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Robin Wright Should Have Been the House of Cards Lead a Long Time Ago
When news first broke that production on the sixth season of House of Cards had been suspended, following an allegation of sexual advances against its star Kevin Spacey, the reaction on my Twitter feed was fairly unanimous. Though the breadth of Spacey’s predatory history had not yet been reported, many were already speculating about his future on the show, and making variations on the same request: Kill off Frank Underwood, and make Robin Wright’s Claire the new lead. The reason this solution presented itself so readily? It wasn’t new.
Though billed as the story of Frank, a ruthless, scorned politician who lies, bullies, and murders his way into the White House, House of Cards has always leaned just as heavily on the story of Claire, his equally ruthless and calculating wife, who starts out in the Lady Macbeth mold, but evolves into so much more. Once it became clear that the shutdown was not a cautionary measure, but an overdue response to Spacey’s alleged on-set misconduct—numerous House of Cards crew members described his “pattern of sexual harassment” to CNN, while Buzzfeed reported that his behavior was an open secret on the show’s Baltimore set—Spacey was officially fired from the show. Netflix confirmed yesterday that the show will return for a shortened (and presumably frantically rewritten) final season, with Wright in the lead role. We can all be grateful that one toxic man is not going to torpedo the entire show, nor the careers and reputations of its cast and crew, but it’s also deeply frustrating that this is what it took for Wright to be given her due.
Here’s the thing: Frank Underwood was a dead-end character long before Spacey’s downfall, and Wright has already been carrying this show for several seasons. House of Cards already felt to me like it had overstayed its welcome—the fifth season debuted to a notable lack of buzz earlier this year following the departure of showrunner Beau Willimon, and the bleak, repetitive nature of its narrative had never been more glaring. Early on, Frank’s sociopathic wisecracks and winking direct-to-camera soliloquies were so entertaining that his emptiness didn’t matter, but in the second and especially third season, that one note was getting old.
Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey on House of Cards
There’s only so much you can do with a hollow man who wants power for its own sake, with no discernible humanity or soul. Though he’s sometimes been lumped in with the Walter Whites and Tony Sopranos of TV’s golden era, Frank Underwood is not an anti-hero. He’s a one-dimensional villain who has never had the depth or nuance to sustain a long narrative—there’s a good reason why the original British House of Cards ran for just twelve episodes, divided into three mini-seasons. Spacey’s hammy, scenery-chewing performance was a delight for one season, but never deserved to be anywhere near the prestige TV conversation (that Emmy win in 2015 was embarrassing at the time and only looks more so in retrospect).
It’s worth noting, too, that the Emperor’s New Clothes hype around Spacey’s performance played a major role in his conduct going unchecked for as long as it did. If it seems hard to fathom that Spacey could get away with such allegedly open predatory behavior, consider what a huge deal it was back in 2011 (when the show was first announced) that Kevin Spacey was doing television, let alone television on a then brand-new and untested streaming platform which had never made an original series before. Spacey was seemingly untouchable on that set, and so no matter how clear it was to critics and viewers that the writers were beating a dead horse with Frank’s character, he was never going to be written out without some extraordinary circumstances.
Since yesterday’s confirmation that we’re getting a Wright-centric final season, I’ve been thinking a lot about why Claire is so much more engaging than Frank. On paper, they’re two sides of the same coin: icy and calculating and barely human, seeking power for its own sake and at any cost. Claire does seem to feel the consequences of her actions more keenly than Frank; in season three, the suicide of an LGBT activist in Russia leaves her genuinely stricken, so much so that she makes a politically ill-advised speech condemning the Russian leader. It’s the kind of ideological slip we’ve never seen from Frank, and it’s moments like this that make Claire fascinating.
Paul Sparks with Wright in House of Cards
By the end of season four, those glimmers of humanity were few and far between. Claire openly admits to feeling nothing for Frank, even when he’s on the brink of death after being shot, abandoning all pretense that their marriage is based on anything real. It’s not until season five that she commits her first murder, but it’s a doozy: She poisons her lover Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), a man we’ve been given some reason to believe she does actually love, and watches him die as they’re having sex. This is her point of no return, and while it’s an unthinkably horrifying twist, she didn’t get there overnight. We watched her descend gradually, with moments of true vulnerability along the way—after the aforementioned activist’s suicide, and the revelation that she was raped in college by a classmate who’s now a military general, and the death of her mother late in the fourth season. Watching the moral rot take root and grow is exactly what you want out of a great anti-hero story, but Frank started out evil and just carried right on being evil with barely a flash of vulnerability, his dastardly actions losing all their impact once it became clear they took no emotional toll on him.
This isn’t the only reason why viewers seem so much more eager to root for Claire than Frank. Wright’s performance is arguably just way more compelling than Spacey’s, and I think that’s become especially true over the past few seasons. It’s also inherently subversive for a woman to be portrayed as truly power-hungry, and then there is the injustice of her ambitions always playing second fiddle to her husband’s, despite the growing sense that she’s the shrewder and more capable of the pair.
As Claire’s quiet indignation grows, so does the audience’s. One of the most satisfying moments in the entire House of Cards run comes shortly after Frank has become president in season three. “I should have never made you ambassador,” he whines at Claire, furious at her for undercutting his relationship with Russia’s leader. Her perfect, cutting response: “I should have never made you president.” She’s growing tired of being the power behind the throne; she wants the throne. And finally, at the end of season five, she gets it. Frank is forced to resign his presidency, his crimes having partially caught up with him, and hands the reigns to Claire on the condition that she pardon him. She agrees, only to renege on that deal, and the final shot of the season is her declining Frank’s call, looking calmly towards camera with the words “My turn.”
So season six was always going to begin with Claire on top, and though it remains to be seen how the writers will tackle the unenviable task of writing an off-screen exit for their former star, these final eight episodes will find her in the Oval alone, finally unimpeded by Frank. Last May, Wright memorably revealed her fight to be paid the same as Spacey, having come to the same realization about viewers’ feelings towards Claire. “I was looking at the statistics, and Claire Underwood’s character was more popular than [Frank’s] for a period of time,” Wright said. “So I capitalized on it. I was like, ‘You better pay me or I’m going to go public.'”
As of this spring, that pay bump had reportedly not come through. I’d sure as hell bet it’s come through now, but did Spacey need to be disgraced in order for Wright to be given her due? Now, I’m looking forward to a new season of House of Cards for the first time in years; eight episodes focused solely on Claire and her more three-dimensional monstrosity sounds like a dream binge. But this should have happened a long time ago, and no matter how strong the final season is, the circumstances of Spacey’s firing will cast a pall over what should be Wright’s spotlight moment. Claire Underwood deserved better.