When House of Cards ended its fifth season with now-President Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) looking into the camera and saying, “My turn,” neither Wright, the rest of the cast and crew, nor showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese could have known how prophetic those words would be.
But when lead actor Kevin Spacey was dismissed from the show after allegations of sexual misconduct were leveled against him, it necessitated that Francis Underwood — who served as president before resigning under a cloud of investigations and corruption, allowing his wife and vice president Claire to take the seat — be written out of the show.
Season six was originally going to be about the battle between Francis and Claire for control of the presidency and the White House, but with the offscreen death of Francis, Claire is firmly ensconced in the Oval Office — or least she seems to be. Various power players, led by sinister brother and sister team Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane, playing a variation on the real-life Koch brothers or the Mercer family), aim to force Claire to do their bidding…or face the consequences. But they also forget that this is Claire Underwood they’re dealing with.
With the eight-episode final season of House of Cards available starting today (Friday, Nov. 2) on Netflix, Den of Geek spoke with Gibson and Pugliese about changing the trajectory of the show, how real-life events affected their story and what the legacy of this pioneering Netflix series might be.
Den of Geek: You obviously had several major events impact the trajectory of this show going to the sixth season. First was Kevin Spacey’s exit, so let’s talk about how that altered what you were planning to do.
Melissa James Gibson: Well I would say it did and it didn’t. As you know, season five ended with Claire turning to the camera and saying “My turn.” So that was the promise we always knew we were gonna fulfill and pay off. Season six was an explanation of “My turn.” Francis, at the end of season five, had in conversation with Claire explained to her that he was gonna move into a position of power behind the power and they were gonna be partners.
You know, they would be working together, he on the outside, she on the inside, but she saw through that and knew that what that really meant was that he was gonna try and own her and control her. So the major difference is he’s no longer on screen to do that but the seeds that he planted, the promises he made, and the ways in which just as a character he’s able to try and exert some influence from beyond the grave made it possible for us to continue to explore what her “my turn” would look like. Hopefully with bravery and integrity, you know?
Frank Pugliese: I think the answer is, no matter what, we knew that that last season was gonna be an exploration of “her turn,” so in a way, when it all went down, the answer was right there in stuff we had already primed to do anyways.
The character of Francis is still very much a presence in the show. Is it important that audiences differentiate the character from the actor?
Pugliese: You know, what do we do? I mean as writers we write the character. We’re trying to finish a story that was in motion and his story had been set out in motion five years earlier and that story had to do with the character Francis Underwood.
Gibson: Yeah, for us it felt like it would be really dishonest and unfair to the story and the show and the final season to do anything that would try and pretend the character never existed. Like that would be absurd actually. We knew that Claire would have to reckon with everything she agreed to with him and with everything he did that he left in his wake.
Pugliese: In short sight, and this might be towards your question, we knew that this last season and so what we talked about was going to be about reckoning and in particular a reckoning about complicity. Even a complicity between this partnership and the two people in this marriage but also a complicity between the characters and the audience, the show and the audience. So within that, we’re addressing the complicity as a theme, as something that needs to be reckoned with. It’s up to the audience to decide what they want to do with that exploration.
It’s interesting that the show, when you boil down to it, it’s still about these two people and it’s still exploration of their marriage in a way even though one of them is not there anymore.
Gibson: Absolutely, I mean they always had a fascinating and singular relationship that was built on a pursuit of power.
Pugliese: Over the course of this series, they set out in pursuit of power in lieu of a certain kind of intimacy, but then when they started to negotiate the power between the two of them you knew stuff would start to get ripped at the seams. A separation had to happen. Claire was gonna separate herself from Francis, and in a way Claire needed to ascend while at the same time Francis started to descend. I mean this was already in motion. It was part of the end of season five.
Gibson: Right, like I think Claire in particular came to realize that a democratic balance of power was not feasible. It just wasn’t the truth of their relationship.
If someone was to sit Claire Underwood down and ask her for her definition of love, what do you think she would say after all this?
Gibson: I think she would equate love with bravery and brutal honesty.
Pugliese: Yeah, and unconditional loyalty.
Do you think if those are the factors, that’s what she felt towards Francis in the end? Did she truly love him?
Pugliese: I don’t know if she’s ever gotten unconditional love. I can’t say that character’s ever gotten that.
Gibson: But I think she saw in him, she saw a fearlessness that she recognized in her own core.
Pugliese: Yeah, Francis actually promised her an equality that he was never sort of able to deliver on.
How did the 2016 election affect what was happening with that show? A lot of people thought we were going to have our first woman president in real life and we didn’t.
Gibson: Well, we too thought that Hillary would be president, that was our expectation, but in a funny way it allowed us to dig into the reality facing a female president even to a more granular level. The question hanging in the air is “is this country ready for a female president?” And as you saw in the first episode, all of the threats that Claire received and the detail with which she wants to hear about that, that was all based on research with experts and security people. I mean, it’s just a fact that female politicians receive threats at a greater number and also with more visceral and ugly content. That’s just one example of how hard it is, and the hurdles.
Pugliese: I mean, even if the election went the other way in 2016 we were still gonna deal with this idea of, can this country let a woman president have power? It was still gonna be about who owns her even if Hillary had gotten elected.
Watching those scenes and listening to some of the stuff, I find it sad to think that some of that same abuse was probably heaped on Hillary or any other politician who happens to be a woman.
Gibson: A lot of it comes out of the mouth of our president.
Very true. How did Robin Wright collaborate with you in terms of how the story would play out? Was her input different this year than in previous years?
Gibson: We’ve always had a great collaborative relationship with Robin. I mean we really trust the degree to which she knows her character as she’s built her from day one and we’ve used her as a resource but yes, we have many really fruitful conversations about ending the show properly and exploring her character. Absolutely.
Pugliese: Yeah, she’s always been really invested in her character and in the story and finishing the story correctly. That’s always been the case. She’s always been one of the leaders of this show. The sixth season, I mean, what she brought — that was probably always there — is a responsibility to her character, responsibility to finishing the story with integrity, responsibility to the set and crew, and to a group of filmmakers that had located themselves in and around Baltimore. I mean, she brought this sort of responsibility and in a way we fed off it in a sense by saying that our best and maybe only response to everything that was going on was to try to tell the best story we can.
Gibson: Right. She’s an amazing collaborator who respects the talent of all of the departments around her and relies on them and trusts them and then she also sets a really great tone because she takes the work really seriously but she doesn’t take herself really seriously, so there’s a lot of levity on the set, which is the best environment in which to create good work.
The characters of the Shepherds, were you looking at any real life figures and will you ever name who they are?
Pugliese: We were looking at real life figures but we didn’t want to mirror or create —
Gibson: Or model them on anyone in particular.
Pugliese: Yeah, you know, create sort of two dimensional versions of real life characters. So we just tried to create two characters that might exist in the same sphere as these other characters that the world knows of.
Gibson: That are devoted to an ideology and have been playing the long game for many years trying to influence politics for reasons that they feel are patriotic and worth fighting for…we thought this should be the season where we really dig in to looking at the power behind the power and what that means.
When the dust settles and when the show has run its course after this year, how do you think, looking back, it will reflect the current state of the nation and our politics?
Pugliese: We’ve been saying a couple of things. One is, we’ve never tried to compete with real politics, we’ve always just tried to be symptomatic of the times we live in. But if there’s any journey that’s concerning, it’s not so much that our show is like politics, but over the course of five or six years politics has become like a TV show. That seems concerning and something we should all keep an eye on.
Gibson: When the executive branch is trying to create cliff hangers, you gotta wonder what sort of world we live in. Not one where stability and prosperity for the common man seems to be at the forefront.
Pugliese: It’s the TV show’s job to keep things unresolved. I don’t really think that should be the government’s.
Gibson: Destabilization should not be the government’s goal.
Do either of you have some favorite memories or a single moment you’ll carry from your experience working on the show for the last four or five years?
Pugliese: Well, I mean, at this point it’s probably the finale. We shot the last scene of the series and the last scene of that episode and Robin was directing it. Melissa and I were on set and on the monitors and it all seemed bittersweet and sad and yet right at the same time.
Gibson: Like in real time we were bringing the story to a close and everyone had worked so hard on this show, many of them since day one, from teamsters to camera people. A real family had been created over the years and we were all bringing it to a close together and it was really cathartic and sad and emotional.
Pugliese: Almost everyone was there who had been involved in the show. It was amazing.
Gibson: And then we all raised a glass and shed a tear, and shared some silence. I mean, it was very intense, and a fitting closing I think.
The final eight-episode season of House of Cards is available on Netflix now.