Last year, “House of Cards” really lived up to its title, but politics had nothing to do with it.
The Netflix series was nearly cancelled following the firing of star Kevin Spacey after an alleged sex scandal involving minors. It would have been OK to stop the story there. The newly re-elected Frank Underwood resigned from the White House and his vice president, Claire, replaced him in the Oval Office, turning to the camera to deliver a smug aside: “My turn.” But the suits decided to wrap up the show with a final eight episodes, down from the usual 13.
Anything the writers could come up with would seem anticlimactic compared to Spacey’s fall from grace, but as I predicted, “House of Cards” is not the same without its star. Frank’s sarcastic asides to the camera made his chicanery delicious. Even though he was diabolical, his (at times unbelievable) ability to outwit his rivals, silence his detractors and stay on top made his fellow politicos look mighty slow on the uptake. We are left, instead, with the humorless Claire, who cleverly disguises her bottomless narcissism as a triumph of feminist ideals. This ploy results in one major victory (and plot twist) for her, but the second President Underwood, with her guillotine-blade haircut, proves she is no friend to her fellow woman when she embroils her press secretary in the death of her former lover, Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), whom Claire poisoned.
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While serving up a new batch of so-so operatives (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane play tech billionaire siblings with a right-wing bent) to vex Claire, the best thing about the final episodes of “House of Cards” is the return of several ghosts of Underwood administrations past. It would be cruel to reveal all of them, but I will give you one hint why they come back: Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson) miraculously survives being pushed down a staircase by Frank in Season 5. That the new President is not pleased to see her operating with all of her faculties is the understatement of the year.
Also making a welcome return: Constance Zimmer, who left “House of Cards” early on to star as a depraved reality-TV producer — is there any other kind? — on the Lifetime series “UnReal,” but she was so much better as the exhausted but indefatigable journalist Janine Skorsky, who was closing on Frank Underwood before Zimmer left the show. Maybe Janine and her boss, Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) will finally win out this time.
In their favor: Tom receives an excellent tip about the disappearance of Rachel Posner (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star Rachel Brosnahan) in the form of Doug Stamper’s (Michael Kelly) phone number.
Whether “House of Cards” chooses to shut down the Claire Underwoods of the world or take the fashionably cynical view that politics makes monsters of the people who enter the field, it will always be remembered as the show that opened the floodgates for streaming television.
That it came into accidental disgrace will also always set it apart. Like politicians, actors, to their great surprise, are sometimes made to understand they are not above the law.
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