'House of Cards' might be Spacey-free, but it's still obsessed with him

Robin Wright in Netflix’s <em>House of Cards</em>. (Photo: Netflix)
Robin Wright in Netflix’s House of Cards. (Photo: Netflix)

Here’s the only spoiler I’m going to give you about the new and final season of House of Cards, which starts streaming on Friday: At one point, Robin Wright’s President Claire Underwood looks at the camera and asks us, “Do you miss Francis?” She’s referring to her husband, who was played by Kevin Spacey and who has now been erased from pop culture after his sexual harassment scandal. But wait — it turns out House of Cards isn’t quite done with Spacey, or, at least, his character. Indeed, the lack of Frank Underwood in the HoC universe turns out to be one of the running themes of Season 6. Claire and other characters make comments both serious and whimsical that are intended to make you stop and think, “Wait, are they saying this about Frank, or about Spacey himself? Are they trying to signal to us what it was like to work with him, and what life is like without Spacey now?”

That sort of teasing only works for a brief time, however. The show must inevitably turn to new business — the business of the Claire Underwood administration, with its secrets and lies and ambition and strength. Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear take up a lot of oxygen in the opening episodes as siblings Annette and Bill Shepherd, wealthy campaign donors to Claire who expect a lot of influence for their cash. Think the Koch brothers with better hair.

Familiar faces return as well. Campbell Scott’s role as Vice President Mark Usher increases his visibility in the series, and Scott’s hoarse murmur complements Robin Wright’s silky murmur impeccably. Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper is back with a vengeance (I really shouldn’t tell you how he reenters the action), and since Doug was always operating in low-boil vengeance mode anyway, he’s really wound up now. And as always, real people from the world of Washington politics pop up in cameos. If I were CNN, I wouldn’t have let correspondent Jim Acosta, who plays a vain show-off in the real Trump White House press room, double down on his vanity here.

If the notion of Claire Underwood as the lead protagonist of a sixth-season House of Cards seemed like an appropriate one as the series returns in the #MeToo, #TimesUp era, in practice it’s a bit of a letdown. Robin Wright is many things, but possessed of a light touch she is not. Her grim addresses — to the camera, and to anyone within camera range — are steely and unceasing, with very little variation in tone or emotion. It doesn’t help that the dialogue — for nearly every character, but especially for Claire — is stilted. It’s not unusual for two people to have exchanges like this: “Double talk is your mother tongue.” “And subterfuge is yours!” Not only do humans not talk this way — the insults are so weak, so pallid.

Whether you enjoy the new season of House of Cards probably depends upon how much you’ve always liked the content and rhythm of the series up till now, because you’re going to get another boatload of it this season, with minimal alterations. The show has gotten rid of its biggest troublemaker without replacing him with new trouble that would be more entertaining.

House of Cards is streaming now on Netflix.

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