”. On 3 November a statement came: “Netflix will not be involved with any
further production of House Of Cards that includes Kevin Spacey.” Netflix’s first original drama series, the project that changed it from a platform showing largely B-tier movies into the most revered streaming service in the world, would be closing out without its figurehead. The President was out of office.
For showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese, that sudden change meant an uncertain future for a show they’d only taken over one season ago (although they had both written for the show since 2014). “Every possibility was on the table,” says Gibson when asked if the idea of cancellation was entertained, “but our strong feeling — and I think at heart everybody’s feeling — was that you want to end the show with intention. We planned on [ending the show] this season anyway.”
The removal of Spacey, of course, pushes Robin Wright’s Claire into the show’s lead role. This itself was no real change from the original plan. At the end of Season 5, Frank Underwood resigned the Presidency, rather than risk impeachment over dodgy election dealings, and Claire, his wife and Vice President, was sworn in. In the final shot, she turned to the camera and uttered two words: “My turn.”
“The season was laid out to very much navigate what those two words mean,” says Gibson. “That didn’t change… In a strange way it became an opportunity to explore something that has organically been in the show’s DNA since the beginning. [Frank and Claire] had always been negotiating the terms of this partnership and Claire is continuing to do that as President.” Since the pilot, we’ve seen shifts in the Underwood’s marriage and political relationship. Initially they’d had the mutual goal of reaching the highest office in the world, but that changed as their marriage eroded. Their collective desire for power was too great to share it. Frank had his go at being the boss and he screwed it up, by not being careful enough with his secrets. In the final eight episodes, Claire will try to hold on to what Frank couldn’t and hope her own skeletons don’t escape the closet.
“We’re still navigating what they did together and Claire’s own complicity,” says Gibson. “Circumstances of the storyline force her to face herself in a way she didn’t have to when Frank Underwood was in [the series]”.
Season 6 is the first season to be written post-trump’s election. Every previous run of House Of Cards episodes has dealt to some extent with the politics of the real world, or at least had a spin on them. We’ve had the spread of ‘fake news’; accusations of election tampering; a hunt for a Bin Laden-esque terrorist. The bonkers political era we’re currently in makes some of Frank and Claire’s stranger antics look fairly tame, but the writers didn’t have to go bigger and madder to have a take on the current world. The 2016 election result handed them a gift. “You know the thing we apparently can’t imagine?” says Pugliese. “A female President. Our story had the opportunity to talk about that. What would it be like for a woman to run the free world?” We’ll see Claire do battle with forces within DC who want to bring her down, some with very good reason, but also enemies around the world who, as Gibson puts it, “find [a female US President] unimaginable and unacceptable. Who they are and how they come after her is an opportunity for a great story.”
When it came to deciding who should direct the final episode, there was no real debate required. “I feel like it was everybody’s idea that Robin should direct it,” says Gibson. “It was the organic choice.” Wright had directed at least one episode a year since Season 2. If it was not intended as a neat bit of symbolism, it still serves as one. When the show began, it was sold as a project directed by David Fincher (he directed the first two episodes) and starring Kevin Spacey. Robin Wright was a selling point, sure, but she was not front and centre. Since then, she’s proved herself to be the show’s greatest weapon and the very last chapter of House Of Cards will be Robin Wright directing Robin Wright. It’s a privilege she’s earned.
The Wright stuff: Robin Wright stars as President Claire Underwood in the final season of House Of Cards. Right: Wright on set with director Alik Sakharov.