House of Cards review: Robin Wright takes control with steely elan

Season six opener: the show appears to be doing just fine without Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood

When it came to knowing what a female presidency in the US might look like, the world was effectively left wondering. But not anymore. And if House Of Cards (now streaming, Netflix) is anything to go by, it's not exactly pretty.

Now that Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) is the 47th president of the US – having taken over the mantle from her recently departed husband Frank (Kevin Spacey) – she is dealing with a somewhat new form of correspondence.

“God never intended a woman to rule this land – she is the anti-Christ, and a Jew,” reads just one missive plucked from a deluge of hate mail. There are four times as many death threats delivered to her as to Frank, we find. Others are more creative, initiating a contest to find the most elaborate way to kill her (skinning, apparently, then creating an American flag from her remains).

“I thought everyone loves a widow,” Underwood shoots back, deadpan. Sure enough, Claire went the full black-veiled Jackie at Frank’s funeral – an event that the audience views only obliquely in the series opener, via a newspaper report.


Of course, missing from the final House of Cards season is Spacey, who was axed from the show following allegations of sexual assault and harassment. The huge question, perhaps the only question was: how would Netflix manage the not-inconsiderable task of dispensing of its pivotal character at the apex of the series' popularity?

The series has shapeshifted, now showcasing Robin Wright's sleek, watchable delivery of Claire Underwood

In the wake of Spacey’s departure, it’s clear this will not be the old House of Cards. Spacey’s Frank Underwood was an unforgettable character, yet the pleasant surprise is that the show appears to be doing just fine without him; a surprise, given the intoxicating push and pull has been the show’s main pivot.

Where once it was said that the show was a Spacey vehicle, the series has shapeshifted, now showcasing Robin Wright’s sleek, watchable delivery of Claire. She is entirely compelling as the woman who finally has all that she has strived for. Claire is by turns inscrutable and brittle, more so now that she has ascended the presidency, but Wright delivers a nuanced central performance. Frank remains in the shadows, but given how Wright has held down the first episode with a steely élan, it’s safe to say that the only way is up.

While Frank was gleefully, deliciously Machiavellian, getting his way by any means necessary (deception, murder, you name it), Claire was every bit as scheming and encouraging of his mayhem, often using the horsepower of Frank’s misdeeds to propel her own agenda. In past reviews, the Lady Macbeth parallel has been invoked more than once.

Claire no longer has her husband to push against or lean on, and the abrupt end of this dynamic makes for an intriguing denouement to their ongoing tango.

As it stands, season five ended on an intriguing note: with Frank resigning before he could be impeached and indicted for criminality. As Veep, Claire promises to pardon him once she is sworn in as President. It was “her turn”; that much was already a given.

And, really, when you think of the bloodlust for the top gig that Claire has bitten down on for the previous five series, how could things have gone any other way? (Spoilers ahead).

Claire certainly looks and acts the part: regal, glacial, tailored, proffering the odd glossy, warm exchange when needed. “Madam President makes me sound like I’m running a brothel and not a country,” she smiles at one point.

Yet the brief warmth of professional and personal satiety is soon replaced by anxiety. Spacey may be out the door, yet Frank’s presence, legacy and death looms large in every scene here.

An assassination attempt seemed almost inevitable, and it's a bullet through the window of The Beast that seems to light a rocket under the episode

On July 4th, she visits a military base, only to be confronted with a dissenter who joined the forces before her ascendency (neither the first nor last to challenge her regime).

“Do you even have a plan? One that won’t get us all killed?” the cadet asks. (Oh LOLs. As if Claire Underwood isn’t packing a plan). “Would you have asked me that if I were a man?” Claire counters.

An assassination attempt seemed almost inevitable, and it’s a bullet through the window of The Beast that seems to light a rocket under the episode. Calculating her odds, Claire notes that of nine assassination attempts on US presidents, only four have been “successful”. “I will say of whoever tried to kill me, perversely it’s the first sign of respect I’ve gotten in 100 days,” she reflects.

Meanwhile, Claire encounters some old friends (though newcomers to the series), media mogul Bill (Greg Kinnear) and his sister Annette Shepherd (Diane Lane). Ostensibly the wealthy, powerful Shepherds are supporters of Claire – Annette is an old school friend – but their loyalty isn’t strictly a given. Another new character – a TV reporter named Melody Cruz – also looks likely to feature heavily in the president’s future fates.

Can we assume that Claire is already a step ahead of those intent on double-crossing her? Will she fight fire with fire, knowing all too well a cunning and slithery sort when she sees one? Should we underestimate Claire, whose own regime even seems to be undermining her at every turn, at our peril? Perhaps. But as ever, half the fun will be finding it all out.

Everyone – the White House and the audience alike – appears to have the same big question to mind. Frank’s demise was a foregone conclusion, but would he exit via a whimper or a bang, it’s too soon to tell. Initially, things seem straightforward, though some unsettling details are drip-fed later on.

The season six opener is chilling, sleek and still (despite one jumpy heart-stopping moment). There’s plenty of room for melodrama and sensational action further down the line, but for now, and in the wake of Frank’s death, the mood in the White House is definitely sombre and somewhat reflective.

“Whatever Francis told you in the last five years, don’t believe a word of it,” Claire intones to camera in one of the show’s “fourth wall” moments. “It’s going to be different for you and me.”

Well, isn’t that the truth.