“Are you still there? Do you miss him?” asks Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in the final season of House of Cards, which premieres on Netflix today. She’s speaking directly to camera – not only tackling the show’s troubled production head-on, but also reminding us that her time in the spotlight has been a long time coming. Even in Season 5 of the political drama, after all, Claire started to break the fourth wall, like her husband had for so many seasons, making it clear that she was just as powerful and dangerous as he was – and that her time was about to come.
Of course, that time came in an entirely unplanned manner, when allegations of sexual assault surfaced against Kevin Spacey. With Season 6 already in production, the show’s makers scrambled to halt everything, cut all ties with Spacey, then go back to the drawing board to rewrite it without Frank altogether; when we begin, he’s already dead and buried, leaving Claire to take centre stage.
But all that only reinforces Claire as the show’s real star, because as this final run kicks off, Frank isn’t missed at all, and Claire isn’t only his successor – she’s better, right down to delivering those asides. “Whatever Francis told you the last five years, don’t believe a word of it,” she informs the camera, with the kind of steely glare that made House of Cards such an exciting new programme when it first premiered.
“The first female president of the United States is not going to keep her mouth shut on the Fourth of fucking July,” she declares to her staff in the opening episode, as they debate whether to cancel an appearance on the national holiday. Three minutes in and she’s already uttered the F-word and the C-word with all the relish and authority that made the former President Underwood an intimidating figure. By the time she’s literally sticking up the middle finger at her husband’s memory, there’s no question that she has the mettle to take on the job at hand. Just look at the military vibe to her costumes, which are mostly black and dark blue, have high collars and don’t give her a handbag to hold.
But there’s more to Claire than pantomime villain or fourth-wall-breaking cartoon. Claire’s got depth, feeling and humanity to go with her nasty, ruthless ambition. While Frank was someone who planned and schemed, she’s also capable of reacting on the fly, caring or other people, and hoping for something different. Within days of being sworn in as POTUS, Claire has already received tons of graphic death threats – a horribly realistic depiction of what it would be like to have a female President – and is surrounded by men who doubt her, question her, undermine her or try to manipulate her. But her efforts are not only to prove those people wrong and establish her freedom as a major world leader, but also to try and make some positive change: she’s at odds, immediately, with the Koch-like siblings Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane), and seeks to stop them abusing their wealth and power further, while also encouraging her new female Press Secretary, and maybe, just maybe, making life better for the citizens of her country.
She’s a more likeable President, not only because of Robin Wright’s charisma, but because of Claire’s complex character. “I don’t know whether or not she’s a person, or just playing the part of one,” Bill sneers at one point, and it’s that very enigma that makes her so compelling; at any point she might simply be pretending to be frail, sad or powerless, but the fun lies in trying to guess which glimpses of vulnerability we get are genuine. “Playing incompetent is so exhausting,” she sighs at one point, with a glorious side-eye. At another, she calls out a soldier for questioning her lack of a plan. “Would you have asked me that if I was a man?” she fires back, without blinking.
As the final season unfolds, it’s a shame that the show doesn’t always seem to share her clarity of purpose or righteous, precise momentum. But when Patricia Clarkson’s Jane Davis (returning as Claire’s trusted advisor) and the POTUS share the screen, the whole thing crackles with possibility and political thrills. (That this season is also the one that sees Robin Wright step up to the helm behind the camera is all too fitting.) The result promises to be a blazing showcase for a President who deserves nothing but your respect. Here’s hoping these last eight episodes give her the season she deserves.
House of Cards Season 6 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.