This article contains spoilers through the Season 5 finale of House of Cards.
House of Cards will be remembered as the first streaming-TV success, an Obama-era fable turned eerily apt under Donald Trump, and—after sexual-harassment allegations against Kevin Spacey on set and off—an emblem for pop culture given an asterisk by #MeToo. But it also stands as an oil-and-vinegar showcase in acting. Spacey played the amoral politician Frank Underwood as a swamp-dwelling Foghorn Leghorn, clucking and strutting with blood on his feathers. Meanwhile, the Beltway players and rumpled journalists of the ensemble nailed the depressive poise expected in a David Fincher production: murmuring gravely, shrugging coyly, and conveying they knew more than they displayed and felt even less. Amid—against—this pageant of muted competence, Frank snarled in the name of lust.
Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood was Frank’s partner, but she also epitomized the show’s quieter brand of menace. Enigmatic and careful, she hungered for power just as much as he did, yet her pursuit of it never felt frantic. Thus, in the rare moments when she broke her facade—or knifed someone without even doing so—the results were a special kind of terrifying. Great credit should go to Wright, and the show’s writers, for locating complexity beneath the pat description “icy” that so often gets applied to powerful women. Without Frank’s close-talking heat, though, does Cards simply become a tundra?
This is one of the questions submerged in the final batch of episodes. A ridiculous chain of events saw Season 5 end with a scandal-tainted Frank resigning from the presidency so that Claire—his wife and V.P.—could rule as he amassed power in the private sector. In the real world, scandal has removed Spacey himself from public life, and (Spoiler) thus Cards resumes with Frank simply dead from supposedly natural causes. The widowing of Claire opens up a plot mystery (natural causes? really?), injects shivers of horror (imagine The Tell-Tale Heart in the East Wing), and intensifies the symbolic significance of what would have already been a timely counterfactual about the first female president (Claire at one point frets she’s been “emasculated” by enemies).
Yet the most striking shift, at first glance, is indeed the aesthetic one caused by a sudden dearth of histrionics. Scenes unfold with wan smiles and inscrutable sighs volleyed between Claire and the other sphinxlike principals, such as the delicately formidable adviser Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson), the unstoppable fixer Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), and the vice president Mark Usher (Campbell Scott), whose matter-of-fact deadpan disguises divided loyalties. The performances are excellent, maybe better than ever before. But Cards has always been a show whose plot contortions could confuse and whose incremental intrigue could bore, and those problems are worse now that everyone seems to be whispering.
There are interesting ideas at play, though. Cards introduces the new troublemakers Annette and Bill Shepherd (Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear), sibling industrialists clearly meant to suggest the Koch brothers. As Claire’s close friend from way back, Annette allows the show to riff darkly on themes of sisterhood (flashbacks depict young Claire with the haunted air of Sharp Objects). Bill, meanwhile, ruthlessly pursues what appears to be an earnest conservative agenda, which is a rare thing to see in this bizarrely post-ideology show. As Claire struggles against his attempted string-pulling, Bill resorts to brutishness and intimidation, and there are times when he inadvertently evokes Frank’s physicality.
Their clash makes for an explicit battle of the sexes, and the first female president arrives in the Oval Office like an organ in a host body that wants to reject it. The season opens with the Secret Service gruesomely describing death threats against the president that are arriving at a rate her husband never experienced. As she takes the reins, the forces arrayed against her try to hold her to Frank’s promises, accuse her of dithering, and, more than anything, marvel at her shiftiness. Unlike with Frank, “you never know” where you “stand” with her, complains former Underwood Press Secretary Sean Jeffries (Korey Jackson). “I don’t know whether or not she’s a person, or just playing the part of one,” Bill says.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Claire has been underestimated—who would expect otherwise? The subtle pull of the otherwise drab first few hours, in fact, comes from the suspicion that she’s willfully stoking people’s biases (“It’s either a good thing or a bad thing,” she says to a frenemy’s request for her opinion, making like Karen from Veep). Unfortunately, it isn’t until more than halfway through the eight-episode season that Claire’s big plan becomes clear. When it does, it involves Wright making a hammy, malevolent parody of gendered expectations, brilliantly puncturing the gunmetal patina that’s fallen upon the show and helping bury the memory of Frank’s excesses. The plot surely must hurl toward doom, but a deeper tragedy is suggested: if only this woman never had to hide her true self.