With or Without Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards” is Unwatchable Nonsense
“House of Cards” hasn’t been good since season two, but I still binge-watched every season the weekend it came out. With season six on the way, I wasn’t about to break my streak.
After Kevin Spacey was fired following a series of sexual assault allegations that emerged after the show’s fifth season, the question on everyone’s minds was what the show would make of his absence.
Well, I have the answer. Season five featured Kevin Spacey and it was horrible. Season six did not feature Kevin Spacey and it’s just as bad.
Although Spacey’s inconsistent Southern accent and knowing glances at the camera do not grace the screen this season, Francis Underwood is about as absent as the runaway father whose portrait hangs on the wall in The Glass Menagerie.
The writers can’t seem to let him go. They even go so far as to have other characters recite his dialogue from previous seasons while listening to his “audio diary.” The audience, of course, doesn’t get to hear this diary directly, and this shoehorning tactic on the part of the writers seems like a rather forced way of keeping Francis present in his absence. We’re not allowed to enjoy the show (if such an awful show could be enjoyed) without being constantly reminded of exactly why Frank doesn’t appear in this season.
With Frank gone, his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who was successfully elected as her husband’s vice president (don’t ask) last season, is now both protagonist and commander-in-chief. The writers attempt to put a feminist spin on this unforeseen shift in focus, but it’s so inconsistently applied that it falls flat. As one character observes, “She doesn’t know whether she’s Lady Macbeth or Macbeth.” The music may swell inspirationally when Claire introduces her all-female cabinet, but it’s hard to conjure any “Yass Queen” enthusiasm for a woman who rode her husband’s coattails to power and committed multiple murders in the process.
Her final word on Frank is that he was a son of a bitch but that he also empowered her to pursue her own boundless ambitions. Apparently, the writers completely forgot how much time Frank spent trying to rein her in over the past five seasons. Meanwhile, every other character is just as incoherent as she is.
First, there’s Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson), whose job, personality, and motivation have never been clear to me and remained that way right up until she was killed off. Then we have newcomers Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane), who constitute a shameless attempt to cash in on Koch Brothers paranoia about five years too late. Bill rants about smaller government and the decline of family values while Annette smiles knowingly and flaunts her woman-of-a-certain-age sexuality. Mark Usher (Campbell Scott), in what must be the most ridiculously improbable career in political history, goes from Republican campaign manager to Democratic presidential advisor to Democratic vice president to political consultant. Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) leaves his job as communications director in a Democratic White House to work for a libertarian think tank. I suppose this unrealistic revolving door could be the show’s way of saying that both parties are ultimately populated by the same sorts of scheming machiavels, but in an age of extreme partisan polarization, that simply doesn’t fly.
If the characters are flat and nonsensical, so are the plot lines. It’s as if the writers brainstormed as many plot points as they could, eliminated none of them, and then pasted them randomly on a timeline without trying to make any connections between them.
Midway through the season, Annette’s tech-bro son finds out his real mother was their housekeeper and gets upset. Who’s the father? Nobody knows. That’s that for that plot line. The Shepherds force Claire to nominate a Supreme Court justice who she later threatens to impeach. This is all covered in about 10 lines of dialogue. There’s also some sort of legislation floating around that would restrict Claire’s control of the nuclear arsenal, but nobody ever spends more than five seconds talking about it. ICO (the ISIS stand-in from previous seasons) is trying to acquire a nuke. A group of oligarchs and government officials is hatching an assassination plot. Claire becomes pregnant with her late husband’s baby with zero explanation of how she accomplished such a feat. Francis is murdered and nobody spends much time or energy trying to figure out how, why, or by whom. The show ends with the resolution of one of these plots, but the rest are left hanging. I had to do a Google search to make sure it was all really over.
Season six’s worst moment, though, involves former secretary of state Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson). Last season hit its peak stupidity when Francis threw Durant down a flight of three (definitely no more than five) stairs in the middle of the White House just as she was about to testify against him. Instead of getting up, dusting herself off, and saying, “What the hell, Frank?” (as would happen 99.9 times out of 100), she conveniently lapsed into a coma and nobody suspected a thing. It was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen on TV.
This season, they almost managed to top that. Claire orders Doug (whose own plot line is a tangled mess that I defy anyone to unravel) to murder Durant. Durant conveniently dies, but wait…plot twist! She’s faked her own death and fled to France. There, she proceeds to do…nothing. Absolutely nothing. Then two or three episodes later, she’s assassinated for real. It’s as if the writers were making this stuff up as they went along.
I’d love to make some sort of insightful point about how this season reflects our current political climate, but honestly that would be dignifying the show too much. Ever since Frank became president at the end of season two, House of Cards has meandered aimlessly, and by having him commit murder at the end of season one, it severely diminished its power to shock us in the future.
It was bad television for well over half its run, and the only reason we kept watching was morbid fascination. Perhaps our government has become so remote and impersonal, so set in its ways, that we loved the idea that one man—even an evil one—could bend the entire thing to his will. Obama envied Frank’s ruthless efficiency, and many of Trump’s supporters seemed perfectly fine with electing their own scandal-ridden Underwood so long as he shook things up.
The show started as a critique of our civic virtue. It ended as an insult to our taste.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.