Frank Underwood is gone, and Claire has taken his place. The president is dead. Long live the president.
It’s a strange thing to see Kevin Spacey erased from House of Cards since the allegations of sexual assault were raised against him. We don’t even see a picture of him or hear his voice in the sixth series. Yet what is most interesting is not just the absence of Spacey, but how his absence is managed. Francis is gone and Claire is playing the role of commander-in-chief.
In the trailer for the sixth season, we’re brought into the Oval Office in the midst of frantic pacing and Claire turns to face the audience. “We’re just getting started,” she says. This is where the contrasts with past seasons begin.
The show goes for a liberal version of gender politics. It’s almost like walking into a parallel fantasy world to the Trump Administration. “The first female president of the United States is not going to keep her mouth shut on the fourth of fucking July,” Claire tells her vice president early on.
Claire is portrayed as fighting against the Shepherd family, a wing of the US oligarchy, who appear to be suspicious of her because she is a she and she will not take orders. In one particularly riveting episode, Claire outwits the Shepherds by pretending to be having a breakdown and hauling herself up in the residency of the White House.
This is just a ploy to draw the Shepherds out into the open, and then Claire swiftly purges her entire cabinet. She forms a new cabinet, composed entirely of women. The cynicism of past seasons died in this scene. Reinventing House of Cards as a feminist fable is an odd move, and yet it may have been the only response Netflix could give us after the Spacey scandal.
So we find Claire telling a Supreme Court nominee: “The reign of the middle-aged white man is over.”
In another scene, she tells Stampa: “I’m not going to be told what to do by you anymore. Not by you or by any man ever again.”
What was so captivating about House of Cards was its relentlessly bleak depiction of power. The sixth series has abandoned the pitch-black moral tones of the early seasons.
Paving the Road to Power
House of Cards invited the audience to take part, however vicariously, in the crimes of Frank Underwood as he stomped his way to the top of the Hill. “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties,” Frank says in one scene. “Never regret.”
The show is set in an unforgiving world, almost as unforgiving as the real world but not half as cold-blooded. Our charismatic antiheroes Frank and Claire Underwood will stop at nothing to reach the greatest heights of power. In this regard, Underwood stands as a worthy counterweight to The West Wing.
Unlike The West Wing, with its liberal pieties, House of Cards revels in the darkness of its own cynicism. The show invites the viewer to take part vicariously in the thrill of Frank Underwood’s ruthless scheming. It’s subversive to the extent that it affirms that even a murderer can become the leader of the free world.
“There is one rule: hunt or be hunted,” Frank confides in one scene. By contrast, the sinister billionaires vying to take on the Underwoods are slightly comical, unbelievable figures.
The same goes for foreign devils, where we find the show takes on its American prejudices. If the show is at its best when it comes to small, local matters of domestic policy, the real failures are when it tries to portray foreign policy. The drama quickly collapses and the plot falls back on dreary clichés about the Chinese, the Arabs and the Russians.
The pleasure of the show for leftists may be how it speaks about US politics in open terms. In one episode, the Underwoods let a man be brutally executed by Islamists for the sake of short-term political calculations. While the man is decapitated, Frank turns to the camera and says: “That’s right, we don’t submit to terror… We make the terror.”
One reading of the show is that it presents the brutal face of Clintonism. Yet this is somehow insufficient. If House of Cards is a subversive drama, why does the show have former Clinton staffers as its writers and producers? Why do the Clintons love the show? Or Obama for that matter?
Politics as a Bloodsport
In the Obama era, House of Cards offered a stark parallel to the Democratic administration harking back to Clinton time. Yet it now seems out of place since the rise of Trump. Not only is the real-life White House beyond the pale of US politics, but it may also even be beyond Netflix’s ample budget.
Some liberals have even joked that they would prefer to see Francis Underwood in the White House than Donald Trump. No doubt this is much easier with Claire in the Oval Office, even when she toys with launching a nuclear strike. But what else can you expect from ‘lesser evilism’?
It is worth looking at what President Underwood does with his power. The best example may be America Works, the plan to abolish social security and welfare to create a $500 billion jobs programme to provide full employment. As Richard Seymour pointed out, it’s not clear that the writers and producers of the hit show disapprove of America Works.
“The American dream has failed you,” Frank says in his speech launching the programme. “We’ve been crippled by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, by welfare, by entitlements. And that is the route of the problem.”
“Let me be clear,” he adds. ”You are entitled to nothing.”
America Works shares more than a passing resemblance to Bill Clinton’s plan to roll-out workfare in place of welfare and privatise social security. Fortunately, the real-life version was put on hold thanks to Monica Lewinsky and her stained dress. It may be tempting to read it as a critique of Clintonite triangulations, but that may be too convenient.
After all, Kevin Spacey is close friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton. He even put on the act of Francis Underwood to support the Clinton Foundation. The advert features President Underwood calling up Hillary on her husband’s birthday and impersonating Bill. Indeed, this is a real party trick that the Clintons love to hear from Spacey.
We might do better to not fall for the vicarious evils the show invites us to enjoy. The real narrative of the show may be the use of power to achieve ends and the necessity of strength to wield it ruthlessly. The Southern Democrat is a clear parallel for Bill Clinton to identify with. But the truth was always in open view.
“Oh, don’t deny it. You’ve loved it,” Frank tells the audience in one of his final scenes. “You don’t actually need me to stand for anything. You just need me to stand.”
“It doesn’t matter what I say. It doesn’t matter what I do,” Underwood says. “So long as I’m doing something, you’re happy to be along for the ride. And frankly, I don’t blame you.”
“With all the foolishness and indecision in your lives, why not a man like me?”
Screenshot courtesy of Netflix. All rights reserved.