Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.
President Claire Underwood sits at her desk in the Oval Office, insisting staffers read a sampling of the hateful rhetoric and death threats aimed squarely at her.
“God never intended a woman to rule this land,” reads a typically hateful comment. “She is the anti-Christ. And a Jew.”
“What else?” says the president.
“Lots and lots of use of the ‘c’ word, ma’am,” says her aide.
“You mean Claire? ” says the president with a wry smile.
And just like that, in typically unblinking fashion, the final season of Netflix’s “House of Cards” is off and running.
Over five seasons, “House of Cards” was a sensationally entertaining, lurid, sometimes wildly over-the-top melodrama, set against the backdrop of a rotten, deeply cynical Washington, D.C.
And of courses it was a vehicle for Kevin Spacey to create one his most indelible characters: Frank Underwood, a slithering, amoral, feloniously corrupt politician who schemes his way to the White House.
In the wake of the numerous and horrific allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment against Spacey, Netflix buried the Spacey-starring film “Gore” and removed him from the sixth and final season of “House of Cards.”
The relatively brief Season 6 (eight episodes instead of the usual 13) premieres Friday. Based on the five episodes I’ve seen, there’s still a bounty of brilliant performances and juicy plotlines — and take-no-prisoners conflicts surely headed for bloody satisfying resolutions.
Season Five ended with Frank Underwood resigning before he can be impeached (and indicted for criminal activities), with the vice-president — his wife Claire (Robin Wright) — promising to pardon Frank after she’s sworn in and the dust settles.
But Claire ignores repeated calls from Frank, and then breaks the fourth wall (as Frank had done repeatedly over the years) and says to us:
Cut to the opening episode of Season 6, which (after a brief flashback) kicks off on the 4th of July, with the nation reeling from the changes in the White House, among other developments.
Frank is gone, and I’ll leave it at that for those who haven’t read anything about the nature of his departure. But the new President Underwood still has to deal with Frank-ignited fires that are simmering but could rekindle into full-blown scandalous explosions. She’s also facing credible death threats, multiple challenges to her regime from inside and outside her administration, and the very real possibility her own scandals will come back to haunt her.
Yep, it’s a mess.
Out of nowhere, we’re introduced to the obscenely wealthy, politically powerful and chillingly influential Shepherd family, who control billion-dollar empires in military contracts, various industries — and the media.
Greg Kinnear effectively plays against his amiable persona as Bill Shepherd, the ruthless and arrogant head of the family, who has paid informants burrowed everywhere, feeding him the intel he craves so he can take down Claire. Diane Lane is Bill’s sister Annette, friends with Claire since their elite prep-school days. Cody Fern is Annette’s son Duncan, an entitled little bleep in charge of the family’s rapidly mushrooming media empire.
(I’m pretty sure we’ve never even heard of the Shepherds until now, which seems curious given we’re told Bill Shepherd is arguably the most powerful person in America, including the president. We just have to go with it.)
The stellar supporting cast includes returning characters such as Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper, who remains nearly as cunning and dangerous as his mentor Frank; Jayne Atkinson as former Secretary of State Catherine Durant; Boris McGiver as the crusading journalist Tom Hammerschmidt, and Patricia Clarkson as a political operative with influence far above her official title as a deputy undersecretary.
As always, most of the major characters on “House of Cards” are scary smart and certain they’re a step ahead of everyone else — which makes it all the more fun when such hubris leads to well-deserved moments of comeuppance. As always, some of the twists and turns stretch plausibility, even for a slick soap opera.
Robin Wright has delivered masterful work throughout the series run, and she’s nothing short of commanding down the stretch. In the midst of all the heavy drama, Claire displays a fantastically bent sense of humor, sometimes letting only us in on the joke.
There’s a decidedly Shakespearean vibe (complete with references to “Macbeth”) to certain major themes of the story, including the complex dynamic between Claire and her old friend Annette.
Every now and then, the nearly overwhelming clutter of characters and storylines gives way to intense, revealing scenes featuring only Claire and Annette.
Thanks to the electrifying performances of Wright and Lane, in those moments “House of Cards” is as good as it’s ever been.
‘House of Cards’ final season
Premiering Friday on Netflix