It’s a depressing moment that we’ve all experienced – that sinking feeling, when you’ve spent years following a television program and investing in its characters, but suddenly feel the quality starting to slip. On rare occasions, long-running shows can rebound from a dodgy season, but most soon begin to unravel, haemorrhaging viewers as the inevitable cancellation nears.
I experienced this feeling last year while watching the fifth season of Netflix’s House of Cards. When it debuted in 2013, I was immediately captivated by the 21st century remake of the 1990 BBC miniseries, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. In a simpler political climate, before the real-life president had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the show conjured a specific brand of Hollywood-meets-Washington drama, its razor-sharp dialogue guiding us through hurtling, but meticulously placed, plot twists. If there’s one show that ushered in Netflix’s era of binge-friendly television, it’s this one.
House of Cards displayed the corruption of America’s institutions and the elites who manipulate them as they become intoxicated by the pursuit of power, money and status. But amongst the backstabbing and political games, the cleverest thing about the show was the fact that its main characters – Francis and Claire Underwood – were merciless and evil, but also likeable. In a formula that has since been replicated by the likes of Killing Eve, audiences found themselves rooting for these villains, who were often devoid of any discernible conscience.
As the tectonic plates of real-life politics shifted, though, House of Cards struggled to adapt. Once the Underwood’s political exploits seemed unthinkable, but they became mundane next to the reality-TV-star-in-chief who currently resides in Pennsylvania Avenue. As Francis snatched the presidency, the thrill of watching him climb the ladder in pursuit of power quickly faded. Plots thickened unnecessarily and the pair lost their likeability. This is the point where I got that sinking feeling.
Soon after the underwhelming fifth season aired, the off-screen exploits of Spacey became the story. Multiple allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him, including by the actor Anthony Rapp, who alleges that Spacey made unwanted sexual advances on him when he was just 14. Spacey claimed to have no memory of the event but publicly apologised, and has denied all other allegations. Nevertheless, filming for season six, which was already underway, halted. Spacey’s departure was announced soon after, alongside the news that the show’s final season would still go ahead with Wright as the star.
Netflix cleverly released the final season of House of Cards less than a week before the America’s crucial midterm elections. With US politics on my mind, I decided to give it another go, hoping it would be a distraction from the real-life car crash we’re all forced to endure every day.
In hindsight, what a grave error that was. Watching the painfully weak ending to what was once such a fantastic show is eight hours on this earth that I’ll never get back. I’ve had trips to the dental hygienist that are more satisfying. To fill the vacuum left by Spacey, a host of new characters were introduced, each more irrelevant than the next. Key storylines, featuring original characters, were left unresolved, while these new faces were given seemingly unlimited screen time.
Continuing a lazy habit started in the previous season, characters were killed off at a rate that would only seem appropriate in Game of Thrones. House of Cards was originally about political conniving and manipulation, with necessary deaths strategically positioned at key plot points, but these red-wedding style character culls, designed to shock without any trace of narrative substance, quickly lost their thrill. As did the constant “national security threats” that seemed to only appear when writers were short on inspiration.
Part of the reason why I decided to put myself through this shambles of a final season was to see the evolution of Claire Underwood as she became commander-in-chief. I didn’t want to be one of these sexist people that didn’t even give the show a chance without its male lead.
Sadly, female US presidents exist solely in works of fiction. While the wounds Hillary Clinton having the presidency stolen from her still sting, I hoped Netflix would take this opportunity to show that Claire has always been the true brains of the Underwood’s political operation.
This expectation made it even more disappointing when Claire instead became the Medusa-style president ardent Trump supporters were convinced Clinton would be. Corrupt, robotic and murderous, the qualities that made her character popular were erased, alongside any traces of politics, or political realities, as the bloodbath ensued. Claire became a caricature of the archetypal Hillary-hating misogynist’s imagination.
In television, particularly in America, being given the chance to guide a story to a natural conclusion – rather than face outright cancellation – is a rare privilege. A final season is a risk, but also an opportunity. Sometimes it give viewers the perfect dose of closure. But as we’ve seen here, an ending can all too easily topple like a house of cards.