Of course, we all know what happened to the man who played him and that Frank would be killed off in the aftermath, but as the first episode of Season 6 concludes, the actual circumstances around Frank's demise remain unclear. One of those patented House of Cards speeches to the camera divulges that President Claire Underwood's (Robin Wright) spouse was said to have croaked in bed with her — hogwash to all those who knew they didn't share a bed anyway — but as time crawls on viewers come to understand that some nefarious force may have gotten to him, possibly Claire herself. Juicy! All that should have set up a juicy conspiracy, right? One that would let the oft-sleepy series to end on terms more confident and bold than its past few snooze-worthy seasons, right? Not really. House of Cards never quite maintains momentum, again; the first five episodes sent to critics are sometimes promising, sometimes plodding.
In that sense, House of Cards is as good, and as polarizing, as it's ever been, wrapping up a pioneering series with at least its singular voice still intact. Claire still talks to the viewer on the other side of the fourth wall; Claire still sneaks cigarettes; Claire still connives to take down her enemies while wearing that same stiff expression (and some pretty amazing D.C. power suits and sheaths). But it's as slow as Congress, even with murder mysteries and backstabbing aplenty, which makes it fairly apparent that House of Cards's instability after its early seasons was never really all Frank's fault.
It is refreshing, it must be said, to see Claire get the power she always wanted; between Wright and her departed co-star Spacey, she's always been the more chilling and captivating player. And the introduction of the shady Shepherd family, which includes old-friend-turned-industry-titan Annette (Diane Lane), her deep-pocketed brother Bill (Greg Kinnear) and her media maven son Duncan (Cody Fern), makes scenes crack with a sense of danger for Claire since they hold money and secrets that threaten her safety if she doesn't do as told. But it just goes so slowly; even with a murder attempt (I won't spoil who), the action, or lack thereof, moves so methodically that sustaining interest is hard. Again, House of Cards fans who respect watching chess moves gradually turn into something consequential may appreciate the ways Claire's cunning serves as ammunition against her many foxy foes, including the still-present weasel Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). As for people who expect House of Cards' supposed high-stakes moves to turn into something high energy, patience is required.
There are bright spots. Literally, the dark look of the show seems to have been lifted to make way for a lighter, brighter atmosphere, one that suits Claire's posturing and positioning well as she jockeys for respect in the space she's supposed to be controlling.
That latter part is the most interesting however: Claire, as capable and commanding as any other president or world leader, struggles to yield the authority she ought to be given, and House of Cards' exploration of female power in the face of blatant undermining and pandering from men gives Season 6 the meaty and timely discourse it probably wouldn't have had if Frank had stayed on. It's a true joy watching Claire challenge colleagues and constituents both male and female, querying their backtalk and questions about her decision-making with cold, emotionless aplomb and then doing whatever the hell she wants anyway.
It's probably obvious and insulting to point out that there is nothing House of Cards, born in a completely different time, could show now that would be as compelling as the insane antics coming out of the real White House (which makes Season 6 a fitting time to conclude no matter what). But its final episodes are at least moored to an prickly exploration of the effects of challenging the "reign of middle-aged white men" as Claire puts it in a social media video — a narrative that's provocative even if a little slow going.
House of Cards' final season begins streaming on Netflix Nov. 1.