David Zurawik discusses the final season of the House of Cards." (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video0
Gender, misogyny, oligarchs, autocrats, cowardly politicians, reckless social media, talk of impeachment and a couple of siblings with an uber-right-wing agenda and money to burn pulling the strings to make their Washington puppets dance.
Sound familiar? Like maybe the nasty, toxic, political reality of America today?
Those are the primary story lines of the sixth and final season of “House of Cards,” which arrives Nov. 2 on Netflix. The one story line that towers over all others is the one about gender with Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) as president of the United States. In the five episodes made available for screening, it makes the finale feel far more resonant, culturally important and compelling than I expected it to, be given the off-screen woes of this series that shut down production in Maryland last November following Season 5.
Claire Underwood’s ascension to the presidency happened at the end of last season. And then in what we still sometimes call the real world, came the firing of Kevin Spacey, who played her husband, Frank Underwood, the character around whom the series had been built with his rise from House whip to the presidency.
Spacey was fired amid allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior, including some reported by CNN that he had sexually harassed and assaulted young men including at least one production assistant on the set in Harford County — a set CNN quoted an employee as calling toxic. (More on this later.)
The emphasis on gender, featuring leading roles for the evil of patriarchy and the stench of misogyny, could hardly come at a more propitious time in American life for a TV series, stoked as the culture has been the past couple of years by the #MeToo movement.
But the synchronicity between art and American life is even tighter at this moment in time with the series returning just weeks after the contentious confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh that resulted in his joining the Supreme Court despite allegations of sexual assault while he was in high school and college.
The dust from that bruising battle has not come near settling yet. President Donald Trump, who is himself accused of multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault, has said the forthcoming midterm elections will in part be about the Kavanaugh hearings. Both Republicans and Democrats are wondering how what was shown on TV of testimony by Kavanaugh and one of his accusers, Christine Blasey Ford, will affect the midterms.
In case you think I am overstating the role of gender, power and societal change in this series, in Episode 2 viewers will hear President Underwood herself put it on the table whispering, “The reign of the middle-aged white male is over.”
Season 6 opens by speaking directly to this cultural moment when patriarchy feels itself under assault in and the old guard rises up to try to hold back the impending epic change.
The producers and writers deftly find a way to ground the series in the misogyny of our national life by opening with aides reading social media postings about President Underwood to her in the Oval Office.
Brace yourself, it’s ugly stuff. But it totally resonates with the social media world of politics I know and hate.
I am going to go light on specifics both out of fear of spoiling anything for anyone — and in honoring a letter of agreement I signed with Netflix to get access to the screeners. But one of the postings discussed in that meeting calls for a contest on the best way to kill President Underwood. It is both graphic and sickly tied to an assault on female anatomy.
Saying she’s used to seeing such hate in social media as the wife and then vice president of someone who received a great deal of it, the president asks how it compares to the hate mail and postings against her late husband, Francis. She’s told it is about 400 percent higher — and lately it is double that.
Based in part on that rising tide of hate and what’s termed a credible threat, she is advised not to make a Fourth of July appearance later that day at a military base where she is scheduled to address troops headed to battle in Syria.
Her oily and manipulative vice president, Mark Usher (Campbell Scott), all but tells her she will not being making that public appearance whether she wants to or not. It’s suggested she hold off a day until the threat can be more fully assessed.
That’s where she’s had enough of Usher and his cohorts and tells them how it’s going to be.
“I’m sending those soldiers onto a battlefield,” she says. “The first female president of the United States is not going to keep her mouth shut on the Fourth of [expletive] July.”
(Yeah, the expletive starts with a “f,” and Claire has no problem using it — or the variation that includes a word that starts with an “m” in front of it.)
During her address to the soldiers, viewers are treated to a couple of those time-outs during which she directly addresses the audience.
“Are you still there?” she asks. “Do you miss Francis? Here’s the thing: Whatever Francis told you the last five years, don’t believe a word of it. It’s going to be different for you and me. I’m going to tell you the truth.”
Ha, ha. Oh, yeah, we can trust you, Claire, right. What’s a murder and cover-up or two among trusting friends, huh?
That’s the thing about this series that makes me still love the feeling of slipping into its D.C. darkness each season — there really are no good and decent people in any leading roles. The world of “House of Cards” is a toxic stew of ambition, betrayal, narcissism, lies and death. This is the swamp of swamps and its darkness is never redeemed.
All our empathy or at least rooting interests are directed toward President Underwood based mainly on her gender, but we know she is as evil as her husband ever was.
But there are people in Season 6 who seem even more worthy of our enmity than she. Most prominent among them are Bill and Annette Shepherd, played by Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane, the wealthy, right-wing brother-and-sister team who run the Shepherd Freedom Foundation and Shepherd Industries.
They are the fictional version of the Koch brothers, the wealthy conservatives from Kansas whose money has funded everyone from Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin to the Republican Governors Association, the PAC that did so much to shape a negative perception of Democrat Ben Jealous in the Maryland gubernatorial race. At the national level, almost nothing happens in the Republican-controlled House or Senate that doesn’t have their money behind it or fingerprints on it.
The dangerous dance between Claire and Annette across the first five episodes is just plain dazzling. Lane and Wright are superb.
Kinnear, meanwhile, feels like the very embodiment of everything bad that the left would like to believe about rich, politically active, right-wing money men — especially men like the Kochs.
Most of all, his Bill Shepherd becomes the arrogant, cruel, mocking, entitled face of patriarchy. There’s a scene in the Oval Office that will make your head explode as he puts his hand over Claire’s, guiding/forcing her signature onto a bill his organization funded and wrote for the benefit of the rich. You hate his dominance of her, but you’re equally repulsed by her submission to him.
I wish I could leave it right there, saying nice things about how the performances in Season 6 make for exceptional TV drama.
But I don’t believe you can have art or criticism without morality, and I cannot get past the allegations of young workers on the set in Harford County being sexually assaulted, and everyone involved in the production either saying nothing or saying they never knew anything was going on.
As I said before, you cannot have the kind of very specific allegations CNN reported and no one on that set seeing anything. Both cannot be true.
In November, Media Rights Capital, the production company that makes “House of Cards,” said they were going to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and assault on the Maryland set.
Sunday, a spokeswoman for the production company declined comment when I asked via email whether that investigation was completed and, if so, when results would be released. That’s the same response I got in July.
I always suspected there would be no real investigation, or if there was and the results were unfavorable, they would never be released. Announcing an investigation is Strategic Communications 101 for corporations hoping the heat over bad behavior will go away during a time of crisis.
Morally that is unacceptable. What about the State of Maryland, for example, which gave Media Rights Capital millions in incentives to film here? Doesn’t it have some responsibility to know if workers on a set it supported were sexually assaulted and abused? And what about all those members of the local production community who said nothing or declined to talk to reporters like me when asked about the situation?
As drama and culture, I like the final season of “House of Cards” more than I thought I would. I love TV drama that speaks to the cultural moment the way this series does. And, as I have said over and over, #MeToo is a landmark moment.
I just wish the series had been created in a Maryland workplace that I could believe in as equitable and righteous by people who were transparent and forthcoming.
I like the product, but I still have deep reservations about how it was made and who might have been harmed in the making.