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House of Cards’ dismal ending proves it never had anything to say

The Netflix drama’s final season saves the worst for last.

House of Cards
Claire takes over as president in the final season of House of Cards. She deserves so much better.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I am no House of Cards fan. The most enthusiasm I’ve ever had for the show, in its ridiculous, operatic fourth season, might be characterized as “grudging enjoyment.” Last year, in its fifth season, I called it the most irresponsible show on television.

So I understand that I may not be the best judge of what House of Cards fans look for in the series. But all the same, I cannot imagine being a fan of the show, getting excited for the sixth and final season, watching season five’s buildup to that sixth and final season, and then sitting down to watch and getting ... this.

Its eight episodes comprise a centerless, ham-handed kludge of a season, one that keeps beating you over the head with music and ACTING and plot twists to try to convince you everything that’s happening is Important. And then it ends in a series finale that feels more incomplete than anything since Dexter Morgan took to the woods to become a lumberjack.

To be fair to House of Cards, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Season six was already in production with original star Kevin Spacey when allegations that Spacey had sexually assaulted multiple men, some of them minors, led to his swift dismissal from the series.

And when you consider that the season had always been set up as a final showdown between Spacey’s Frank Underwood, the former president, and Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood, Frank’s wife and the current president, well, finding a way to end House of Cards without Spacey must have induced a slight panic in the show’s writers’ room.

But whatever form that panic took, it has manifested in a season of television that is at least 75 percent about Frank Underwood, despite the fact that he never once appears. (He’s been killed off-camera between seasons, and the show barely specifies what happened to him until its final scene.) It has manifested in a season of television where I frequently couldn’t discern basic character motivations beyond, “The plot needs them to do this.” It has manifested in a season of television that feels like it was written the night before it was due.

To explain why House of Cards’ final season is so terrible, I’m going to talk about the three ideas the series tries to build it around — and how they come up wanting. But, naturally, I’m going to have to spoil some things. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know!

Idea 1: Claire vs. the patriarchy

House of Cards rouses itself to life a few times during the season, mostly by simultaneously celebrating and skewering white feminism. In these passages, Claire pits herself against the old boys’ network, represented by the moneyed interests of new characters Annette and Bill Shepherd, but also by essentially everybody else Claire butts heads with. (The Shepherds are a pair of siblings played by Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane, and they always feel like what they are — new characters dropped into a final season to goose the conflict.)

The scheme that Claire hatches to cement her own power in the face of this extremely vague opposition is ridiculous even by House of Cards standards. First, she leans into the worst fears that misogynists have about a woman president by appearing hysterical and unable to control her emotions.

Then when her enemies attempt to push her out of the presidency via the 25th Amendment, she suggests that her vice president is in cahoots with Russia to instead punish everyone who’s trying to get her removed from office and curry favor with the American public. (It’s not explained how, exactly, she convinces everybody it’s okay that she completely disappeared from the public eye for several weeks, seemingly in the grips of a horrible depressive episode.)

House of Cards
Season six’s new antagonists are the Shepherds, a brother and sister played by Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear.

The raw idea that Claire has to somehow break the patriarchy’s back to have any chance at success isn’t a bad idea to build the final season around. Indeed, some of the season’s best material stems from Claire’s apparent belief that other women will get in line behind her simply because she’s a woman, when many of those women can see that Claire is duplicitous and amoral and perhaps not someone they want to sell their souls to. It’s almost a fascinating dissection of pop feminism, of the idea that something is feminist solely because it centers on a “strong woman,” no matter what other values it peddles.

But, alas, it is only “almost.” By the time the last three episodes roll around, House of Cards’ final season has abruptly buried itself in a whole host of weird, borderline anti-feminist tropes. Claire reveals herself to be pregnant with Frank’s baby, in order to hold on to his fortune (which he apparently tried to leave to his longtime right-hand man Doug Stamper), and the show behaves as though it thinks viewers will turn against Claire swiftly as the season comes to a close, when its earlier episodes built her up somewhat successfully as a lone woman holding her ground against the hurricane.

Trying to build up and deconstruct a trope at the same time is difficult for even the best TV shows, so perhaps you can imagine how House of Cards flails as it attempts to both bolster and undercut the idea of a “strong female protagonist.” And the series isn’t helped by how much of Claire’s storyline occurs offscreen, due to surprisingly large time jumps between episodes, sometimes of several months.

The result is that its final episodes feel like a series of plot resolutions that never resolve into anything — especially when it comes to...

Idea 2: Claire vs. Doug

House of Cards
You know things are serious when Doug grows a beard.

The one reason House of Cards still had the potential to deliver a satisfying finale for its many fans, despite the absence of its initial protagonist, stems from how much those fans love Claire and former Underwood lackey Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly).

The question of when Doug would turn on the couple that had asked him to sacrifice so much in the name of their own ambitions had always hung over the series; the answer was an implicit, “most likely in the final season.” So without Frank (to whom Doug’s loyalty was strongest), the potential for a story where Claire and Doug tried to outmaneuver and ultimately destroy one another held considerable promise.

And it’s clear the show knew this, too, for its series finale is all about that imminent clash of personalities, when Doug signs on to a plot to assassinate Claire and agrees to be the assassin. (His sponsors — the Shepherds, of course — really think he could be out of prison in nine or 10 years, thanks to his obvious mental distress at the time of assassination.) But when Doug shows up in the Oval Office to do the deed, and Claire, who clearly knows what’s coming, orders everybody out of the room, the two simply run out the clock on the series. They talk to each other about unresolved plot lines until it’s time for Doug to try to kill Claire, fail, and be killed by her instead.

The encounter boils down the final season’s approach to Claire versus Doug into one scene: Everybody assumes they’re at odds, until a brief conversation reveals they’re maybe on the same side, until Doug decides that, no, he’s mad at her. Then they’re back at odds. Like everything else in House of Cards’ last eight episodes, it repeats itself endlessly, making the ultimate reveal that it was Doug who killed Frank a bit exhausting — you’ll probably have figured it out long before Claire does.

It’s a lackluster conclusion to a story that might have been a powerful way to frame a final season. And that’s to say nothing of the many times House of Cards steps right up to the edge of giving Doug more control over the narrative — he even speaks directly to the camera at one point, earning a privilege that was previously reserved for Frank and Claire — only to enmesh him in somebody else’s plot.

All of the above is rooted in House of Cards’ fundamental misunderstanding of how to build its final season. Instead of streamlining the show to the handful of vital characters it has left, it introduces the business with the Shepherds, which is clunky, unnecessary, and largely uninteresting. (I simply don’t care about whether Annette Shepherd’s son is her biological son, or whether she and her brother have an incestuous relationship, because I have just met them.) It drums up conflict with Claire’s vice president. It pushes a proxy war with Russia in Syria. It comments on several pieces of legislation, including the Equal Rights Amendment.

It throws everything it can think of into the audience’s field of vision because it seems terrified to simply tell a story about the fates of the few established characters it has left. And maybe that’s because House of Cards always wanted its final season to be about...

Idea 3: Frank Underwood vs. the world

House of Cards
Claire gets things done, at least when she’s not having to deal with all of the dumb stuff her husband got up to.

It is absolute madness how much of House of Cards’ final season is about a character who never once appears in it — via scenes about cementing Frank’s legacy, about Doug worrying that Claire is trying to erase Frank from the history books, and about what was written in Frank’s will.

On the one hand, I get it. It was clear that House of Cards’ conclusion was always going to be about Frank versus Claire, with Doug as a free agent, until Spacey’s actions came to light. Doug’s explanation of Frank’s death — Frank came to the White House in a rage, planning to kill Claire, so Doug killed him instead — feels for all the world like what the original, planned series finale must have been. And if you ever have to rewrite a final season of television as quickly as this show did, it’s inevitable that you’ll lean on your original material just a bit.

On the other hand, every time season six starts to build some momentum behind either of its other two major ideas, it lumbers backward to ponder what Frank would have done, or what Frank would have wanted, and it kills that momentum immediately. House of Cards needs to deal with Frank to some degree, and it especially needs to deal with Claire and Doug’s complicated feelings about the man. But it can never move past him. It can never escape his cancerous orbit.

And that failure to escape its own past is indicative of how much this American version of House of Cards has always struggled to be about anything. The original (and far superior) British miniseries was about the old idea of power breeding corruption, and how it ruined a man who desperately wanted to be king but never could, so he’d settle for the next best thing and do anything he possibly could to scale the heights of Parliament. Netflix’s adaptation is sort of about that, but it’s mostly about how power is cool to have, because you can have power.

Throughout the series, neither Frank nor Claire ever does anything with the power they accumulate. They just use it to continue to hang on to that power. At times, House of Cards has turned this into a critique of the political system, but a cynical, self-centered one. It was a series that implicitly argued that it was cool to not care about politics, because how does politics affect one’s life anyway?

It was a fantasy about the Clintons being as evil as right-wing media has made them out to be, released into a world where politicians regularly wield their power in a way that causes genuine, real-life harm and even death in the lives of people all over the world.

House of Cards can’t escape Frank Underwood in its final season, because to do so would require shifting its focus from the simple pursuit of power. Had the show’s final season tried to make that shift, it might have fallen on its face, but at least it would have tried something new. Instead, it argues what the show has always argued: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Absolute power is really cool.

All six seasons of House of Cards are streaming on Netflix.