Starring Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Diane Lane, Campbell Scott, Lars Mikkelsen, Boris McGiver, Derek Cecil and Greg Kinnear.
Warning: Major spoilers for Season 5, Minor Spoilers for Season 6.
House of Cards used to be the best show on Netflix. The first two seasons are still as good as anything the service has ever produced. The show made a few missteps in season 3, but recovered in Season 4, which was mostly a return to form. Then, two big curveballs threatened to bring the whole thing crashing down. First, Season 5 was a mess, with a few standout episodes let down by a contrived plot, obvious twists and an inability to live up to the real life drama created by the current White House administration. It was easily the worst of the bunch. Then, far more seriously, the show’s star, Kevin Spacey, spectacularly fell from grace under a deluge of sexual harassment allegations from other actors and crewmembers (which are still not proven as of yet, but Netflix had little choice but to drop him and erase the two episodes he’d already filmed).
Fortunately, Season 5 ended in a way which made it easy for Netflix to continue with the show, as Claire Underwood, Francis’ wife, had become president following her husband’s resignation. However, a lot of fans were concerned about this, as while Robin Wright is a very good actress, she had ultimately been second fiddle to Spacey for most of the run, and the seasons which had focused on Claire more weren’t the best. However, Netflix ploughed ahead, and for completionism’s sake, I decided to give the final season a go.
So… does it still work without Kevin Spacey in the lead?
Surprisingly, yes it does.
Robin Wright is a revelation now she’s been freed from being the support act. As a lead, she’s far more compelling and likeable than she ever was before. Similarly liberated is Michael Kelly, whose Doug Stamper gets far more to do without Francis pulling his strings. While neither has been my favourite character during the 5 previous series, they both come into their own here, and its very hard to decide which of them to root for. The series introduces a new group of villains in the form of Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane), two influential business people who try to force Claire to support their various agendas, and have vice-president Mark Usher in their pocket. Both prove to be good rivals for Claire, and while not up there with Lars Mikkelsen’s wonderful Russian President Petrov (who steals every scene he’s in once again), they are two of the more memorable adversaries the show has given us so far, and their recruitment of Seth ties them into Francis’ world nicely. The conflict between all these parties, as well as Tom Hammerschmidt and Janine’s continuing desire to bring Claire down and destroy Frank’s legacy, makes for very compelling viewing.
At 8 episodes long, it’s shorter than the other seasons, but this actually works in its favour, as things feel less padded out than before (though in truth, 10 episodes might have worked better!). The soundtrack and the direction are as good as ever, while the writing is a notable step up from Season 5, if not the best we’ve ever had on the show.
But does Season 6 end the series on a satisfactory note?
No, unfortunately it doesn’t.
Spacey’s absence is dealt with well, as is Doug’s end of season 5 predicament. But while the show ties up most of Season 5’s loose ends well enough, it fails to do the same for itself, mostly because of the finale. Episodes 4-7 of season 6 are brilliant, but episode 8 is not. The conflict between Claire and the shepherds is left sort-of unresolved, Seth, Janine and Mark Usher don’t really get any kind of meaningful resolution to their storylines and the final showdown between Claire and Doug is unsatisfying, and features a twist that doesn’t really work.
Ultimately, were Netflix to change its mind and commission a 7th series, I would now be happy with that. But if this really is the end… it could have been so much better. So, to sum up, Season 6 may leave a bitter aftertaste, but it reminds you of why this show was such a hit. Spacey’s shadow looms large, but the show proves that it was never just him that made it such a success.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (its a fun ride, but the final episode drags the whole thing down)
Coming soon: Expect my review of Detroit: Become Human, one of the year’s most thought provoking video games, and sometime after, my take on the new Fantastic Beasts movie.