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

Empire (UK) - - THE ULTIMATE AUTUMN PREVIEW - OLLY RICHARDS

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.

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