Television

The final season of House of Cards may have lost every plot save for the one the former president is buried in, but with Robin Wright’s perfectly costumed and coiffured Oval Office connivances it remains a delight to the eye. By Helen Razer.

House of Cards

Robin Wright as President Claire Hale Underwood in ‘House of Cards’ season six (above), and with Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear as Annette and Bill Shepherd.
Credit: David Giesbrecht / Netflix

Throughout its sixth and final season, House of Cards looks like a knockout. The production design of the show’s opening shot is perfected in its last. Painted from a blue and gold palette, the award-winning Washington, DC – originally created by art director Steve Arnold – demands an Emmy category all its own: Outstanding Vision in a Drama, Even on Your Smartphone.

Arnold moved on from the show at the end of season four, along with original showrunner Beau Willimon. Their new vision of old power remained, and not only as a work of conservation. The once unauthorised presidential portrait would be ended and written as a triumphalist bore, but it continued to unfold as a visual story.

This is likely due to the work of its star and hands-on executive producer, Robin Wright (Forrest Gump, Wonder Woman). It has been widely reported that Wright saved the season from cancellation, which seemed very likely when Kevin Spacey – Wright’s on-screen husband Frank Underwood – became a poison property late last year.

Beyond her business efforts, Wright’s visual creation of herself as the first female president of the United States is extraordinary. House of Cards was always a non-naturalistic personification of power, never a realistic portrait of people, and this visual message is one carried by Claire Underwood, known as Claire Hale in season six’s final episodes.

To look good is no problem for Wright; she’s got those genetically made-for-TV angles. To look presidential was a problem, given that the US presidential lookbook is yet to publish its all-girl edition.

Wright hand-picked the stylist Kemal Harris to design the costumes for the evolution of Claire from Washington wife to Washington elite. The look they produced is arguably TV’s most influential since that of Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, as created by Patricia Field. Their screen collaboration is exemplary.

Notwithstanding her superhuman lack of bad angles, President Hale Underwood appears to us exactly as a real US woman president would, and precisely as the fictional House of Cards president always should have. Wright and Harris have found a denouement in their dress code as the threads of visual storytelling find literal expression in the blue dresses and gold hair of Claire, now the occupant of the blue and gold Oval Office, the prize for which the Underwoods had fought for seasons shot through with blue and gold.

In season six, the symmetry of the series’ cinematography is elaborated and disturbed in Claire’s hair and many scenes, notably that in which the president and new character Annette Shepherd, played by Diane Lane, compete like ballerina chess pieces in a game of Which 50-Year-Old Woman Is Most Supple.

In short, if you watch House of Cards’ final season with the sound turned down, it is a delight, save for, perhaps, its final death match. Even then, though, the Oval Office looks a treat, despite the fact Claire’s personalised presidential rug is covered with blood.

The rug. The rug. As presidents do, Underwood has had the border of hers stitched with empowering quotes – we can imagine the 47th would need them, too, having schemed her way into office, just as her predecessor and husband had. Notwithstanding stubborn efforts with the Netflix “pause” function, the only certain thing about this inspirational stitching is that it includes the words of Simone de Beauvoir: “What is woman?” Presumably this was taken from a non-standard translation of The Second Sex, which generally prints them as “What is a woman?”

Either way, it’s tricky to understand why the uncertain presidency of Underwood would turn to these words of existential panic. She’s much more of a You Go, Girl™ business lounge feminist than the sort inclined to disavow being – a thing she only does when fooling about with the nuclear football.

In the final episode, Claire aims her presidential satchel at a Muslim population. It’s clear this is the closest to atomic detonation the world has been since Nagasaki and it’s clear Underwood intends to use it only to preserve her presidency. Not even Harry Truman was so self-interested; he killed to establish the primacy of a nation.

Like Truman, Claire is an unelected commander-in-chief. Unlike Truman, she had to fight for access to the button marked End of the World. When she gets it, we are asked by co-showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson to cheer. This is a moment of empowerment for women. Apparently.

The House of Cards team continues to innovate in pictures, and even tells a new visual story about female power. They are otherwise stuck in the most orthodox awe of liberal power and Exceptional US Democracy. They make Aaron Sorkin seem unpatriotic.

What there is to cheer about militaristic imperialism on screen is not only beyond Noam Chomsky, but also beyond many House of Cards viewers. They all know the Underwood Dynasty as one of pure power that serves to sustain only itself. For four seasons, they saw what Chomsky claimed as impossible in his famous book on US war propaganda, Manufacturing Consent. Hollywood, he said, could not go beyond “the bounds of the expressible” when it came to foreign policy.

The show’s season four finale – the last moment seen of Willimon and Arnold’s collaboration – went well beyond expressible bounds. It brought us Claire’s first moment of direct address to audience; she sits beside Frank, whose Richard III has been breaking the fourth wall with his demonic charm from the first scene of House of Cards. The other President Underwood has just delivered an address to the nation that almost certainly recalls Goebbels’ Totaler Krieg speech delivered in Berlin when it was no longer possible to ignore the primacy of Russia over Nazi Germany.

Frank Underwood said, “It will be a war more total than anything we have waged thus far in the fight against extremism.” Claire, then the vice-president, says to him privately, “I’m done trying to win over people’s hearts.” She says she will work with fear. Both Underwoods then look at us through the screen. We know from this moment that each is powerful, that each is committed to the maintenance of their own power and neither has been persuaded by US liberal cheerleading. “That’s right,” says the president, as his vice-president looks and dares us very directly to defy their project. “We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.”

Claire’s presidential season is littered with so many mic drop moments we are clearly intended to cheer. We know that this president has written and endorsed the words of Total War of another, that she has used the language of Nazis. We know that she is hawkish only to protect her presidency. She is a monstrous power. Yet, we are to construe as “feminist” her reply to a black female marine who is about be sent to war by the president and (improbably) asks Claire if she knows what she is doing. “Would you have asked me that if I were a man?” Oh. Mic drop. Or, as she tells an aspiring Supreme Court justice in the season’s second episode, “The reign of the middle-aged white man is over.”

In season one, Claire told a former employee she cut off from healthcare, “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required.” Season six Claire expects us to believe that she is reformed, and even declares she has faith in government, as well as faith in the feminism of her custom-made rug. And this comes not just after the four seasons that express revulsion for US military action beyond the bounds described by Chomsky, but in the same season that we see her sign bills written by Annette and her Koch brothers-type brother into legislation.

Claire is so earnest when she utters the liberal feminist bromides one can read in the Fairfax women’s pages, she is ridiculous. She is liberal kitsch, like the Obama “Hope” poster. She and her uncritical, imperial feminism that somehow neutralises a nuclear attack on the grounds that it’s “My Turn!” is unintentionally camp.

House of Cards was intentionally camp in initial seasons. Frank was Richard III as Shakespeare made him: a funny and corrupting extravagance. Claire was similarly soap operatic; not so overtly funny but a perfected Carrington ice queen in a homicidal fugue.

Claire became so dead serious by season six and in this season is shown to be corrupted by the force of men. She’s just another Lady Macbeth unsexed by writers who don’t seem to remember that a woman can unsex herself when in pursuit of power.

President Claire Hale Underwood is as beloved on internet forums: a “hot mess”, “fierce AF” and “boss of the boss power wardrobe”. She is not as colleagues and critics are wont to describe her primly: complex. She’s a liberal, wrapped in a pashmina, shoved inside a bouncy castle where script supervision used to be.

By its final season, House of Cards may have lost every plot but the one in which Frank Underwood is buried. But there is something to be found in the denouement of this season’s final scene. It is the most earnest tribute to the psycho-biddy subgenre since Mommie Dearest asked Tina to bring a cocktail and an axe.

“It’s alright,” says the president to a man she has shivved in the liver. He’s not alright and he will bleed inside this White House until it fades to black. But not before the cutthroat-in-chief puts a final shine to the feminine monster accidentally dealt by House of Cards.

Claire’s already vagrant arc lands a little further south of our feminist hope that this season would break through the fourth wall and address the Me Too era in which it had played its inadvertent part. And it lands us back inside Chomsky’s bounds of the expressible.

All we have is feminism as set design. All we have is imperialism and murder restored by the look of a woman. Once Robin Wright mocked the po-faced sincerity of Hillary Clinton; now it is painted into this blue and gold portrait of manufactured consent.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 24, 2018 as "The visual suspects". Subscribe here.

Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.