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Late last week Netflix announced that the company was divesting itself of Kevin Spacey: It’s been reported that the actor, facing a growing number of sexual harassment claims, would likely be written out of House of Cards’ sixth season. Production is halted on the new season after filming two episodes; more episodes had been written. Those who work on the show may be grateful that they’re not yet unemployed, but continuing Cards poses plenty of problems. Now the challenge for the writers and producers is: How do you make the lead character vanish?
You’ll recall that the end of the fifth season found Spacey’s Frank Underwood resigning his presidency over to his Vice President/wife Claire (Robin Wright), in return for being pardoned. In the closing moments, Claire is reconsidering that deal; she turns to us and directly addresses the viewing audience, saying simply, “My turn.” Indeed, it may well be Claire Underwood’s turn. That is, if the show doesn’t go in another direction entirely: Variety has reported that the producers are considering the idea of a spinoff centered around Michael Kelly’s aide Doug Stamper. (Does anyone really want to see a Doug show? He’s become such a dry, pleasureless character, all nursed grudges and grim AA meetings.) The difficult trick is, how to erase Frank? If the show has him die (say, of a heart attack), there might have to be a few scenes of mourning, or at least some of the show’s patented insincere sincerity — fulsome praise of the now-late President Underwood from politicians who hated his guts. But would the show risk having it seem as though it was, subtextually, saluting Kevin Spacey — giving him a semi-fond farewell?
Hmmm. What about assassination? Same thing: Violent death tends to enshrine even unsympathetic characters, and you don’t want a halo-glow hovering over the head of even an absent, memorialized Underwood/Spacey. The thought also occurs that, at some point in the increasingly long list of men who’ll have TV work taken away from them due to their dreadful behavior, some TV show or another will be tempted to have that man’s character also commit some terrible act against women, be called out for it, and be banished. In the case of Frank Underwood, (former) president of the United States, however, this would carry too obvious an irony: If this fictional president lost his public position for being a sexual predator, viewers would howl that this was unbelievable, given that our real president has been accused of much the same thing and remains securely in office.
But maybe I’m over-thinking it. Perhaps viewers will hold their noses and put up with a season opener that features the announcement of Underwood’s death by natural causes, followed by a brief, oh-poor-Frank mourning period — as long as it then allows the series to move on briskly. It sounds difficult to make convincing here, but then, I’m not a highly paid TV writer with limitless imagination. Also, the last couple of seasons of House of Cards have had their inconsistencies and implausibilities. (I’m still irritated at the memory of Claire’s lover, that smug speechwriter-biographer who was quickly allowed to camp out for days and weeks in the White House, roaming the halls and raiding the fridge without Secret Service interference.)
When I think about the possibilities going forward, I have to say, they don’t seem appealing. Yes, it might be thrilling to see a woman as hard-edged as Claire Underwood leading the country, but I think the novelty would wear off fast, and if all she did was continue to scheme and glower at the camera, would anyone want to binge-watch that? As much as it seems sad for the once so highly esteemed House of Cards to go out with a whimper, it may be that the most likely way to rid the screen of Kevin Spacey is to film one long episode — the length of a feature film, perhaps — that would salute the victims of Frank Underwood’s terrible behavior, starting with Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). That episode would suggest that it’s time to do something that will truly punish a man who thrives on power and prominence — shame him, and then permanently shut down the vehicle that chronicled his glory.
House of Cards Seasons 1-5 are currently streaming on Netflix.
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