Twenty-six episodes of enthralling scheming followed by a lingering look to camera from newly-installed President Francis Underwood, two sharp knocks on the Oval Office’s Resolute Desk, and then cut to black.
This would have been a terrific ending to a near-perfect and, thanks to Netflix moving into original programming, ground-breaking television show. Unfortunately, though, that was merely the end of season two of House of Cards. Since when, and prior to the new season, which dropped on Netflix on 2 November, the show has produced three further seasons, largely to diminishing returns. The show, in itself, has long been playing into the flaw common to US television series: that of continuing to exist beyond the end of its natural life, when judged purely in artistic terms. House of Cards, it should be remembered, was a re-imagining of a 1990 UK TV series, starring the late Ian Richardson as Government Chief Whip, Francis Urquhart. Although that version did, itself, get two, self-contained sequels, To Play the King, and The Final Cut, the UK House of Cards ended with Urquhart rising to the position of Prime Minister. The US version took two seasons to get to the equivalent rise of Kevin Spacey’s Underwood to the Presidency.
The show continued on with Francis working with his wife, Claire (Robin Wright) to consolidate power under the permanent hold of their partnership. It always continued to entertain, but its main raison d-etre – that initial, unquenchable pursuit of power – had long since played out. As common to many Netflix shows, seasons tended to feel a little bloated, and often dragged for portions of its yearly 13-episode runs, but there was always fun to be had, as Spacey continued to have huge fun in the role, making the audience complicit through a series of fourth wall-breaking-asides: a feature copied from its UK counterpart.
Season six was already in production in the autumn of 2017 when a well-publicised scandal erupted around Spacey. The show shut down and took an extra six months to return to screens; retooling the show to a shortened order of eight episodes, centred on Wright’s now President Hale (the character returning to her maiden name upon the off-screen, between seasons, death of her husband). All of this is vital to understanding the environment in which the new season has been released. This was both Spacey’s show, and a title that was already long-past its best years. Added to this, all of season six’s plot threads and character dynamics had already been fully mapped out and were in the process of being filmed. Unfortunately, House of Cards season six bears all of the scars of its troubled genesis.
Plot threads in this season are all over the place. It appears at the outset that this is going to be a tale of a fresh power play from new characters Bill and Annette Shepherd (a largely wasted Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane); then it appears it will be a test of strength between President Hale and Russian President Viktor Petrov (a returning Lars Mikkelsen); then it appears it will be a challenge for Claire to repudiate her husband’s legacy; then on to a battle of wills between the President and Francis’ long-time acolyte and henchman, Doug Stamper (the always outstanding Michael Kelly). Throw in an unlikely pregnancy for Hale, a pointless time-jump half-way through the series, along with an understandable focus on the patriarchy’s effect on a woman attempting to lead her country – equally abandoned before the show’s final reel, and it is soon clear that the writers have been left with a mishmash of ideas left over from the aborted original version of this season, and half-baked and not completely fleshed out new ideas rushed to the screen to fill the absence of the battle of wills between husband and wife set up at the end of season five.
Claire continues Francis’ habit of breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience. The problem is that for all of Wright’s considerable talents, Hale is unable to essay any of the fun in these asides that came with Francis’ equivalent contributions. Despite the writers’ bravery in addressing the shadow of Spacey, with Claire even asking the audience if we are missing him, that very shadow proves a death knell to the show; as it is, quite simply, extremely dull; the passing thoughts starting to take hold as early as episode four that this was becoming a slog just to get through.
Previous seasons of the show, again common to Netflix offerings, generally picked up dramatically in the final episodes as it headed to its final destination. Here, the aforementioned time-jump deflates any sense of building tension, and simply serves to build to a denouement between Doug and Claire that can now comfortably take its place in the pantheon of completely fluffed endings to lauded television shows. It simply needs to be seen to be believed.
Given the difficulty factor of assembling this retooled show at short notice, and the need to jettison all of the cues to season direction given to us at the end of season five, perhaps no better could have been expected. This is, however, a disappointing end to a show that enjoyed two almost-flawless seasons, and set a growing streaming service on the road to greatness back in 2013.