House of Cards
This series finale, and really this entire finale season, reminded me of Michelle Wolf’s best burn at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. You know the one. “You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him.”
House of Cards fired Kevin Spacey, and offed his character, Frank Underwood, amid a multitude of credible allegations of sexual predation, rape, and violence. In the wake of these revelations and Spacey’s removal came a creative opportunity: With Frank axed, the show could go places that did not involve Frank at all. Nothing in this farewell season needed to be about Frank. But virtually everything was. In his absence, he was everywhere.
And so the meta-narrative of the season — the good riddance, Spacey, now this is Robin Wright’s show narrative — was compromised, and the actual narrative of the season was a hot mess. The driving question of the show was always: Will the Underwoods achieve their ends before the world learns of their means? But this final season shrugged off that premise and decided to fixate instead on who killed Frank and how.
That big story Janine ended up publishing wasn’t about Zoe, or Lucas, or Peter Russo, or Rachel Posner. It was about Frank cutting Claire out of his will. The big showdown between Doug and Claire wasn’t about Doug reckoning with the toll that serving as the Underwood’s silent assassin had taken on his relationships or on his soul; it was just about Frank. And in between these vast swaths of show that fixated on the one person I’d really hoped we’d abandoned, we got updates on characters who are so new as to mean nothing to us.
Not to mention that the stakes of Claire’s presidency are, as far as I can see, nonexistent. Her motives are so shallow and petty, her actions so short-sighted, that she’s essentially playing the role of Frank in his absence. All these hours later and it is still totally unclear why she even wanted to be president in the first place, and what she wants to do with her power now that she has alienated (and will surely continue to alienate) everyone in her orbit, besides start a nuclear war over nothing and make proclamations about feminism so blatantly self-serving that even Ivanka would probably say, “Yeah, that’s a little much.” And I cannot believe the show hasn’t raised any questions regarding the paternity of her baby! Does no one but me think she’s novelist Tom’s daughter?
But again, for this last time: Even when this show forsakes the plot, I will dutifully recount it for you. Onward!
Having muzzled Kelsey, Claire is running all her own press briefings. “Transparency is the cornerstone of my presidency,” she says, as she flagrantly lies about everything. The Justice Department is investigating Frank’s Election Day nonsense (hyping fake danger to suppress voter turnout, as your Democratic candidates are wont to do) and Claire is prepared to posthumously indict her husband. A reporter asks Claire what this would mean for her — if Frank’s win was illegitimate, she should not be president, obviously — and Claire responds by saying no one is above the law. This does not really answer anyone’s question. Transparency!
Mid-briefing, Janine’s article goes up. It says Frank excluded Claire from his will and the named source in the piece is … Doug Stamper. He has whisper-growled on the record. Claire continues her efforts to portray Doug as a lunatic, and then she calls her attorney.
Claire gets back to the Oval to find Nathan there with his wife and baby, because he needed a buffer while he announced his resignation. Claire is not pleased. Nathan’s last bit of counsel before he peels out of there: “You should cancel your upcoming public appearances.”
Doug is moping around his old office, feeling nostalgic (but actually casing the place to plot his EXTREMELY sloppy assassination attempt — more on that later). Then he tells the press, who are surrounding him, that he was with Frank the night he died. “The real President Underwood kept an audio diary,” he announces. Doug, she’s President Hale now. God, keep up.
Annette and Mark are watching all this explode on TV. Mark is nervous, as is his natural state. But Annie will do what she has to do to get Duncan out of prison. Mark thinks this is the opportune moment for a DTR talk. It is emphatically not! But Annie obliges: “We’re having sex again until it seems like a bad idea again.”
Janine and Doug are sitting next to each other on a couch while Doug reads along with Frank’s diary. He won’t let Janine hear it for herself. What? How is she publishing it if she’s never heard it? For all she knows, he’s just listening to Kesha and making all this up! Anyway, Doug goes in for a kiss because Janine is an intense brunette who is listening to him and this is Doug’s primary weakness. Janine is no Zoe, so this goes nowhere. Doug goes back to growl-reading. “My wife is ruthless.”
I love Claire’s helpless sputtering at her attorney. She wants to just take down the website and then scoffs at the story’s legitimacy, since Janine’s article isn’t even in print. How old fashioned! And, as someone whose recaps only appear on the internet, I say: Rude. Doesn’t Claire know that Netflix isn’t even on television?
Bill is looking quite weary and giving all these interviews about how Claire is acting like a monarch. He has a fake-folksy shtick that is so grating. All these interstitials with him are boring and illuminate nothing. Perhaps Netflix is tired of hearing this, but I refuse to tire of saying it: Every episode in this series could and should be 42 minutes long. (While listening to her brother, Annette whispers, “Bill Shepherd, shut the fuck up.” Every line of Annie’s dialogue is perfect.) Later, he whines about how families don’t eat dinner at 6:00 p.m. anymore as if that is the solution to all of society’s ills. I roll my eyes for a thousand days and then return to this recap. When I come back, Mark is visiting Bill at that country estate and I think, Why are we wasting time on these minor male characters and their existential crises?! IT IS A SERIES FINALE, FOR THE LOVE OF CASHEW.
Walter, that old dude who knows everything, meets with Claire in that sneaky spiral stairwell at the White House to tell her that Nathan was in that meeting with the Shepherds. He wants to know how Claire “pulled it off.” (“It” being Frank’s murder, I guess.) He’s just asking as a pragmatist! He’d also like to know how she will separate herself from Frank. Claire says the only remaining link is Doug.
After assuring us, her captive audience, that she “really didn’t want to have to do this,” Claire goes into the Situation Room and manufactures a terror threat involving ICO and nuclear weapons. She’s getting real hawkish in her second trimester. Every single intelligent person in the room advises against this course of action. Claire goes on this digression about how she couldn’t think of the word that’s the opposite of misogyny. Does Claire have WiFi in the White House? People talk about misandry on the internet every day! I have talked about it on this very website. Claire tries to spin everyone’s objections to her horrible plan as sexism, even though all the people disagreeing with her are women and also her plan is dangerous trash.
Seth is eating ribs with Doug and telling him the whole country is relying on him. So they’re having Doug kill Claire. Or, at least, that’s what they want to do. Doug and Claire are sending each other late-night texts. All Doug wants is for Claire to drop the investigation into Frank. He threatens to play her the diary, but of course she hangs up before he can because we’re not going to be hearing Spacey’s voice anymore. Then he texts her “sweet dreams” like the psycho he is.
In her silky pj’s, Claire has an even later night call with Petrov. I wish we’d had more of this guy this season. “Motherhood doesn’t automatically make a woman a saint” he says, accurately. Oh also, the Russians killed Nasser. Claire does get in this excellent dig: “I’ve always been entertained by your arrogance. It’s like watching a movie just out of date.” Petrov warns Claire against the (obvious, irrefutable, are we seriously having this conversation) consequences of dropping an atom bomb, and says he’ll have to oppose her publicly throughout. “Privately, I … [long pause] … I will miss you.” Same here, comrade.
Annie swings by the Oval to say she and Claire shouldn’t give the world the catfight it craves. But Claire can tell Annie is lying. Later, Claire sees her teen self and they have this conversation about missing her ex-hookup-buddy, Reed, and why she chose Francis over him. Frank gave her “permission to hunger,” which apparently is better than what Reed gave her (his strong sweater game, great sex). Cool, whatever.
I love that Seth has such a good sense of humor about that time Doug almost killed him by suffocating him with that water glass! Seth also suggests he and Doug just run away together. Would you watch that bizarro buddy comedy? But no, everyone is sticking around, Doug is going in.
Also going in: Claire. Petrov puts her on blast in front of everyone in the Situation Room, how embarrassing for her. “I know you. The things you’ve done. Think how the world will judge you.” Then Claire straight-up tells everyone in the room that she’s holding the country hostage until she finds out who is behind this plot against her. If she doesn’t find out who wants to kill her, she will order a nuclear strike. Super rational decision making from the Commander in Chief, as usual.
When she gets back to the Oval, a gift from Doug awaits her. It’s Frank’s letter opener and the recording of Frank’s diary. She listens to it for .02 seconds before tearing out the earbuds and yanking off her wedding band. She has the White House cleared, save for essential personnel.
Meanwhile, Janine swears to pursue this Shepherds/ARCAS/Underwood corruption to the end. Doug left her the Rachel coordinates and some other assorted evidence. I think Janine’s car is going to explode, but she drives off in the rain instead. Mark and Annie break up, but not before Mark says the one place he would rather be is “1999.”
And here we finally are: The showdown between Doug and Claire begins with Doug tossing Claire an envelope and saying, “Here’s who wants you dead.” Is Doug’s name on the list? Claire asks Doug what she should name her baby, and he suggests “Frances, with an e — Frances Underwood.” GOOD GOD DOUG, LET IT GO. Claire points out that Frank never even mentions Doug in the recordings. Claire is not wrong re: Doug’s obsession with Frank being, if not one-sided, definitely not reciprocated on the scale Doug dreams it was. Then Claire tells Doug she forgives him, because —twist! — Doug killed Frank.
Doug is crying! It is extremely sad, I have to say. “I couldn’t let him destroy everything we built. I had to protect the legacy from the man.” Ugh, must House of Cards talk about itself through the show? We get it, you don’t want to go down with the Spacey ship. As for Frank: What legacy could Doug possibly be talking about? What is Frank’s legacy, besides a string of unnecessary homicides? AmWorks?
Doug has Claire by the jugular but can’t kill her. He just sort of half-stabs her. Now is not the time for half-stabs, Doug! Remember how long it took to kill Rachel? I’d forgotten but now it’s all rushing back.
Claire, who has no qualms about cold-blooded killing, stabs Doug deep in the gut and holds him while he bleeds out in the Oval. “No more pain,” she says, and then she looks at us, and then … yup! That’s it. That’s the end of the series.
To me, this felt almost laughably anticlimactic. But maybe I’m numb to the antics of HoC, to the point where watching a dead president’s ex-henchman slowly die in a pool of his own blood while he’s suffocated by the current president (gotta cover all your homicide bases!) leaves me feeling so uninspired. Like Claire, I end House of Cards by looking at all of you. What do you make of this effort at a grand finale?