In the entirely different political climate of early 2013, Barack Obama was starting his second term as president and House of Cards, Netflix's first original series, premiered as the Washington show of the moment. Things have changed, to say the very least.
Now the painfully protracted, often overwritten, covertly Shakespearean melodrama comes to an end, at last, with the release of Season 6 on Friday, while the rest of us keep shuffling toward the end of the world. Besides noting House of Cards' role in the streaming-TV revolution, there's not much left to say about it, besides good riddance to its perpetual notion that Washington only works when Washington is cruel.
Even with the topically on-point crisis - some would say gift - of having to fire its star, Kevin Spacey (amid allegations of sexual assault), and replace him with the show's far more interesting co-star and character (Robin Wright as the newly-sworn, stainless-steel President Claire Underwood), House of Cards had already drifted hopelessly away from any kind of resonance or plausibility. Even as a hate-watch it had stopped delivering.
The show (created by Beau Willimon; adapted from an old British miniseries) always felt more like a stagy battle re-enactment, in which the most duplicitous and elaborate scheme wins, with extra points for the character who delivers the fanciest dialogue.
That turns out to be Claire, whose ascent to the Oval Office was determined in Season 5 before the Spacey matter. Now, as a widow, she finds herself beset by a laughably long list of cabinet members, archrivals and nemeses all clamoring to bring her down. The attacks are relentless in both their opportunism and c-word-laced sexism, the latter of which House of Cards now touts as its farewell theme. When a potential assassin's bullet chips the window of her armored limo, the president quips that it's the first sign of real respect she's had during her first 100 days in office.
"Here's the thing," Claire says, on the first chance she gets to face the camera and speak to the viewers directly - a cringey narrative device that was irritating when Spacey's Frank Underwood did it, and is only slightly less so now. "Whatever Frank told you the last five years - don't believe a word of it. ... It's going to be different for you and me. I'm going to tell you the truth."
The truth would be nice; so would a list of all of Season 6's references to the many schemes currently afloat in President Underwood's Washington, both now and in past seasons, for those of us who bowed out a few seasons ago. House of Cards has become far too tangled to sensibly follow.
Fans of the show savored House of Cards because of its unhinged portrayal of backstage politics, but the show was hardly ever politically relevant or even competent - not five years ago and certainly not now. It was mostly about needless cruelty, proving that not only democracy dies at this level of darkness; so do TV shows.
To believe in House of Cards, you had to buy into its puppet-master theory of government, which holds that one Machiavellian public servant can, through layers of never-ending blackmail, string-pulling and other displays of influence, gain control of so many people that he could determine the course of anything that happens in Washington. Nothing was too low or despicable for the show's characters - not even murder. Lacking the self-awareness of the equally shady and corrupt Washington of, say, "Scandal," House of Cards fetishized its characters' dark sides to a sadistic degree. And for what? The story got wider, but never deeper.
While House of Cards entertained the fantasy of hyper-capable control, the real world was getting a whole other lesson in the politics of chaos, courtesy of a far more fascinating drama seen in the rise of President Donald Trump, who will choose chaos over a game plan every day. Plans, schemes, endgames - who has any use for those? The crazier Washington became, the more House of Cards lost its touch.
Still, Wright's performance is a rock-solid study in resolve, and the new season throws a few clever and pleasingly feminist elbows with its newfound perspective. Diane Lane joins the cast as Annette Shepherd, girlhood chum and lifelong frenemey to Claire. Annette is also the sister to Bill Shepherd (Greg Kinnear), a powerful industrial scion in the Koch brothers mold, who is livid at Claire for having second thoughts about signing some kind of environmentally ruinous bill that he's wormed through Congress.
Both Lane and Kinnear seem eager to show off their squinty-eyed skills at playing caustically opportunistic demons, and House of Cards is only too happy to provide scenery for them to snack on. That was the method Spacey chose to express the show's tone - there can be no overacting here, so long as an elegant iciness prevails. Casting for maximum creepiness has never been a problem in this regard, as veterans such as Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson demonstrate, by making easy work of their snakey roles. (He plays the vice president and she plays some kind of duplicitous adviser; I could spend all day in the House of Cards remedial wiki files and still never quite catch up.)
It all comes to a swelling point in the fifth episode, as one side deploys a constitutionally sound plot device (one that other White House dramas have tried, too), and Claire's counter-scheme explodes in full fury. The only thing less believable is the idea that people will still be watching.
House of Cards (eight episodes) available Friday on Netflix.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post
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