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The Legacy and the Lunacy of House of Cards

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

House of Cards has called it quits with a sixth and final season that zigzags all over the place and ends on a note so abrupt and preposterous that it make shoving Zoe Barnes into a Metro train at a nonexistent-in-real-life Metro station look like the apex of believability. If you came to the last chapter of the Underwoods’ story hoping there would be justice for the long list of people victimized or bumped off by the Underwoods, you wound up disappointed. The central, immoral politicians on this series always managed to avoid the complete downfall they deserved, and continue to until the very end, a fact that landed with a particularly demoralizing thud if you watched just right before a midterm election that many are hoping will be a first step toward restoring sanity in this country.

Ultimately, the legacy of House of Cards is the degree to which it embraced narrative insanity, alternately diverging from and reflecting the political climate against which it played. What started out as a batshit crazy prestige drama turned into an even more batshit crazy, less prestige-y drama, which then dovetailed in more ways than one with the legitimate political world.

When House of Cards debuted in February of 2013 as the first-ever original series on Netflix, it generated lots of attention. That was partly because of the medium in which it was operating — could a Netflix show actually work? — but also because its dark, betrayal-rich view of politics made the drama instantly bingeable. House of Cards was like a twisted, through-the-looking-glass version of The West Wing, in which the people running the government aren’t merely as bad as you suspect on your most paranoid days. They are much, much worse. House of Cards also came prepackaged with a sense of importance: Two men known for their distinguished careers in film — David Fincher, an executive producer who directed the first two episodes, and star Kevin Spacey, winner of two Academy Awards — were both involved, which signaled that this project should be taken seriously. So did the fact that House of Cards took itself extremely seriously.

In the same way that The West Wing’s earnest wonkiness was just what the country needed after the sordid dealings of the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal, House of Cards, along with Veep and Scandal, which both debuted in 2012, may have struck a chord because it arrived at a political moment that was relatively controversy-free. We were at the beginning of Obama’s second term, when a D.C. as messy, unethical, and downright depraved as these shows suggested seemed only possible in fiction. Viewers could handle hanging out in the Underwoods’ reality because actual reality in the White House was more orderly, or at least appeared to be.

But certain parallels to actual American politics still coursed through House of Cards. Over the years, more than one critic made a point of comparing the Underwoods to the Clintons, and you could see why. Spacey’s Francis “Frank” Underwood was a southern Democrat who engaged in adultery as well as a host of other misdeeds, while maintaining a chilly marriage to a politically ambitious woman, Claire (Robin Wright), who had better people instincts and a willingness to do whatever it took to gain an upper hand. The things the Underwoods did — the backstabbing, the manipulation, the murder — tapped into every cockamamie Clinton conspiracy theory out there and willed them into reality, at least within this fantastical context. Even though series creator and former showrunner Beau Willimon, who left House of Cards after season four, denied that Frank and Claire were just Bill and Hillary in Netflix clothing, the idea persisted, especially in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was beginning her run for president after Claire Underwood, in season four, pursued a bid for Congress and eventually clawed her way into becoming her husband’s running mate. “If television has long been paving the way for a Hillary Clinton presidency with high-striving women characters who are superficially similar to her,” Todd VanDerWerff wrote for Vox in March of 2016, “House of Cards is the one show to posit that all the things people don’t like about her — the switching to politically advantageous positions, the assumption of cool ruthlessness, the willingness to stick by a husband who cheated — are actually strengths.”

This was true in the sense that Claire was able to possess those qualities and still get ahead politically while maintaining higher approval ratings than her husband. But fast-forward to season six, when Claire finally assumes the role of president in the wake of Frank’s death — a death brought about by Spacey’s removal from the show in the wake of assault and harassment allegations — and suddenly all of these things become liabilities again. Her enemies, including sibling corporate influencers Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane), consider her dangerous precisely because of her ruthlessness. So do her past and present colleagues, including now–vice-president Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) and former secretary of state Kathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson), whom Frank pushed down a flight of stairs in season five. The media and the general public have soured on Claire, too, perhaps because her steely strength looks unseemly for a widow who has taken over her late spouse’s job. Honestly, House of Cards is murky on why Americans don’t like Claire now, but that doesn’t matter, because she pivots and creates an image for herself as a grief-stricken shut-in who is too upset to leave the White House or perform her duties, prompting massive concern from Mark, members of her Cabinet, and, again, the media.

A lot of what happens in the sixth season seems less designed to make clear narrative sense and more focused on commenting on the traps that get set for women who pursue higher office. See, this is how they treat a female commander-in-chief, the first few episodes tell us: They’re either threatened by her power and plotting to bring her down, or worried that she’s too fragile and also plotting to bring her down. Without explicitly saying so, this last season attempts, in part, to imagine what the national conversation might have sounded like if Hillary Clinton had become president.

At all times, the specter of Francis’s sins — the fact that he killed reporter Zoe Barnes, and Claire’s aide LeAnn Harvey, and, oh, also Peter Russo back in season one — hang over Claire’s head as investigations continue into all of those matters, as well as the death of writer Tom Yates, for which Claire is definitely responsible. With Claire in power and Frank out of the picture, this is supposed to be the season in which the former First Lady, who was always the more nuanced character of the two, finally gets to own the series. But as our House of Cards recapper Jessica Goldstein has pointed out, she’s still saddled with all of her late husband’s baggage. With her frequent asides to the camera and her unsympathetic approach to pretty much everyone, Claire has basically become Francis. She is less defined on her own terms than ever. Perhaps that’s also a commentary on how hard it would have been for Hillary to be perceived as a president separate from the one that Bill was.

The single moment that strikes a note of thrilling wish fulfillment is when Claire reveals that she’s replaced everyone in her old Cabinet with women, although we don’t get to know enough about these new Cabinet members to feel even remotely invested in their success. There’s no time. Claire, Doug, and their henchmen have too many people to kill.

Lest you think that the final season of House of Cards is little more than a riff on residual Clinton issues, please know that it conjures thoughts of the Trump administration, too. The infighting among officials, the fact that the 25th Amendment is nearly invoked to remove a mentally unstable Claire from office, Claire’s reliance (again) on fear-mongering about terrorism to distract from other issues: All of these are pages out of the Trump era playbook. So is Claire’s instinctive capacity to lie. After taking over daily briefings for her beleaguered press secretary, Claire announces to the assembled White House press corps that, “Transparency is the cornerstone of my presidency,” a line as laughable as something Sarah Huckabee Sanders might say. (The first reporter that Claire calls on to take questions is named Sarah, and I have to think that’s on purpose.)

The nonstop flood of crass comments and callous actions from Trump make a show like House of Cards seem less outrageous by comparison. That’s what makes the final season feel out of touch with the current climate: The bad things that Claire and others do affect people inside the Washington bubble and generally stop short of doing damage that affects the general population, something that can’t be said of the Trump administration. But Claire’s self-interest, sociopathic behavior, and refusal to moderate her worst impulses all register as so Trump-like that it’s hard to watch.

In the final moment of the series, when Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and Claire engage in a violent showdown and Claire stabs him in the gut, right in the Oval Office, I was simultaneously hit with two thoughts. The first: Oh my God, this is an unbelievably dumb way to end House of Cards and I have no idea how she’s going to drag a dead body out of there without anyone noticing. The second was the memory of Trump’s voice two years ago, making this statement while campaigning for president: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

That’s what Claire is doing in that moment: standing in the middle of the Oval Office and stabbing someone and believing she’ll continue to lead the nation. Now, I’m not saying that Trump is actually murdering people in the White House. (Don’t be silly: He tweets too much to have time for that!) But he certainly possesses the confidence to believe he can get away with anything, and that’s something he shared with Claire, and Frank before her.

Perhaps the most basic, instinctive motivation for continuing to watch House of Cards all this time was the idea that one day, we’d finally get to see Frank and/or Claire punished for the horrible things they’ve done. But Frank dies without ever being exposed for his role in ending so many lives. Whether Claire does get punished or not, we won’t get to see it. The final message sent by this series is that the people who run our country are capable of evil, and will keep committing it because they know they’re never going to face any consequences. That’s a pretty precise summary of what scares a lot of Americans in this country right now.

It’s a relief that House of Cards is ending, not only because this last season is the storytelling equivalent of the inside of a junk drawer, but because it reaffirms that the bad guys and women always win. That’s too much for many viewers to bear at this point. House of Cards hasn’t become irrelevant. It’s actually become too relevant.

But lest you despair too much, remember this: House of Cards had to end, not just because it was time but because its star allegedly engaged in bad behavior. In the show’s universe, Frank Underwood never faced any consequences for his misdeeds. But Kevin Spacey did because the real world, at least some of the time, doesn’t play by House of Cards rules.

The Legacy and the Lunacy of House of Cards