It’s the final season in a show that was turned upside-down when the news of Kevin Spacey’s firing broke, so we already knew we were in for something different. Let’s see how House of Cards bowed out!
The fifth season ended with Frank, under impeachment hearings, resigning his presidency and awarding the White House to Claire, who had been his VP in the race against Conway. Frank had decided that his interests could better be served from the private sector and he believed Claire could be controlled. When she ended the season by looking into the camera and declaring “My turn,” she was inadvertently giving viewers a window into the final season, as she ignored Frank’s call much as we have to ignore Spacey’s role in the show.
Elsewhere, Mark Usher, after watching Conway implode from the results of the election he believed was stolen from him, switches sides and joins the Underwoods. He proved his staying power and willingness to join forces with whoever is on the winning team, which is what keeps his political career alive and gives him staying power and influence in DC. Doug Stamper, loyal to Frank to a fault, is convinced to take the fall for Zoe’s murder to take the heat off of Frank. The President had been leaking information to Tom Hammerschmidt that would lead to his own downfall, assuming Claire would pardon him. Claire, meanwhile, had become concerned about how much information Tom Yates had on her and her husband, so she poisoned him. As always, the bodies were piling up and secrets were being unearthed and it set the tone for a wild final season!
President Claire Hale
Claire has always been a major part of the show, even when operating in the background. The thought of Frank without Claire was impossible to picture, but Claire without Frank, on the other hand, functions just as well on her own. She uses some of the same shady and immoral tactics to get people rallied behind her and is no stranger to the dark side, but part of us still wants her to succeed in spite of her husband. Robin Wright takes on the added weight of the final season on her shoulders and gives a fierce performance equal to her character. She survives an assassination attempt, orchestrates false alarms, manipulates with the best of them, and in a very bold move, removes her entire cabinet in one swoop and replaces them all with women. However, when she nearly initiates a nuclear war, she reminds us why she was the power behind the throne for so long. Putting a final stamp on the series, she even murders Doug in the Oval Office in the finale, giving the series one last WTF moment to hang its hat on. Claire was out to prove that no man could or would control her ever again and she achieved that goal quite clearly.
Doug’s arc has been one of the best parts of the show throughout all six seasons, showing such dedication to Frank Underwood that it often bordered on insanity. It seemed like nothing Frank ever did could ever get Doug to waiver, but the bombshell dropped in the finale, that it was actually Doug who murdered Frank, came off as a cheap ploy, to me. After everything they put him through and the lengths he repeatedly had to go to in order to protect the Underwoods, I would have loved to see Doug’s reasons for killing Frank make more sense than they did. Doug had been through so much and seeing a war for his soul would have made much more character sense to me than the throwaway line “I had to protect the legacy from the man himself.” What legacy did Frank honestly leave behind? Though, now that I think of it, maybe that was the point. Frank’s hooks were so deeply-embedded in Doug that he believed Frank to be much more of a man than he actually was. For as fascinating a journey as Doug had been on, especially as he played both sides of the Claire vs The Shepherds war against each other this season, I thought his ending did him a disservice.
Bill and Annette Shepherd
The heirs to an immense fortune (think Koch brothers, fictionalized), Bill and Annette are revealed to be a sibling pair with immeasurable pull behind the curtain in DC, and they cannot stand that Claire refuses to be controlled. They want prior agreements to be upheld, but Claire isn’t interested. They resort to tactics like using her past abortions against her, and even orchestrate an attempt on her life. Bill has a vision for America, including his own pick for the Supreme Court, and he hates that Claire doesn’t share that vision. The family has enough wealth and influence to execute their own agenda, and will stoop to any length to see it through, even if that means designing an app that crawls through people’s phones for personal information to try and give them an edge. Ruthless people with deep pockets can be dangerous in many ways, which the Shepherds prove in their first and only season.
The man who helped orchestrate Conway’s run for president, Mark Usher switches alliances when the Underwoods come out on top and is rewarded this season when the time jumps ahead following Frank’s death and Usher is Claire’s Vice President. The problem is, he is working for the Shepherds and, like them, seeks to control Claire, much to his detriment. Mark is a man who knows how to play the game, and doesn’t even hesitate to threaten to expose Claire for killing Yates to try and keep her in line, but she always stays a step ahead of him, as he ends up implicated in a scandal with Russia and the killing of Yates.
Seth is a man who rose quickly through the ranks, winding up as the Underwood’s Press Secretary, helping the spin machine do its work while keeping the public from the real, harsh truths. This season, however, finds him working for the Shepherds after leaving the White House, showing that he is another person who desires to be where the true power lies. It is with his help that the morally-bankrupt app designed by Duncan Shepherd finds its way onto so many phones, using a disaster relief effort to get people to sign up for something they didn’t understand. He doesn’t have much else to do, however, with the tighter season and refocusing efforts, so he largely appears as a background character. Seth reminds us that there will always be people who are very good at finding where they fit in, and remodeling themselves when they can’t seem to find that fit.
Jane didn’t appear in a lot of episodes this season, but she did have an impact. Her relationship and deep past with Mark Usher is explored and she attempts diplomacy with Russia amid the Syrian crisis, but ultimately she is another person trying to influence Claire, albeit less obviously. She helped Claire poison Yates, though, which puts her in the “loose ends” category as far as Claire is concerned. After tipping her hand that Claire wanted her dead, Jane helped Cathy Durant escape to an undisclosed, remote European location. Proving that nothing is out of her reach, Claire still had both of them killed as the season ramped up to a close.
One of my personal favorite characters on the show, Tom is dogged and relentless in his pursuit of the truth. He has wanted to expose Frank for years, but never had enough evidence. Now that Frank is gone, he will have to settle for taking Claire down and proving to the world what monsters the couple had been. He knows his days are probably limited and has a contingency plan, but while he is still breathing he represents all that is good about the world of investigative journalism, once upon a time a revered and noble profession. Tom’s murder, disguised as a botched diner robbery, was heartbreaking for me, even if totally expected. Putting the evidence onto a flash drive hooked to his dog’s collar was a brilliant move and may have helped his cause finally come to fruition, but he won’t be around to see it.
Janine is more than Tom’s sidekick, she is a good reporter in her own right and just as driven to expose the truth as he was. When Claire gives her the only press pass onto Air Force One, you get the sense that she was hoping to woo another powerful woman into helping her further her agenda somehow, but Janine isn’t interested in becoming a mouthpiece, or simply stopping at taking down a deceased Frank, as they both know Claire is just as guilty. When she uncovers the documents from Tom, it helps give us hope for a better tomorrow in the world of House of Cards. Especially since one of Doug’s final acts was to give her the coordinates to Rachel Posner’s body.
I was a bit torn on this season, to be honest. I have loved the show throughout its run and loved a lot of what this season did, but I can’t help but feel like the showrunners did a lot of overreacting to the Spacey firing. Claire is suddenly obsessed with female empowerment and it doesn’t really ring true, save for the fact that she was always interested in her own empowerment. The show acts like it is leaving Frank behind right off the bat, but people talk about him constantly. I realize that in this world they had built, there was no way they could totally ignore his existence, but at the same time I never felt like they found the balance they were striving for. And the final episode was all over the map, leaving loose ends and giving me a general sense of “…really? That’s how it ends?” But it was certainly not all bad. Robin Wright did a fantastic job taking up the mantle, Doug’s story continued to fascinate me, and the trademark twists, deaths and sex scandals always kept me guessing. I liked that they were able to accomplish a full arc in a shorter season and never made it feel rushed, but I also thought there was a lot of missed opportunities. The series that came in with a roar went out, for me, with a bit of a whimper.
Final Grade: B-