As heard on House of Cards’ upcoming sixth and final season: "I’d like to fry her eyeballs." "She is the Antichrist." "God never intended a woman to rule this land." If the vitriol of the (fictional) American public is any indication, the latest occupant of the Oval Office, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), is in for a brutal term.
And when Netflix’s over-the-top political thriller returns, she’s also been hit with a seemingly devastating personal blow: the death of husband Frank Underwood, the blood-curdlingly corrupt politician played by Kevin Spacey for the past five seasons.
'The reign of the middle-aged white man is over,' declares the new Madam President.
When last seen, Frank had resigned from the presidency ahead of a possible impeachment for orchestrating the downfall of his predecessor, Garrett Walker (Michael Gill), to name just one of his many, many misdeeds leaked to the press. And thus the most powerful job in the world went to the vice president — his smart, mercilessly ambitious wife, who closed out the season by facing the camera to announce, "My turn."
The series’ final eight episodes were originally going to examine "the power behind the power," explains executive producer Frank Pugliese, with the former POTUS attempting to control Claire’s administration from outside the White House. Then Spacey’s real-life misdeeds, including allegations of sexual misconduct, led to the actor’s dismissal.
Now retooled, Cards focuses on Claire as the country’s first female president and her clashes with the moneyed power brokers attempting to manipulate D.C.’s elected officials. The plot shift isn’t as monumental as it appears. "No matter what, the last season was going to be an exploration of Claire Underwood’s term," says Pugliese. "We decided nothing should get in the way of that."
Frank’s demise is revealed almost immediately, though details are left vague. "He may be dead," Pugliese notes, "but how dead is he?" The showrunner isn’t suggesting some sort of fake-out, but alluding to the continuing repercussions of Frank’s actions. After all, Claire has been complicit in most, if not all, of his crimes, from election tampering to out-and-out murder. Last season, she even took it upon herself to kill her lover, speechwriter Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), for knowing a bit too much.
The character will be absent in the final season due to Kevin Spacey's firing.
"The really juicy question is in how Claire navigates [her and Frank’s] history…and how that casts a shadow on her present," adds exec producer Melissa James Gibson.
From the start, Claire faces threats to both her presidency and her life. Her reaction to hate mail: "I thought everyone loves a widow." But she’s no Jackie Kennedy. "People want her to behave as the grieving first lady while she’s also the sitting president," says Gibson. "She’s occupying two roles at once. She can’t win."
It’s not for lack of trying, says Wright. "She is more resolute than ever to turn around Frank’s legacy and create a more positive one of her own." To that end, she delays signing an industry-friendly bill favored by shady siblings Annette and Bill Shepherd (Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear) — even though Frank promised the deep-pocketed power players its passage before he died.
Inside the West Wing, Claire must contend with underhanded VP Mark Usher (Campbell Scott), as well as ex–trade official Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson), whose allegiances have a tendency to shift. Says Pugliese: "Every character is at one moment a partner and at another her opponent."
Meanwhile, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Frank’s former chief of staff and fixer, poses another obstacle. He knows where the bodies are buried — literally! "He is practically addicted to loyalty," Pugliese says of the man who took the fall for Frank’s Season 2 killing of reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Now "he’s trying to figure out if he should be loyal to Claire or if she’s his biggest enemy."
Without Frank to whisper in her ear, who is Claire, really? "She is reckoning with her ambition and her actions," says Gibson, who still downplays the idea of redemption for this antihero. "That’s one of the revelations of this season: We never knew her as we thought we did."
House of Cards, Premiere, Friday, November 2, Netflix