Have you ever sat in a coffee shop or in a restaurant and spotted a couple at a nearby table, close enough that you could see them, but far away enough that you couldn’t understand a word they were saying? Even without knowing the words coming out of their mouths, you can follow an entire conversation based only on their facial expressions.
That’s the final season of House of Cards in a nutshell. The plot is nonsense — it feels like a season of television slapped together on short notice after the series lead was tossed off the show for serial sexual improprieties — but it’s also beside the point. Everything that happens in the final season is contrived to get the show to its final moment, a laughably dumb showdown between Claire Underwood (née Hale) and Doug Stamper. How the series arrives at that final moment is almost of no consequence. It’s eight-hours of filler to set up an immensely unsatisfying conclusion.
The story, such as it is, operates like a game of pong: The ball goes back and forth and back and forth — Claire (now the President) gets the upper hand, then she loses the upper hand, then she gains the upper hand back again — until Doug Stamper walks into the Oval Office and confesses that he killed Claire’s husband, Francis Underwood, to protect the legacy from the man. Doug also has his eyes set on assassinating Claire, not for political or personal reasons, but because by shit-talking her dead husband Claire is also ruining Francis’ legacy, and Doug sees himself as the protectorate of that legacy. Doug holds an envelope holder to Claire’s neck, but Claire talks him down long enough for Claire to turn Doug’s envelope opener on him, killing him on the floor of the Oval Office. “That’s it, Doug. Everything’s gonna be alright. There. No more pain,” Claire says to him as he dies.
And that’s it. End of show.
There are eight hours of complete nonsense working up toward that moment. The nonsense involved a wealthy and powerful brother and sister, played Annette (Diane Lane) and Bill Shepard (Greg Kinnear), who own a chemical company. That’s not really important, though. What’s important Annette and Claire are longtime frenemies, and Annette and Bill want to destroy Claire’s presidency because she’s not playing along with the agenda that they had put forward with Francis Underwood.
The entire season is basically a war of attrition between Claire and Bill and Annette Shepard, as each side picks off each others’ allies, or as those allies switch sides and pick each other off. The Vice President sides with the Shepards (and is sleeping with Annette). They endeavor to smear Clare Underwood to the point that she has no choice but to resign. At one point, they get as far as nearly invoking the 25th Amendment, but just before they do, Claire fires the entire cabinet and replaces it with an all-female cabinet. Annette tries to destroy Claire by leaking that Claire has had multiple abortions. Claire tells Annette’s son that Annette is not her real mother.
It goes back and forth and back and forth, and there are a number of kidnappings and murders along the way — Cathy Durant fakes her death and then is actually killed; Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson) tries to play both sides and she is killed; and Tom Hammerschmidt — the longtime reporter — is also murdered for getting too close to the truth.
Everyone else, however, is a sideshow. The meat of the season comes down to Doug vs. Claire. In his will, Francis left everything to Doug. Doug doesn’t really care about that; all he cares about is protecting Francis’ legacy, but he’s willing to use the will as a weapon against Claire. He also tries to work with the FBI and the Shepards to take down Claire, while Claire moves to supersede Francis’ will by … getting pregnant with Francis’ baby (don’t ask), because there’s a clause in the will that nullifies everything else in the event of an heir.
But that’s nonsense, too. Doug is a raving lunatic, but he’s also the only one telling the truth, but the truth he’s telling is in the service of protecting the legacy of a terrible man while a terrible woman tries to destroy Underwood’s legacy to boost her own terrible prospects. Almost every single person involved in this season of House of Cards is an abhorrent, horrible human being, except Tom Hammerschmidt, but he is killed and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) is left to write the story, but even that storyline fizzles into nothing.
It’s all impossibly dumb and pointless, although the talent on hand is so impeccable that we can follow the tenor of what’s going on based on the performances rather than the nonsense words and banal platitudes delivered in those performances. It’s all something of a huge shame, because House of Cards is what launched Netflix into the original programming stratosphere. Remember, this show was brought to Netflix back in 2013 by David Fincher and it was essentially the first major TV show to release an entire season at once, establishing the binge-watching model for original TV. It’s too bad that a show with such an important legacy had to crash and burn so hard into nothing. I can’t imagine this is the end game anyone envisioned when Netflix spent $100 million to launch it five years ago.
Header Image Source: Netflix