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Irreplaceable characters: Frank Underwood of ‘House of Cards’

When Kevin Spacey was rightly axed from the award-winning political drama House of Cards following a series of accusations of sexual misconduct, the future of the show was thrown into doubt. The show’s final season had been in production, but was swiftly halted. It was decided that season six would proceed without the disgraced Spacey, with Robin Wright succeeding as the show’s main star and President. However, the void left by Spacey’s character Frank Underwood was too great to fill and all that remained was a series finale that surpassed Game of Thrones for terrible conclusions. So where did it all go wrong for a series which promised so much?

While it’s now impossible to view the character in the same light, what’s clear is that it was so successful because Spacey was the show

In the first two seasons of House of Cards, the characters (viewers likewise) were quick to fall for the cunning, manipulative Frank Underwood. Retrospectively, Spacey’s performance appears even more sinister given his own despicable actions. The key aspect of his character was the breaking of the fourth wall, letting the viewers into his deceitful and murderous plotting. Frank’s relationship with young journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) was chilling even prior to accusations against Spacey. While it’s now impossible to view the character in the same light, what’s clear is that it was so successful because Spacey was the show.  

Not taking away from Robin Wright’s performances, which earned her and Netflix’s first Golden Globe, Claire Underwood was capable of controlling Frank like no other and the pair worked together. For Frank to be successful he needed Claire, and vice-versa – and this can be said for the show as a whole. When Frank reached the Oval Office with Claire as his Vice-President, the plot began to fall apart. Loose ends were clumsily patched together with ridiculous murders that bordered on impossible. But while the show lost some of its realism, it was still being held together by Spacey and Wright’s performances, their characters making sure the cards didn’t come tumbling down.

The fifth, and Spacey’s final, season ended strongly. While Frank’s presidency fell apart, there was a return of his cunning wit. The show appeared to be back on track as the plan of an “Underwood dynasty” in the White House was formulated. Their marriage of convenience became an even more pragmatic alliance despite the growing animosity between the couple. The season ends with President Claire refusing to confirm whether she will grant a pardon to her husband set for prison. And that brings us to the disaster that was the final season.

When it was confirmed that Robin Wright would become the main character to finish off the season, it was met by a decidedly mixed reception. The questions surrounding Frank’s absence and the fate of his closet allies foresaw gaping holes in the narrative. So, how did Netflix patch the series up?

Annette was revealed to be a close friend of Claire’s despite no mention of her once in the first five seasons. The pair did not work, and Spacey’s absence was palpable

The show decided to introduce Annette (Diane Lane) and Bill Shepherd (Greg Kinnear), a brother-sister partnership meant to emulate the real-life Koch brothers. However, their introduction made the show disjointed. It felt as if we were expected to connect with these strangers seamlessly. Annette was revealed to be a close friend of Claire’s despite no mention of her once in the first five seasons. The pair did not work, and Spacey’s absence was palpable. 

It had been revealed in a trailer before the release of the final season that Frank had died an unexplained death. While the show could have erased Spacey completely, his ghost hung over the show instead. In the first episode Claire explains: “I know, you want to know what really happened to him. A man like Francis doesn’t just die. That would be… what’s the word? Convenient.” The suspicion of foul play in Frank’s death offered the very opposite of what the show needed – a clean break.

In another turn for the worse, Claire reveals she is pregnant – with Frank’s child. The pair who consistently failed to conceive in earlier seasons are now posthumously successful? Another unnecessary plot twist in a series of mistakes. The ambiguity that plagued the final season led to the catastrophic final stages. The last scene is shared between the show’s two remaining mainstay characters, the now heavily pregnant Claire and Doug (Michael Kelly). But yet again, like he always did, Frank dominates the room. It’s revealed that Doug, a man who had actually killed people for Frank, had murdered him. Doug admits to poisoning Frank to stop him killing Claire, in an attempt to “protect the legacy of the man.” A strange explanation given Doug’s blind faith in Frank: could the show have become anymore ridiculous? 

Without Spacey, House of Cards was not the same and the conclusion was more a relief than disappointing. A bitter finale to a series that would’ve been best left unfinished

Yes, as the president commits murder in the Oval Office. Claire stabs Doug in the stomach with a file opener in, once again, another unnecessary and unjustified twist. The house of cards comes crashing down with a final act of madness. “No more pain.” Claire ends the show with three final words to Doug. Realistically, breaking the fourth wall for a final time referencing the end of the final season seems more appropriate. Without Spacey, House of Cards was not the same and the conclusion was more a relief than disappointing. A bitter finale to a series that would’ve been best left unfinished.

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