In an outlandish timeline where world geopolitics is as ludicrous as pulpy TV shows, if not even more so, it’s only appropriate that the US midterm elections are clashing with the premier of the new House of Cards season. We’re all well versed with the Spacey based behind the scenes drama and the changes that went into season 6, and diehard fans really hoped the show would work despite the roadblocks. Unfortunately the narrative and the dramatic thrills this time have not quite been as well deployed as they were in the past seasons, leading to an unremarkable binge that sometimes even teeters on total disaster.
Part of the problem with this season is not the way it tries to walk around Frank Underwood’s character, but the nature of his absence and the way the narrative covers the consequences of the past five seasons. House of Cards’ usual format relies on a blend of squash and drama, setting pulpy character machinations against serious subject matter and sometimes tragedy. This way even though all the episodes of a new season are released all at once on Netflix for your binging pleasure, it still feels like a TV show with soap opera elements clambering onto high brow visual palettes, ending each episode with an overbearing cliffhanger to persuade you to jump into the next one. The show strictly follows this principle in season 6 but in the worst possible ways, often revealing the programming trickery that manipulates its viewers into submission and thereby reducing the memories of the show’s best moments from the past.
Last season the show successfully made the transition from a realistic-ish diatribe of west wing politics to schlock that makes you strain to suspend your disbelief.
Going into the realm of what could only be described as science fiction, we saw classic episodes where Frank wears a Jedi robe and attends a cult-like party to hobnob with the rich and the powerful, and Claire murders her guy with benefits.
Season 6 seems to dive headfirst into the challenge of taking things into even more absurd levels, with Claire’s arc playing the dominant role in the narrative for the entire season. There are inherent risks with retconning the Frank story by making him disappear, as the mob would say, but then compensating that with a string of messy subplots into a story that is already as complex as the one House has become over the past few years, is quite the deterrent.
For the most part, the showrunners do their best to keep Robin Wright at the forefront, even giving her the directorial duties for the final episode – which is in fact pretty good – but there is no dispute that despite shifting the driving force of the season’s narrative with a saleable feminist layer the show seems to have run its course.
With just eight episodes instead of the usual thirteen, the first half of season 6 is comprised of two very distinct storylines. One of those being Claire’s ascension to the throne with her battle scars and a steely search for power, and the other being the one percenters becoming wary of Claire’s persona in contrast to Frank’s whose lack of scruples was legendary.
The one percenters are actually based on the real life madmen like the Mercer and the Koch families and even though it sounds like a narrative ripe for a lot of realistic drama, the show simply turns to its proclivity for revelling in the excesses that power yields.
This isn’t a problem per se, but it’s just that Frank relished the excesses with a truly evil mindset, so the rest of the people doing the same things seems like wannabe and empty shock therapy for audiences.
It truly does feel like we’ve had enough of dimly lit depictions of people being drunk on power, and with the scattershot narrative arcs not really amounting to anything worthy or coherent, even the strange murder during the season finale fails to render the mystery requisite for a return next year.
Maybe if they injected more of the mystery into the one percenter arc that has Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane as the banal antagonists it would have been a much more compelling unravel. Their quest to manipulate both Claire and the underpinnings of the house could have been an intriguing journey, but the show chooses to impart its biggest focus on fact that Claire and Lane’s character had Frank in common – which not only does injustice to Spacey’s firing but also adds more pulp to the drama instead of anything truly significant.
In fact, Kinnear and Lane fans (and there are many out there) might find themselves a little disappointed as they’re both woefully underused this season. The season merely wafts into everyone’s wacky exploits as they drift like ghosts in the big bad world of supremacy; the rest of season 6 is essentially a waiting game as we watch the pieces fall into place so that these characters can return to where we really want them to be – getting their just desserts.
There’s no doubt that the writers had to scramble at the last minute to save the show, but it would be a lie to say that they succeeded in any way. While the narrative tries its best to consistently bombard us with revelations and dramatic twists, this season finds the exceptional character development of the past taking a prickly backseat. It's quite frustrating to watch the new season of a show that spent much of the first two seasons focused solely on character development not having as much of it now.
With a promise of a return for Season 7 it is clear that the showrunners have found themselves with a lot to cover in a short period of time and have had to make some sacrifices along the way. There are a few plot threads worth exploring, even though only diehard fans might give this season a presidential pardon.
The aforementioned finale of course could be mined for new revelations to keep fans hooked next year – but until then maybe it’s time to take a small break from the show that put Netflix on the map. Turn on MSNBC if you’re looking for the same smarmy characters in a more interesting, albeit even crazier story.
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