‘House of Cards’ Final Season Puts the Power in the Hands of Robin Wright

There’s a new president in office for the sixth and final season of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” After you know who was fired last year, amid clouds of scandal, Robin Wright is now the commander-in-chief. The result is a curious combination of Wright’s great presence as an actress and the show’s increasing spiral into bland absurdity. Even before allegations of sexual harassment forced Netflix to expel Kevin Spacey, the show was already suffering from trying to stretch out a premise that couldn’t keep up with the madness of politics in the real world. This season has good performances but scripts that channel how the staff must have been feeling through most of the year, like a crew trying to simply keep the ship going.

From the beginning it’s clear that Frank Underwood (Spacey), cutthroat political operator who schemed and murdered his way to power, has died. It seems like it was natural causes, he simply awoke dead one morning in bed. Now his widow and partner in crime, Claire Underwood (Wright) is the president of the United States. Claire is not just inheriting the Oval Office from Frank, but his backroom deals as well. Already corporate power couple Bill Sheperd (Greg Kinnear) and Annette Sheperd (Diane Lane), are pressuring Claire to sign some legislation very favorable to their bank accounts. Bill recoils when Claire suggests she’s aiming for a progressive, pro-government agenda. Annette, who is an old childhood friend, could be the key to infiltrate and manipulate Claire. Along with under the table dealings, there’s the usual business of running a country. Syria, Supreme Court appointments, regional catastrophes and poisoned water systems, Claire has to deal with it all as her enemies start making moves. Old fixer Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) has been lounging around a facility dealing with his inner demons, but Claire might call him back, especially since there’s a certain will by Frank she doesn’t want found. She’s also not sure his death might have been all that natural.

The big question generating interest in this sixth season of “House of Cards” is how the show would carry on without its original, marquee name. Robin Wright is such a seasoned pro that she easily dominates the screen with her measured, observant take on the role. She easily stole scenes from Ryan Gosling in last year’s “Blade Runner 2049,” so it shouldn’t be a surprise that she towers her fellow cast members here. Much of the writing however, can’t help but feel haunted by attempting to fully separate the show from Frank, meaning Spacey. Much of the season premiere is Claire saying goodbye, symbolically holding a bird she finds lodged in a hole on a White House wall. She lets the bird fly away, possibly as a symbol of what Netflix did to Spacey. In another episode she finds Frank’s college ring on their bed, places it on her middle finger and darkly flips us all before the end credits. In terms of legislation Claire immediately begins distancing herself from Frank as well, talking like a dead-toned Hillary Clinton. If Frank was Machiavellian, Claire does indeed want to do good for the country…or so it seems.

If Wright is formidable, the rest of the show doesn’t know what to do with her. By now “House of Cards” has played every wild, crazy plot twist in the deck. There have been so many murders, double dealings and schemes that by now Claire is left with little to do than actually try to legislate. It’s not particularly boring. There’s still that oozing atmosphere of corruption all around and with Claire as the focus we get more hints throughout about her childhood and past, including flashbacks showing her being manipulated early on by boys. But then we’re right back in bizarro “House of Cards” world as Claire plots to take on the patriarchy by appearing to be a hysterical depressive, thereby playing into misogynist biases. Soon enough her enemies plot to take her out using the 25th amendment, so Claire resorts to that most basic of plays: Accusing the Vice President of being a Russian tool. Frank’s death can’t be a mere heart attack of course, and at times the show feels like it might dabble in the kind of theories you find in websites speculating about how Hugo Chavez really died. The big villains are the Sheperds, who go against Claire like two, calculating predators. Diane Lane seems to be having a great time with the role, bringing her particular charisma. Her scenes with Wright have a wonderfully creepy quality.

The twists generally range from expected (someone tries to assassinate Claire in the first episode), to odd (Frank might have left his fortune to Stamper). By the end there’s a pregnancy and we get the sense Netflix isn’t going to bring the house down anytime soon. “House of Cards” began as a slick political thriller then turned into trashy melodrama with a serious face. But Robin Wright carries it well, making us all aware she is indeed in charge now.

House of Cards” season six premieres Nov. 2 on Netflix.