HOUSE OF CARDS: SEASON 6
SHOWRUNNERS Frank Pugilese, Melissa Gibson
CAST Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Patricia Clarkson, Greg Kinnear, Diane Lane
PLOT Claire Underwood (Wright), now President, must fight to keep power. Her husband is dead, but allies and enemies are trying to enforce promises he made against his widow, and Claire’s independence is under greater threat than ever.
LOSING A STAR is no easy thing for a drama series. But it’s not only the absence of Frank Underwood that causes problems for House Of Cards. This sixth and final season sees Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood finally take centre stage, and her increased role gives the show a tone and pace that feels different from what has gone before. It’s fresh, but not always satisfying — and can’t surmount the tricky issue of its contrast to America’s political reality.
Once again, plot elements are ripped from the real world, with Syria, mass surveillance and the testimony of criminal accomplices all in play as Underwood attempts to cement her own power. But the main thrust is her attempt to stay free from the dominance of big business, which puts the show firmly in wish fulfilment territory.
Frank Underwood is missed — at first. There was an impish edge to his Machiavellian scheming; Claire is, wisely, wary in her plots, facing a greater uphill battle than her husband ever did. The first scene, for example, notes her much higher volume of hate mail. She must keep her emotions in check, so her composure is absolute. Her strategy is to recruit other women, idealistically to promote equality, but also calculating that such appointees will be loyal. Yet she trusts almost no-one entirely. Her opponents are right-wing industrialist Bill Shepherd (Kinnear) and his sister Annette (Lane), a childhood friend of Claire’s who’s just as gifted in using her looks and her brains to get ahead.
Underwood’s risk-averse incrementalism feels realistic for a female politician, though it doesn’t always make for gripping drama. Wright, however, is magnetic, while Lane adds fire and Patricia Clarkson’s political operator Jane brings a touch of unpredictable quirk. The dialogue can be clunky — a US Vice President corrects Russian premier Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) when he refers to World War II as the “Great Patriotic War”, rather than diplomatically acknowledging the designation — but there are still gloriously sharp moments (“Playing incompetent is so exhausting,” sighs Claire to camera).
Claire Underwood is a monster, yes. She does put personal power over her country’s interest. But her schemes still achieve occasionally positive things and she has little regard for self-enrichment. Some of her actions are even, almost, noble. The strange fact is that Netflix’s first big, homegrown hit has begun to feel a little dated, because its format, and lead, are too formal to allow for much evolution. As we saw last season, politics is faster than this now, an endless churn of scandal and grotesquery, while House Of Cards remains its own chilly, composed self.
VERDICT An icier, more remote protagonist requires some adjustment, but the show has kept its plotting satisfyingly labyrinthine and its quality generally high. If only reality had done the same.
Yet again she’d got the cracker with the crappy ring.