This review contains some vague spoilers for House of Cards Season 6
When House of Cards decided to give Claire Underwood a chance to finally speak at the end of Season 5, its had no idea how women speaking out would drastically change the real world.
Some might argue it cost the show everything: The #MeToo and Time’s Up movement brought to light an onslaught of allegations against its major star, Kevin Spacey. Netflix was forced to halt production, fire the man behind Frank Underwood, then announced that the upcoming Season 6 would be its last and led by Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood instead.
But gazing at the powerhouse that is Claire Underwood, it’s hard to see Spacey’s departure as anything other than a monumental gift. Or it could, it they let Claire’s out from under the shadowy specter of his absence.
“My turn,” were the final words of Season 5, spoken by Claire Underwood, as she broke the fourth wall for the first time — like a meta stand-in for the glass ceiling. Before, no one else but her husband had been given the privilege of telling his story to the audience directly.
Which sounds an awful lot like what women have been experiencing for the past year or so, right?
There are many great things the newest season does with the raw deal it was given, powered mostly by Wright’s stunning performance. Yet despite the potential of what Her Turn (Season 6’s tagline) could’ve been for this current cultural moments, it makes too many of the mistakes Hollywood is struggling to reckon with now.
Like most of the world, House of Cards‘ is limited in its capacity to imagine the potential of a woman-led country or even TV show.
Because like most of the world, House of Cards‘ is limited in its capacity to imagine the potential of a woman-led country or even TV show.
Mostly, Season 6 opts to mourn and/or dance on the grave of its former leading man, rather than luxuriate in their leading woman’s freedom from his tyranny.
Rather than focus on the endlessly fascinating question of, “Who is Claire Underwood, really?” its major arc revolves around the far more trivial question of, “Who killed Frank Underwood?”
Frankly, I don’t care. I’d have been satisfied with a single line of dialogue about how the president choked on a pretzel — before moving on to bigger, better, more blonde pastures. And by sidelining “Her Turn” at the story, the season’s structure culminates into a finale so rushed and unsatisfying its hard to imagine how it could be its last.
All of that is telling, though.
Even when men are dead and buried, they’re still somehow given more narrative weight than the woman actually on screen. Worse still, the show does some of its best work in years when it does let Claire be defined as a person in her own right, like in the gorgeous flashbacks to her childhood.
To be fair, this is likely a byproduct of production, budget, and rewriting constraints. But I can’t help but see the potent metaphor in how a leading man gets several 13-episode seasons, while the woman makes do with 8 episodes that, at times, seem to forget she’s the lead.
At least it puts the pay gap equivalent of on-screen inequity on prominent display, because Wright does more with her limited resources than Spacey ever did.
But the show seems so hesitant to secede power to Claire that it even wavers on giving her full control of the fourth wall breaking. Inexplicably, Doug also gets his own direct-to-camera moments — which contribute nothing that the actor’s performance doesn’t already broadcast.
I worry about the damage of a narrative where a woman plays the victim for personal gain.
Then there’s the thorny issue of how Claire weaponizes feminism as a political tool.
To be clear, this plot works beautifully in a vacuum. It feels not only true to her character, but to what women in politics are forced to do in order to even the playing field of a man’s game. But in the current climate — and considering the specific circumstances of Wright’s ascension to lead — I worry about the damage of a narrative where a woman plays the victim for personal gain.
Yet despite this discomfort, it also feels unfair to the writers and character herself to levy this criticism against them.
To a large extend, I commend House of Cards Season 6 for taking risks. Claire Underwood is an anti-heroine icon. Men like Walter White and Frank Underwood get to play bad guy protagonists without the burden of representing something larger about their entire gender. When Frank pushes Zoe Barnes in front of a train, we instinctively assume #NotAllMen.
In a perfect world, we should be free to delight in Claire’s masterful play of letting men make the fatal mistake of underestimating her.
But unfortunately, we live in this world. And as #MeToo backlash continues to rise, even fictional women are judged more harshly than their male counterparts. On-screen narratives can and do impact public opinion.
In other ways, though, House of Cards spotlights the fertile new ground of women-led shows.
Claire Underwood represents the enigma that exists inside all women, told from a young age to learn the impossible skill of being everything and nothing. Be nice and accommodating, but not so nice that you lead me on. Or be a powerful and assertive leader, but can’t you smile more? Try being more human, but god no, don’t cry in front of the public!
Claire Underwood represents the enigma that exists inside all women
It explores the complicated relationships that form between women, while rising above the usual blood sport entertainment of a catfight. Sure, many of Claire’s most formidable enemies are women. But that’s because they’re the only ones smart enough to take her seriously as a threat.
Season 6 discovers a whole new meaning and use for the fourth wall breaking through Claire’s perspective, too.
As the show acknowledges, there is something inherently disconcerting about having such a powerful woman look you directly in the eye and tell you what to think. To its credit, House of Cards leans into that discomfort by forcing the audience to sit with it — and question why it’s harder to watch her do it than Frank.
Maybe, the show suggests, the reason why tells us more about this country’s failure to elect a woman as Commander in Chief.
Again, the people behind House of Cards are not necessarily at fault for these criticisms. It must’ve been unimaginably hard to pull off after having the rug pulled out from under them. But its missed opportunities do raise one pressing question: Why stop here?
It’s maddening that one man’s crimes will be the reason for why Claire’s fascinating story doesn’t get its full due.
With Wright at the helm, House of Cards has the chance to right a lot of wrongs. Because as both makers and consumers of fictional narratives, we need more practice at knowing how to navigate powerful, women-focused stories.
So do the right thing, Netflix. Because when it comes to Claire Underwo— excuse us, we mean Claire Hale — we’re already chanting for four more years.
Credit: Source link