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).
Read: The Kevin Spacey allegations, through the lens of power
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.