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House Of Cards - The Final Season - Review: "Commendable, But Unfinished"

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It's hard to decide where to begin with this review on the final season of Netflix's flagship series, House of Cards. For one thing, production of its sixth season has surely been far more challenging than any of its predecessors, but on the other hand there was a reasonable level of confidence that a sixth season could be done and done well, even in the absence of its biggest star and executive producer, Kevin Spacey.

With production halted in late 2017 thanks to Spacey's past catching up with him, the final season was no doubt drastically reshaped. A likely thirteen episode run became eight, Robin Wright was given some enormous shoes to fill, and the production team had to work with what they had in order to provide the high quality content the fanbase was expecting.

Like virtually all fans, I didn't know what to expect. In a nutshell, the cast didn't miss a beat and were superb, but the production team were stretched too far, and fell short of the almost insurmountable task of trying to sell a completely new setup and storylines convincingly enough to make it an enjoyable viewing experience.

Let's examine the season's main plots first. That essentially evolved around two billionaire siblings, Bill and Annette Shepherd. Apparently inspired by the Koch brothers, the siblings along with Annette's son, Duncan Shepherd, sought to influence the decision-making of President Claire Underwood. Legacy supporting characters Seth Grayson and Vice President Mark Usher were prominent throughout and aligned with the Shepherds, which led to Claire almost always being somewhat isolated and outnumbered, and having to fight against the tide at every turn.

Running alongside that was the issue of how former President Frank Underwood died. In order to protect herself, Claire had to at times defame her husband, but Franks, right-hand man, Doug Stamper, wouldn't allow that, and his at times confusing and random storyline eventually culminated in him supposedly killing Claire, although in the series' final scene, Claire kills him instead.

The series premiere kicked things off with a bang. Some details of Frank's death were teased, however they were later contradicted. The main bang came courtesy of an assassination attempt on Claire, with a bullet striking the window of her limo. The Shepherds were introduced, and dialog between various characters set up the idea that:

Whatever Francis promised or did is buried with him.
The second episode saw Claire doing presidential things, specifically aiding in the response to a refinery leak and subsequent evacuation. This element of the series was surprisingly lacking elsewhere in the season. The media subplots were formed with the return of Janine Skorsky and Tom Hammerschmidt - perhaps the subplot I enjoyed the most.

The third episode saw Claire really begin to establish ideas for combating the influence of the Shepherds, who had just strong-armed her into signing the Freedom bill. Cathy Durant also returned only to be killed in the same episode in a rushed and unfinished story arc, TV personality Melody Cruz began to have an influence and demand more of Claire's attention. Claire's FWB, Tom Yates, appeared in a body bag, and along with his death, news of Claire's infidelity with him broke.

The fourth episode brought with it Russian President Petrov thanks to Cathy Durant's funeral. The conflict in Syria explored between him and Claire, with part of the deal reached requiring that the Shepherd's interests in the region be forbidden to operate. Tom Hammerschmidt began to go hard after Doug and what he did with Rachel Posner. In a twist that made no sense at all, Cathy Durant was shown to be alive.

The fifth episode was one of the most unorthodox the series has produced. Claire hadn't been seen in public for three weeks, but through some very good fourth wall scenes she explained her ruse, which was to force her colleagues to invoke the 25th amendment, only for Claire to return to the arena as if she'd never left, leaving egg on everyone else's faces. Jane Davis also made what ended up being an unnecessary return, with Claire having her kidnapped to keep her silent and discredit her. In the final scene, after firing her entire cabinet for almost booting her from office, she hired an all-female cabinet.

The sixth episode was the one in which the season finally showed signs of picking up speed and intensity. Bubbling under the surface for a while was the revelation that Claire had had 3 abortions in the past. Claire lied about one of her pregnancies not being viable. In retaliation for Annette Shepherd revealing this publicly, Claire found that Annette's son, Duncan, wasn't her biological child. Jane was also killed, as was Cathy Durant, and in one of the most horrifying moments in the season, Tom Hammerschmidt was executed, silencing his investigations into Frank Underwood and the whereabouts of Rachel Posner. As if that wasn't enough, when Doug confronted Claire over Frank's missing will, she revealed that she was pregnant, which would deny Doug any rights to the inheritance.

The seventh episode was my favorite in the season, and one of the most impressive the series has produced in its six seasons. There was a time jump of a few months, with a noticeably pregnant Claire speaking at a women's conference. Doug had gone rogue which forced Claire to send Nathan Green after him, though the eventually ended up colluding. By this point, Bill Shepherd was quite ill, and the supreme court ruled against what he and Annette wanted, which was for Claire to be depowered. Plans were made to kill Claire. There were so many potential perpetrators that it seemed more an issue of when, not if. In an attempt to round out Doug's storyline he essentially prepared to die, leaving the coordinates of Rachel's body for Janine.
This is my house, and I want you out.
The series finale was essentially an anti-climax. The previous two episodes had done a great job at building momentum and intensity, but this finale fumbled and miss-stepped all over the show, and lacked any real closure in a number of areas. After not being mentioned for a while, Frank's death was given another version of events, with Doug taking the credit for his death after he was apparently about to kill Claire. Meanwhile, the ICO terror organization was back in the mix, and Claire was the only one keen on using weapons of mass destruction, going against the advice of her joint chiefs. The Shepherd siblings spent more time arguing with each other about succession than doing anything meaningful. In the final moments, Claire had the football carrier arrested, only for Doug to come into the oval office. The symbolic letter opener was what Doug used to threaten Claire, only for her to turn the blade on him, resulting in his death. The only redeeming quality from this was the recount of the famous words that Frank opened the series with back in 2013 when House of Cards debuted.

So what did I enjoy about this final season? There were a few things, so I'll run through them.

The first was the storylines involving the journalists. Janine and Tom remained dedicated to the cause right through the series. They didn't allow the corruption and threats to influence their actions, Tom's death was unexpected, and I'd probably also say unnecessary because it meant that a chance to wrap up the Rachel Posner issue went begging. Janine refused to be rattled when she went up against Claire in some decent moments, and new recruit Melody Cruz provided good contrast in terms of the network she worked for, her own morals, and her style.

Secondly, the fourth wall element. Season 5 hinted at Claire now possessing this ability, and that was some very good fortune. It's one of the things that separates House of Cards from the pack, and while Claire perhaps lacked the flair that Frank had in that aspect, it still worked pretty well. The only real criticism I have of how the fourth wall was used is when Claire interrupted speaking with someone else, or at a press conference, to address the audience. It felt jarred and killed the flow. Bringing Doug in on the act late in the season was an interesting decision, but it left me thinking he should have been involved from the beginning seeing as both Claire and Doug had so much control over the other's destiny and ultimately faced each other in the final scene.

Thirdly, I'll admit my eyes rolled when I heard Claire was pregnant, but by the end of the series, I thought it was a very well executed plot device that threw many spanners in the works and forced people to treat Claire differently to how she had been treated earlier in the season. Being a New Zealander, our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave birth while in office earlier this year so the concept is not foreign to me, but the similarities in the changes in attitudes to her was noticeable, just as they were to Claire. What Claire also did was effectively weaponize her motherhood, and frankly you'd expect nothing less from the character.

Lastly, the flashbacks to Claire's childhood were unexpected and done pretty well overall. Of particular importance was the flashback to a teenage Claire deciding to be with Frank even if that essentially meant giving up a sex life. What this scene and a couple of others did was reinforce how long their bond had lasted, and how calculated their decisions were even back then.

The list of likes unfortunately ends there. For starters, there were so many unfinished aspects. I've mentioned this briefly, but the Shepherds received no closure whatsoever, especially considering there was talk of succession of Shepherd Unlimited and Bill was nearly at death's door. Claire and President Petrov spent a lot of time together debating various issues, but nothing really got done. Jane Davis and Cathy Durant should have been absent instead of being used to very average effect. So much looked like it may come from the latter's disappearance and subsequent funeral, but this was also left very open and incomplete.

The aspects behind the camera also bugged me significantly. The production team were in a great hurry obviously, and that likely explains the complete lack of long one-take scenes, or scenes with complex camera and character movement. Cinematography in the five previous seasons has been absolutely top-notch, but the cinematography in this sixth season was just boring. Anything the camera did - or the characters in front of the camera did - was very simple and standard. It lacked creativity or flair, and the season loses a few marks from me as a result.

I also think part of what made Doug Stamper good in past seasons worked against the series in season six. In my view he lacked a direction. He was always up to something but not even the other characters could understand his motives much of the time. He drifted between allegiances several times, making threats, leaking information, and trying to remain hidden from Nathan Green. The end result was a character that we didn't really know, and not all of that change can be explained by Frank's death, or the fact that he killed him. Though it wasn't the fault of the character, one of the season's most ridiculous moments came when Doug was transcribing what Frank had said on an audio diary. Doug refused to do the practical thing and play the audio out loud for Janine to hear. Of course the real reason why he couldn't do that is because that would have required the use of Kevin Spacey's voice, and that wasn't going to happen.

Early in the season, an app being pedaled by the Shepherd's was very much the center of attention, and this storyline had so much potential that was badly squandered. This was Duncan Shepherd's baby. The app was intended to be used in disaster situations to provide the most up-to-date information possible, while its nefarious purpose was to mine users' phones for data. This is such a relevant issue in real life not just for apps, but for untold numbers of websites and mobile devices in general. It needed more than a Duncan Shepherd arrest to close this issue more completely.

I mentioned this slightly earlier, but I'll reiterate it here. Claire did next to nothing for her country - virtually everything she did was to further her own agenda and ward off enemies. We got a glimpse of her actually being President during a refinery leak early in the season, but we got little else apart from a speech at a women's conference and war games with Russia. I believe this issue arose because of the shortened season where there may have been some other intended instances that were culled due to time constraints, but for me, doing stuff a President should be doing separates the character from the rest who can't be doing those things because they're not the President. Another argument for this here is Claire being absent for three weeks. She owed something to her people after that.
There, no more pain.
Finally, Doug being killed by Claire was such a waste of time, and a massive disappointment and anticlimax considering what was built in the two episodes prior.

For starters, the way things were moving, someone had to kill Claire. Claire even recounted the names of the past Presidents who had been assassinated or had survived attempts. She herself was on that list as of the first episode of the season. Something or someone needed to kill her because her death would have provided a better ending than Doug's did. Recounting Frank's "no more pain" quote as she killed Doug didn't feel right either. Those words had a stronger ownership to Doug than they did to Claire, particularly because Doug was trying to preserve Frank's actions and reputations whereas Claire was doing the opposite.

At the end of it all, a sixth season of House of Cards was warranted, but it wasn't executed to the level it needed to be. It was far behind its predecessors in many areas thanks to Kevin Spacey's abrupt departure, and while the salvage effort warrants a level of commendation, it's essentially an unfinished season that is more memorable for more wrong reasons than right ones.

It's all well and good criticizing something, but suggesting areas for improvement is something I believe in. So what would I have done differently if I was on the production team?

For one, I'd cut the episode order further back to five or six episodes. I would begin the story with Frank's death, and with whoever was responsible for that death continuing to come for Claire to finish the job of knocking both Underwoods off their perches. Claire retains the Presidency but the season centers around protecting her. Remember the Underwoods have many enemies, and they could band together to use a form of herd immunity to achieve an outcome. Keep the timeline short - maybe a matter of weeks at most - and lift the intensity as a result. Of course this would be a markedly different season to anything that's come before it, but with a radically different final season all but guaranteed, why not embrace it and create something completely different, but more representative of a house of cards falling as the past catches up with the two main characters.

Fantasy endings aside, one cannot underestimate how good House of Cards has been for Netflix. Its debut on February 1, 2013, marked a major milestone and turning point for Netflix in particular - but also other streaming services - that they could create outstanding content that had worldwide appeal, and most importantly, thrived on a platform designed for binge viewing. Since then, Netflix and numerous other streaming platforms have created dozens of series for their customers, and streaming series are receiving ever-increasing recognition and accolades. Both Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are Golden Globe Award winners, and House of Cards has picked up a few Emmy Awards for various things, along with dozens of nominations, including Best Drama.

At the time, it was unprecedented for a series - especially one as expensive as House of Cards - to receive a two season order without a pilot. House of Cards' status as a trailblazer cannot be denied. The streaming landscape is better for its existence, and if anything it's great that there were five pretty darn good seasons before the Spacey mishap, though it didn't get the final season it so surely deserved. The superb cast and crew can be very proud of their achievements over the past few years, and for me as a fan and reviewer of all six seasons, it's been a great run.

That's the end of my review of this final season of House of Cards. Thanks a lot for reading this far! I'd love to hear your thoughts and theories in the comments below, especially if you have any alternative endings and other scenarios you'd like to share. Cheers.

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