“The reign of the middle-aged white man is over.” Claire Underwood, first female president of the United States, is speaking to a potential Supreme Court nominee about why she’d prefer to be free of outside influences, particularly from the demographic in question. But she is also, in the show’s elliptical way, referring to her late husband, Francis, who has died under mysterious circumstances. And, of course, she is indirectly alluding to the man who portrayed him.
House of Cards isn’t the first television show to face the very 2018 dilemma that lies before it. Mere weeks ago, ABC unveiled its retooled version of Roseanne, which mourned its matriarch while being carefully structured not to profit the woman who played her. Earlier this summer, ABC cut ties with Roseanne Barr over a racist tweet, the latest in a series of fringe-right political statements she had made on social media. According to creator Jill Soloway, Transparent’s delayed final season will take the form of a two-hour movie musical, without onetime star Jeffrey Tambor. In February, Amazon announced that Tambor would not return to his Emmy-winning role after trans colleagues Van Barnes and Trace Lysette shared accounts of sexual harassment by Tambor and the streaming service conducted an internal investigation.
For five seasons, House of Cards was all but synonymous with Francis Underwood, the reptilian creature of the Beltway played with an oily drawl by Kevin Spacey. Then in October 2017, actor Anthony Rapp came forward with his account of Spacey assaulting him in 1986, when Rapp was just 14 years old. (Spacey said that he did not recall the incident.) After multiple subsequent stories concerning Spacey, including a CNN report outlining systematic harassment on the set of House of Cards itself, Netflix suspended production on the show’s sixth season and fired the actor. Almost a year later, a retooled version of the series has arrived to close out the story on a less ignominious, and maybe even triumphant, note. Francis Underwood is dead. Long live his widow.
On its surface, House of Cards is yet another Hollywood enterprise forced to reckon with the sudden toxicity of its once-bankable lead. (It’s not even the first project to do so involving Kevin Spacey, arriving after Ridley Scott’s Herculean All the Money in the World reshoots earned Christopher Plummer an Oscar nomination.) Yet the political thriller is unusual in its attempt to spin such a gaping liability into an advantage, both on and off the screen. It’s a long-shot rebrand worthy of House of Cards itself, and, sure enough, uncomfortable parallels start to crop up almost as soon as the abbreviated eight-episode season begins—some more intentional than others.
“Whatever Francis told you the last five years, don’t believe a word of it,” Claire urges the viewer in the premiere, speaking directly into the camera in the favored narrative device of the show she’s inherited. “It’s going to be different for you and me. I’m going to tell you the truth.”
As ever, Robin Wright embodies Claire with chilly comportment, nigh on impenetrable. And as ever, House of Cards doesn’t intend for the audience to take her words, or any other, at face value. This reflexive, empty cynicism had diminishing returns in prior seasons: When everyone lies to everyone, eventually you take the hint and stop paying attention. But while Claire’s unreliability is a given, House of Cards also seems to be relatively earnest in its insistence that this antihero is different. And with the aforementioned potshot at middle-aged white guys, a show that mere months ago was implicated in a cultural reckoning with the abuses of influential men is now positioning itself as a leading arbiter of girl power.
As with The Conners, within the story itself, House of Cards’ execution of this handoff is surprisingly smooth. Starting with Corey Stoll’s doomed U.S. Congressman in Season 1, Beau Willimon’s faux-Shakespearean drama has racked up a staggering body count, particularly as the show has drifted further away from a hard-nosed look at how politics really works and toward straight-up soap opera. The unceremonious announcement that disgraced former president Frank Underwood has died off-camera, then, plays less ridiculous than it otherwise would—no less ridiculous, certainly, than Claire murdering someone mid-coitus circa Season 5. (The twist was also previewed in a teaser trailer.)
In Frank’s absence, the plot neatly pivots to Claire’s tug-of-war with the blatantly Kochlike Shepherd siblings, who want to turn her nascent presidency into their personal puppet show. Supposedly close allies with Frank, the billionaire brother-sister duo have never been mentioned before, though it’s easy enough to deduce why they’re around: Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear have stepped up to stem the loss of Spacey’s star power. As usual, ideology is disorientingly absent from House of Cards’ political playing field, in which self-interest trumps everything and antiregulation industrialists are in bed with a Democratic dynasty. The lone exception is Claire’s haphazard feminism, now abruptly foregrounded. She’s decided the best way to leave her mark on the office is to revive the ERA.
House of Cards hasn’t been at its creative peak for some time, and the final, Claire-centric season represents neither a renaissance nor a sudden deterioration. The cinematography is still sumptuous, the dialogue a jumble of would-be menacing purple prose. The most notable change is the narrative House of Cards is propagating about itself, both through its fictional narrative and the real-life actions of its creative team. The ascendancy of Claire Underwood has been mirrored by the emergence of Robin Wright as House of Cards’ new figurehead, not just as a star, but a director and producer as well. (Wright directed multiple episodes of the final volume, including the series finale.) “Robin led all of this charge so that people would save their livelihoods, because when the show goes away, some people don’t get paid,” Patricia Clarkson, who plays a supporting role on the show, told The Talk in July.
This party line—that it would be unjust not to continue the show, and therefore deprive people of their jobs on account of one man’s misbehavior—was soon adopted by Wright herself. In an initial interview with Today this summer, Wright mostly sought to distance herself from her former costar, stressing that “Kevin and I knew each other between ‘action’ and cut’” and “I didn’t know the man.” This week, a Variety cover story outlines “How Robin Wright Took Charge of House of Cards and Saved the Final Season,” with Wright, showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson, and Netflix VP Cindy Holland all framing the actress as a savior of jobs and auteur come into her own. “It’s funny the way people keep talking about it like she might have stepped up. She was always up,” Pugliese told Variety. “She’s always been a leader on the show.”
Such an interpretation of the House of Cards saga is supported by Wright’s directing credits, critical role throughout the series, and even prior to the Spacey news, public advocacy for equal pay. But underlining Wright’s feminist credentials also benefits the show, not to mention Netflix as a whole. Blurring the line between fact and fiction miraculously works in House of Cards’ favor where it would once have sunk the season; figures like Willimon, whose follow-up series stars an actor others have repeatedly linked to physical assault, have avoided the scrutiny they might otherwise face. Gradually, an entertainment product that was a symbol of Hollywood’s dysfunction has constructed an alternative image of a woman overcoming adversity to reclaim her autonomy. Claire Underwood would be proud.