HOUSE OF CARDS: SEA­SON 6

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - HE­LEN O’HARA

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.

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