Pat Stacey: Will House of Cards go out in the blaze of glory Robin Wright Penn deserves?

The lurid circumstances in which the television show that created the ‘binge-watch’ culture comes to an end may serve to temporarily boost its ratings next Friday, but House of Cards had been treading water for some time so can Robin Wright go out on the high she deserves, asks Pat Stacey

House of Cards wasn’t supposed to end like this: messily, with a truncated final season of just eight episodes instead of the usual 13, and its co-lead

character, Kevin Spacey’s scheming Frank Underwood, nowhere to be seen.

After five years and five seasons, the series that helped push Netflix to the very top of the television pecking order — and changed the very nature of how we watch TV by ushering in the binge-watch culture — should be going out in a blaze of glory.

How it was supposed to end, we may now never find out. Three episodes of season six were already in the can before allegations of past sexual misconduct against Spacey by actor Anthony Rapp — who said Spacey made a sexual advance towards him in 1986, when Rapp was 14 — abruptly halted production.

Within days, Spacey was fired, the completed episodes dumped — although don’t bet against them leaking onto the internet at some point down the line — and production suspended.

Spacey immediately withdrew from public life (call it “going into hiding” if you prefer) as further allegations against him, now numbering roughly 30, piled up on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s denied a few of them, but made no comment on most of them.

Netflix eventually announced that production on the final season would resume early in 2018, months behind schedule, with new scripts and the emphasis now on Frank’s wife, new US president Claire Underwood, played with icy brilliance by Robin Wright. Come next Friday, we finally get to see the results.

It’s an extraordinary situation; unique, in fact. Popular series lose leading characters all the time, either because the actor playing them wants to move on to other things, or because — to put it bluntly — they’re behaving like a dick and end up getting fired.

This is what happened with Lethal Weapon’s Clayne Crawford, who by all accounts was a disruptive presence on the set and rubbed everyone else involved in the series, but especially co-star Damon Wayans, up the wrong way. He’s been replaced for the next season by Seann William Scott (pictured left), playing a new character.

But there’s never been a situation where a series has involuntarily lost its star on the eve of its final season (even without the Spacey scandal, season six was always intended to be the swansong), throwing everything into chaos and forcing a from-scratch rethink.

The irony is that the chaos may ultimately work in favour of House of Cards, at least initially. Netflix famously doesn’t release viewing figures, but we can assume that the number of people watching the final season will be higher than it might have been had Spacey-gate never happened.

Everyone is curious. Deep down, there’s probably a bit of the rubbernecker in all of us. A certain portion of the audience that might gradually have drifted away from House of Cards, as the series itself drifted further away from any pretence of realism and into the realms of silly, over-the-top melodrama, will be drawn back — if only for the first few episodes, just to find out if season six is a disaster.

This could be the first time in history a series finds its audience peaking for what are, basically, all the wrong reasons. Whether viewers will stick around for the bitter end once the novelty of a Frank-free House of Cards wears off is another matter.

At the time of writing, expected previews of the first five episodes had yet to arrive. However, the write-ups so far from critics in the US, who have seen the first few, indicate that they’re rocky and uneven. Some scenes drag on too long, others feel rushed. Too many characters, some of which we’ve probably forgotten even existed, are brought back, then given too little to do, and there’s a noticeable lack of direction to some of the sub-plots.

The big bugbear seems to be the hastily-contrived appearance, out of the blue, of two completely new characters, the Shepherd siblings, played by Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear. The Shepherds are wealthy, conglomerate-owning donors, seemingly modelled on the Mercers, who exert considerable control over Claire and basically expect her to be their puppet.

Presumably, with no Frank around to spark off anymore, the Shepherds are going to be Claire’s major adversaries for the remainder of the season. This begs a big question: if they’re that powerful and influential, where the hell have they been for the previous five seasons? Wouldn’t we have heard of them before now?

Still, I suppose a drastic, last-ditch measure like this is what you’d expect from something that had to be reconfigured on the hoof in a short space of time, so it’s probably only fair to cut the people behind the camera a little slack.

We already knew from the trailers that Frank is dead. He supposedly croaked in his sleep, although it’s highly unlikely he was done in by something as mundane as a heart attack. The murder of a president, who was himself a murderer, would be more in keeping with the increasingly demented world House of Cards has inhabited for the last couple of seasons.

Claire cries mascara-stained crocodile tears (we also saw this in the trailer) in an attempt to milk the inevitable sympathy a widow attracts and leverage it into political capital, while at the same time confiding what’s really going through her head to the audience via the usual fourth-wall breaking.

The general consensus is that Wright’s performance is the best thing about season six. It’s also being suggested that Frank/Spacey isn’t really missed at all. If anything, House of Cards is actually better without him, finally allowing Claire/Wright to take centre stage and becoming the series it should have been all along, albeit too late in the game to make much of a difference.

To be, well, frank, this sounds a little self-serving and should probably be taken with a pinch of salt until we get to judge for ourselves next week. Put it this way: given the circumstances surrounding Spacey’s spectacular downfall, what critic would wish to be seen lamenting the absence from the series of an alleged sexual predator?

On the other hand, you could argue that Spacey and his character were primarily what dragged House of Cards down after a brilliant beginning.

The problem with the series as a whole is that once Frank had realised his ultimate ambition and reached the highest office in the land, where was there left to go? Watching a monster trying to cling on to power is never as much fun as watching one claw their way up the greasy pole.

WATCH: Netflix releases trailer for sixth and final series of House of Cards  

House of Cards has been treading water since the end of season two. The more it became unshackled from credibility as Frank moved from one dastardly deed to the next, the more repetitive and ridiculous it became. Whatever about Spacey’s alleged unsavoury behaviour off-screen, he’s a formidable actor, yet he gave in to his worst, hammiest instincts and, long ago, started to play Frank as an outrageous panto villain.

Claire may be a sociopath (as we know, there’s no shortage of those on the real Capitol Hill), but as played by Wright, she’s a sociopath with one foot firmly in reality.

Spacey, in contrast, spent the last couple of seasons chewing every piece of scenery that wasn’t nailed down. His performance was so far out of sync with everyone else’s, there were times when he seemed to have wandered in from a different set — maybe one where Mel Brooks was shooting a comedy.

However good, bad or indifferent the final season of House of Cards turns out to be, it was only fair to Robin Wright to press on to the end. She’s been one of the few reasons to keep watching it when it got really bad. And yet, it’s supremely ironic that it took nothing less than the fall from grace of her male co-star to allow her to finally shine.

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