Houses of Cards
I’m a junkie, a House of Cards junkie. And I’ve been like this for years. Mine is not a new addiction; it goes back to the original British TV 90s mini-series (that’s what we used to call them back then) starring the Shakespearian actor Iain Richardson playing would-be British PM Francis Urquhart, in what was his break-out role.
The original House of Cards, drawn from the novels of Michael Dobbs, and translated to the screen by Andrew Davies, was ground-breaking on several fronts. First of all, it broke down the fourth wall. This was a startling innovation for TV audiences of the time, as Francis Urquhart leaned slyly into the camera and confided his deepest and often darkest thoughts about the other characters directly to us. It’s a device the American series has continued. These apercus were often very witty (wittier than the US version) especially as delivered with Richardson’s cultivated and oily charm – and gave rise to a 90s catchphrase – “You might say that but I couldn’t possibly comment” – which was Urquhart’s answer to not answering questions. (This was long before Tony Blair and the power of spin.)
Secondly, it not only suggested the corruption of day-to-day British politics, it showed us politicians as malicious, gossipy, venal, drug-addled, sex-obsessed and even murderous. When necessary, it attacked sacred cows. It dared – in its final season of three – to show Urquhart attending the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, who was still very much alive at the time.
That was then.
The current incarnation of House of Cards, the finale of which reached our screens in early November via Netflix, has always grabbed from the headlines, but this time, it was making the news not following it. Lead actor Kevin Spacey playing impeached President Francis Underwood, who at the end of Season 5 had ceded power to his loyal (?) wife and vice-president Claire, became the news when in October 2017 he was accused by Star Trek Discovery actor Anthony Rapp of making unwanted sexual advances in 1986, when Rapp was 14.
The Fall of the House of Cards
It was just a week after the Harvey Weinstein story had broken, and the House of Cards writing team – led by show-runners Frank Pugliese and Melissa Gibson – were in the middle of shaping the final season and had filmed the first two episodes. “It was very surreal because, at the time, it was the very beginning of the #MeToo movement which was influencing our story and [within it,] what it was like to be president and female,” story editor Sharon Hoffman told Vulture.com. “Writers’ rooms are usually very insular; it’s an intimate, familial place in the best circumstances. But the bubble was broken.” Within a week, a dozen men had accused Spacey of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and attempted rape and Netflix halted production. By November 3, it had severed all connections with him. That left the future of the series up in the air.
Season 5 had ended with Claire’s declaration to viewers that it was “her turn” to rule. For months, the writers had been building a scenario of a female president confronting misogyny head-on. Melissa Gibson thought it would be especially “perverse” for the story of a woman in power to be denied because of the actions of a man and in the end Netflix decided to go ahead with a Spacey-less finale. So does it work? Or is the series mortally wounded without Frank Underwood? The answer to that is yes, and no.
The foreshortened 8-episode last series feels like a very different beast to the previous five. Why? Because if House of Cards was about anything, it was about the gritty world of politics i.e. the cut and thrust of democratic politics — caucuses, back-rooms, horse-trading and dirty deals. The early seasons were fueled by set pieces of high-octane politics; it was the oxygen that drove Frank on, hustling in the corridors of power, leaning on the worthy but dull Education Secretary Donald Blythe, playing hard-ball with Jackie Sharp, the flakey Deputy House Minority Whip, setting up the vulnerable alcoholic governor-hopeful Peter Russo. The titles tell it all. We remember them because of their relative positions of power. Because that was important to the plot.
Not anymore. Season 6 is all murder and vengeance as Claire inherits presidential power after Frank dies in mysterious circumstances. As she cuts a swathe through her enemies, we’re treated to little pockets of flashback, which show how the cruel damaged little girl becomes the chilly, amoral woman. (Personally, I preferred it when no excuses were made for these characters and they were allowed to be plain bad in their own right.) This final series is no longer about politics, it’s about settling personal scores. And that makes it very reductive. Additionally unfortunate is the implied message that with a female president, politics is shrunk to the personal.
The body count is high. Doughty reporter Tom Hammerschmidt, Catherine Duran, the former Secretary of State, and Jane Davis, shady Foreign Department operative all meet untimely ends, as does Frank Underwood’s right-hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) who’s done in with the treasured letter-opener Frank Underwood had once presented to him. Is this a dagger I see before me etc?
It’s wrong to expect old-fashioned justice from a show that has celebrated cynicism and rampant political ambition. But the final season throws all of its sacrificial lambs under the bus, to mix my metaphors. What about Zoe Barnes, Rachel Posner and Lucas Goodwin? If nothing else, the narrative arc of fiction demands that their deaths be revisited. But the message of the final flawed season seems to be that not only does every bad deed go unpunished, but every good one must be obliterated. It’s nuclear option politics.
And ironically, by a circuitous route, that makes Season 6 the perfect replica of the current White House, rather than a token flagpole for the #MeToo movement as the scriptwriters seemed to intend. Claire’s presidency is undermined by new characters Annette and Bill Shepherd, a power-brokering pair of billionaire oligarchs (brother and sister rather than husband and wife) with influential business interests, whom we’re led to believe had Frank in their pockets before his untimely death.
This is fictionally very dubious – here are characters who’ve never featured before, not even by name, but they’re rolled on to centre-stage now like evil twins – worse than Claire it seems – to force her to stop undoing Frank’s promises. So it’s Frank Underwood’s legacy that’s being battled over. Not so feminist then.
And did I mention The Baby? What baby, you ask. No one in the cast seems to bat an eyelid when the distinctly middle-aged Claire (Robin Wright who plays her is an extremely lithe 52) suddenly manifests a six-month bump. Who’s the father? Tom Yates – the writer and Underwood biographer – who until the end of Season 5 was having regular, cuckolding rumpy-pumpy with Claire, is the obvious paternity candidate. However, Claire’s already seen to him and she insists to anyone bold enough to ask, that this is Frank’s baby.
Remember back in Season 2 when she was flirting with the idea of getting fertility treatment – well, it appears good old Frank gave a sperm specimen back then and Claire has called in his deposit. But none of this is made explicit, so as a punter you have to have a very good memory, and a very gullible nature, to believe that one. My theory is this is a “fake news” baby; a phantom pregnancy created by Claire to soften her image.
But just when you’ve got used to the idea of a pregnant Claire, the female metaphors start to proliferate. Her wardrobe and her brittle demeanor scream Black Widow, another role she’s busily playing. Is she mad? Or is she mad with grief? Is that why her dress sense has gone AWOL? Gone now the subtle neutrals, the stylish creams and ivories and the figure-hugging dresses of seasons gone by. Now she’s suited and booted in Mao-like ensembles in royal blues or primary reds – a kitsch embodiment of the Stars and Stripes. There’s also a muddy green ensemble, and once, heavens, what looks like a Hilary Clinton pants suit.
We all know that fiction has faltered in the face of the reality of the Trump presidency – but it’s politics that fails in the House of Cards finale, as grand guignol runs rampant. The screenwriters reach for blood and tears – on Claire’s hands and in Doug Stamper’s eyes. Yes, chilly buttoned-up, repressed Doug weeps openly in the Oval Office. And it’s wrong, I tell you, all wrong.
The ironic thing about Claire’s reign as ice queen is that she – along with the final series – seems to have dispensed with the day-to-day politics altogether, once the show’s hallmark. She may be presented as a feminist icon with her all-female cabinet, but Claire Underwood plays out an exact replica of Donald Trump’s first year in power. Season 6 joins her when she’s 100 days in, which probably chimes exactly with the early days of the Trump presidency during which the scriptwriters were desperately tearing their hair out trying to reshape the show without Spacey.
They might want you to believe that Claire Underwood – sorry, Hale; she’s reverted to her maiden name – is a feminist icon having sacked a cabinet full of old white men and replaced them with an all-female team. They might even want you to ponder whether she’s a feminist gone rogue; could she be a version of what might have been if Hilary Clinton had won the presidency? Or is she a warning about the dangers of any feminist getting into the White House?
Claire rules with an iron fist – and an even sharper haircut. (Hair is important in US politics.) But she doesn’t seem to bother with pesky politicians. Executive orders are the plat de jour. The House of Representatives and the Senate barely get a look in. She has emasculated her vice-president with withering looks and school-marmish manner. Where have all the politicians gone? The answer? Claire Hale has drained the swamp all on her own.
Don’t let the gender agenda fool you. The last word from House of Cards is that Claire Hale is Donald Trump.