When it premiered five years ago, House of Cards was like Cheetos stashed in a diamond clutch: junk food wrapped in ostentatious signifiers of class. The series, Netflix’s inaugural prestige offering, was an antihero drama about the malevolent ambitions of one Frank Underwood, a politician who had no ethics, only a will to power. It was directed by David Fincher, written by the playwright Beau Willimon, and starred Kevin Spacey—at the time still known primarily as an Oscar-winning actor. But from the moment Frank Underwood turned to the camera and spoke to it directly in a Southern-fried accent, it became apparent that House of Cards was not exactly what it thought it was. A perpetual plot machine? Definitely. A showcase for hambone acting? You bet. A forum for overwrought visual metaphors? Hello, Tibetan sand painting! A ridiculously overheated take on Washington that would eventually be overtaken by our deranged reality? Absolutely. But an actually great TV show? Nah.
Over its first five seasons, the melodrama churned through plot, as Frank and his helpmeet, the icy Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), perpetrated murders, impeachments, wars, treason, and other high crimes while ascending the political ladder all the way to the presidency. At the end of the fifth season, President Frank Underwood resigned, facing impeachment and an impending indictment for all of his various misdeeds, and Vice President Claire Underwood took his place. In the final scene, Frank, now on the outs, placed a call to Claire’s cellphone, and she rejected it. Standing at her desk in the Oval Office, she looked directly at the camera and said, “My turn.”
And indeed it is. Last November, Spacey was fired from the series after being accused of sexual harassment and assault by a number of people, including some who were underage at the time. House of Cards is not the only recent show to continue after its lead actor has been fired in disgrace—there’s The Conners and the forthcoming final season of Transparent as well—but its plot requires the least adjustment. The sixth season would have been a power struggle between the Underwoods. Now it is a power struggle between Claire and Frank’s legacy, the long tail of his crimes, his loose ends, and his ambitions.
As the sixth season begins, Frank has died, reportedly in his sleep. This being House of Cards, obviously, it was murder. The writers, so practiced at hepped-up realpolitik, have brought some flair to Spacey’s send-off, using Claire’s complex feelings about Frank to treat Spacey with some haughty contempt. The first episode ends with a piece of darkly funny pageantry: Claire placing Frank’s class ring on her middle finger, and then brandishing that finger for a long cameo, the camera luxuriously swanning around it, a metatextual flick-off if there ever was one.
House of Cards doesn’t just congratulate itself for dispatching Spacey, though. The new season casts a cynical eye on Claire’s ascension to the Oval Office, which might plausibly have been presented as only a feminist triumph. As the season begins, Claire is facing unprecedented death threats. Her team wants to silence her. “The first female president of the United States is not going to keep her mouth shut on the Fourth of fucking July!” she tells her staff. (Wright’s reserve, unlike Spacey’s bombast, helps keep some of the writing’s mania in check.) She wants to endorse female political candidates, increase the number of women in Washington. There’s an occasional flashback to her being sexually harassed as a child. But as the episodes go on, it becomes clear that for Claire, women’s rights are a cause and a cudgel, a belief and a tool. She is the first female president, but she is also a vile political animal—a murderer. “You and I, as women, we have to fight back,” she says to a naïve employee, appealing to their supposed sisterhood as a way to heartlessly manipulate her. The fifth episode involves a lunatic plot culminating in a bit of feminist showmanship that is both cynical and hopeful. Can someone deserve a round of applause and articles of impeachment at exactly the same time?
Claire’s desire to get women into politics is only one of the ways she bumps heads with Bill Shepherd (Greg Kinnear), her chief antagonist, a Koch brothers–like industrialist who wants Claire to honor his deal with Frank. Bill is a smug, implausibly powerful alpha male who believes in rubbing his victories in people’s faces, and he has special access to Claire through her vice president, Mark Usher (Campbell Scott)—the other man trying to control her, albeit more diplomatically. But though these are her two most powerful foils, they are also kind of a sideline. The new season is chockablock with bananas parts for middle-aged actresses.
Diane Lane plays Annette Shepherd, Bill’s sister, who has known Claire since boarding school, and with whom she shares a fizzy frenemy tension. Patricia Clarkson returns as Jane Davis, head of clandestine services, a cool spy out of an overheated John le Carré novel. And then there’s Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson), who Frank pushed down a flight of stairs last season, returning with her marbles intact. These women unfailingly find the rococo line just before camp but just after total realism. They’re great. At one point, Wright, Lane, and Clarkson are briefly gathered in the same room for an opaque conversation of high-stakes manners, and it feels like House of Cards has genuinely come a long way. The self-serious drama hasn’t just morphed into a Ryan Murphy fantasy sequence; it appears to have thought more holistically about what promoting women should actually look like.
This being House of Cards, there is still plenty of ludicrous: the plot, the schemes, the motivations, the narration. In order to understand what is happening, you probably will need to have the House of Cards wiki open, until you realize the specifics don’t much matter, and you can just let the gist wash over you. Claire has any number of purple lines to deliver: In the first episode, she has occasion to free a bird who has been trapped in her wall—a metaphor for Francis, she explains to us. But generally speaking, the show feels knowingly ludicrous, so in on its own jokes that it can occasionally transcend them. Sometimes all a show needs is the help of a woman so good at being bad.