Kevin Spacey's Absence Haunts the Final Season of House of Cards
It only takes two minutes before House of Cards answers the question anyone who watches the Season Six premiere is dying to ask: What happened to Francis Underwood?
It's an answer any rational-minded person, whether they watch the show or not, could have seen coming from miles away—or at least a year away. Last year, Kevin Spacey's career was crushed by allegations of sexual misconduct, first in a report from the actor Anthony Rapp, who alleged that Spacey made a sexual advance toward him in 1986 when he was 14 years old. The story broke on October 29; by November 3, Netflix announced the sixth season of House of Cards would be its last and that Spacey would not be returning to the cast.
Frank Underwood is dead, a fact dropped in casual conversation between a secret service agent and President Claire Underwood. I mean, of course he is—how else would this go? But it's a quick and swift announcement that leads the viewer to believe that this situation, while dirty and shameful, is over and done with.
Of course, that's not necessarily the case, because this is a twisty political soap opera that revels in throwing the audience for a loop. (Case in point: the shocking murder of Kate Mara's Zoe Barnes in the Season Two opener.) Frank Underwood might be dead—and Kevin Spacey might be out of a job—but both Frank and Spacey haunt this final season of the series, an unavoidable truth that the show's writers lean into heavily.
The timing of Spacey's downfall was, you have to admit, somewhat convenient: The fifth season ended with Frank resigning as president so that his wife could ascend into the executive position (while he no doubt controlled the strings as a private citizen). Claire was already president, even if she was in on the scheme. In this post-#MeToo world, however, we don't get to see Frank's manipulations; he's dead of natural causes, or so the show tells us in its dialogue. Claire has murdered before, and the "Tell-Tale Heart"-style psychological terror she's suddenly inflicted with leads us to believe that she murdered Frank, solidifying her power over him for good.
By this point, it all feels so exhausting and increasingly absurd, and the show with Robin Wright in the lead role is awfully similar to its previous seasons. But at the same time, it feels almost like a facsimile of its early years—back when executive producer David Fincher was directing episodes, and creator Beau Willimon was writing them. The overall quality of the show dipped dramatically when Willimon left after Season Four; by now, the show feels limp, especially compared to the real-life political drama unfolding around us every day. This season brings us obvious and ham-fisted feminist commentary about the nation's first female president (this isn't a reality we've ever experienced, but it's certainly a scenario many movies and TV shows have explored long before House of Cards) alongside the usual behind-the-scenes political intrigue that's inspired by real-life figures (the season introduces Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane as a pair of Koch Brothers-inspired siblings who work to undermine Claire's power).
Frank Underwood might be dead—and Kevin Spacey might be out of a job—but both Frank and Spacey haunt this final season of the series.
That's not to say that Wright hasn't earned her leading role here. I just wish it were more interesting to watch. Claire Underwood's sleek and angular style and mannerisms could have easily turned into stock character material: the icy, cold, conniving bitch. She was all of that, which was part of the fun. But Wright brought depth to the character; she made her a real, believable person (and earned five consecutive Emmy nominations for it, never winning the award). It's difficult to ignore, however, that part of what made the show work was the rapport between Wright's Claire and Spacey's Frank—who the Oscar-winning actor played flamboyantly as a Southern rascal, a bisexual raconteur who was as slippery in bed as he was on the political playing field. Their coupling was interesting because they were professional partners as much as they were companions in love and sex. Just as House of Cards wouldn't work without Claire Underwood, it doesn't exactly work without Frank.
The show knows this, too—which is why Frank is hardly absent. And while his death would naturally weigh on Claire's psyche (this is a show in which the numerous bodies left in plain sight by both Underwoods have often come back to haunt them), it comes at a time when I have to ask myself: What's the point of all this? Our political players—those at the very top posts of the government—are liars, cheats, crooks, villains? You're kidding! So we must go through the motions, closing all the loose ends to give this show a proper send off? That seems to be the motive behind this final season: the routines of its plots, the power plays that its characters must follow through one last time.
Meanwhile, the show is shouting a lot of ideas at its audience—a major shift from the way it pointedly used elements of discomfort to visually fuck with its audience. (Its pilot episode infamously opened with Spacey's then-senator strangling a dog before he began his slow, calculated rise to the most powerful role in the United States.) House of Cards once took major risks and succeeded at its provocations. Was it ever artful, despite Fincher's cinematic direction in the first two episodes—a bold move that ushered in the notion that a streaming service could produce prestige television? Not exactly. It was always beautiful trash, a vehicle for over-the-top storylines and hammy dialogue that established A-list actors could deliver in heightened, Shakespearean manner. But the actors made it fun to watch, that is until the soapy mediocrity proved too much for their talents.
It's a bummer to say this, but Robin Wright, as good as she is, gets the short end of the stick. And that's to be expected: Just as Claire has unrealistic expectations put upon her as the first woman president, so does Wright as she steps into the spotlight, solo, in the wake of Spacey's self-destruction. The final season of House of Cards is not deserving of her, even if she puts forth the effort to prove otherwise. If the show started with a bang, changing the game entirely for Netflix (and its streaming competitors), it ends with a whimper—an unfortunate one that's not the fault of its star. With or without Kevin Spacey, it's possible that House of Cards had simply run its course. It's just a shame that it couldn't make one final sprint toward the finish line.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.