Why Claire Underwood Couldn’t Save House of Cards

The Netflix political drama spent so much time on its complicated plot. But in the end, it squandered the opportunity to go deeper and wider.

A still from 'House of Cards' Season 6

This article contains spoilers through the Season 6 finale of House of Cards.

Doug Stamper is the dog.

In the opening moments of Netflix’s House of Cards premiere episode from 2013, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) hunched over a dog that’d been injured by a car. “There are two kinds of pain,” he said into the camera. “The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act, who will do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.”

He then broke the dog’s neck. “There,” he said. “No more pain.”

In the final moments of the final episode of House of Cards—which occurs in a truncated season made after Spacey left the show due to allegations of sexual misconduct—the president, Claire Hale Underwood (Robin Wright), cradles her dead husband’s henchman, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), in her lap. She has just stabbed him in the belly with a letter opener after he nearly slit her throat with it. Underwood puts her hand over his mouth and nose and tells him that everything’s going to be okay. His eyes close. “There, no more pain,” she says. Her eyes flick toward the camera. The credits roll.

Some sort of rhyming is going on here, clearly, but does the poem mean anything? Frank Underwood, through a combination of guile, bloodshed, and weirdly good luck, was the master of the show’s universe for five seasons. He shared that power with his wife, but over time she yearned for a greater portion of it, and by the final season she’d taken his spot in the White House. Doug Stamper was Frank’s loyal attack animal throughout. But eventually he turned on his master and was put down by another.

Throughout Season 6, the question of how Frank died (off camera) remains a mystery, and Doug finally reveals the answer right before his demise: Denied a pardon by his wife, Frank snapped and set out to murder Claire, and Doug—deciding that such a murder would “destroy everything we built”—intervened by poisoning Frank with his own liver medication. Afterward, though, Doug seethed as Claire seemed to capitalize on her husband’s death. Hence the whole letter-opener showdown.

Power kills personhood; betrayal begets betrayal; the seemingly meek but actually sinister shall inherit the Earth—pick your take-home message. As far as nutso pseudo-Shakespearean TV climaxes go, the final scene worked okay: Wright got to perform a ballet of humanity and ruthlessness, while Kelly got to drop Stamper’s mask for once. And as a jerry-rigged conclusion to a story derailed by outside scandal, perhaps Season 6 should be graded on a curve. But so many unanswered plot questions remain that the conclusion feels cruel to viewers. By overtly calling back to the dawn of this show, the creators force the judgment that the greatest tragedy of House of Cards was its own incoherence.

The show had big flaws all along: migraine-inducing implausibility, emotional frostbite, a sense that episodes were padded to fit an hour’s length, Spacey’s dicey accent, and more. But the first season set the internet buzzing, and not just because of the novelty of seeing a slick, star-led drama on Netflix rather than on HBO. As the shape of the Underwoods’ relationship became clear—here were fire and ice destroying for the same goal—the story imparted the satisfying feeling of dominoes falling. When the troubled but soulful congressman Peter Russo met his end at Frank’s hands, it was like the completion of the prophecy foretold in that first scene with the dog. The rest of the show would ground its suspense on the presumed inevitability of Frank’s eventual comeuppance.

The season-after-season wait for that comeuppance was rarely as thrilling as it might have been, but viewers came to understand that even when the plot didn’t add up—when it got lost in a stew of current-events buzzwords—it could still sometimes serve up a sensory jolt. Like the murder of Zoe Barnes. Or the ridiculous but fun saga of Frank getting shot in Season 4. Or the Underwoods’ pointless threesome with the Secret Service agent Edward Meechum.

In Season 6, though, it felt as though the writers gave up. The new villains, Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane), represented a mix of blandness and bizarreness: As bazillionaire GOP donors, they were able to orchestrate assassinations and massive data-mining schemes, and yet the Underwoods had never even mentioned them in the previous seasons. They also too closely resembled previous big-bads of the show, such as the capitalist caricature Raymond Tusk and the savvy power couple the Conways. The final episodes often seemed to be merely passing time by fixating on the Shepherds’ inconsequential interpersonal drama, including a never-solved mystery about Annette’s son’s paternity.

The grappling with gender was not thoughtful, either. Claire faced every obstacle that a powerful woman might face for being a woman, including stereotypes about emotionality, comparisons to the men in her life, and scrutiny about her reproductive choices. This being the cynical Cards, she leveraged sexism to her advantage. Watching Wright fix her face into a fake rictus of grief—a totally novel look for her on this show—was a hoot. But her pregnancy, her appointment of an all-female cabinet, and other stunts (a war-room lecture on misandry?) were both too thinly depicted and given too much weight. It was as if she could perform magic, changing the entire country’s opinion of her with the simplest fake feminist gesture.

The sense that Claire had superpowers was compounded when the offing of three nuisances—the journalist Tom Hammerschmidt, the adviser Jane Davis, and the on-the-lam diplomat Catherine Durant—happened while the president sat in comfort elsewhere. Weirder still was that she was able to foil a supposedly elaborate assassination conspiracy from within her own government by pointing out the would-be killer—a soldier carrying a nuclear briefcase—and having him taken away by the Secret Service. These plot conveniences happened, quite obviously, to clear the stage for the final showdown between Claire and Doug, the only two major characters still in the mix.

But that confrontation was really, on a nearly explicit level, between Claire and Frank. Spacey had left the show, but he lived on with the hat trick of dead-character mementos: a secret will, a tell-all diary, and an unborn child. Stamper served as his illogical avenger, working in the name of an Underwood “legacy” that was nonexistent except for in the accomplishments of Claire, whom he continually tried to sabotage. If her shivving of Doug represented the final triumph of the female—a long-awaited achievement of independence—the spoils of that victory will have to be left to the imagination. So will questions of how Claire will spin Doug’s death, whether the journalist Janine will expose any of her crimes, and whether Claire’s baby is actually Frank’s.

It’s weird: The show spent so, so much time on its plot, but in the end, it didn’t care about it. It cared only about capital-T Themes. By ending Doug’s “pain”—the agony of someone still loyal to the man he killed—Cards once again showed that to act out of emotion rather than expedience is a fatal mistake. By featuring the Shepherds so heavily, Cards reiterated its old ideas about the venality of American power brokers. Meanwhile, subplots about environmental catastrophe and potential nuclear war simply moved the same old chess pieces around. Without Frank, maybe Cards could have broken fresh territory by zooming out to look at the broader consequences of Underwood-style politics. Instead, it ended on the cynical cliché that every new master will be just like the old one: winning by doing the unpleasant, necessary thing.