House of Cards, the pioneering Netflix show that dared to ask, “What if the president was evil?”, is over with the release of its sixth season last week. It ends weirdly and vaguely, with a cliffhanger that still leaves a great many dangling plot threads, perhaps to be resolved in a Twitter thread from showrunner Beau Willimon. In the season’s eight episodes (down from the usual 13), there’s the correct ratio of violent Shakespearean dramatics to political wonkery — a scene where someone gets stabbed to death in the Oval Office, and thankfully little discussion of Middle Eastern geopolitics — but the general plot feels cobbled together under the circumstances necessitating the removal of Kevin Spacey, who’d been the campy, charismatic presence largely responsible for any goodwill the show had accumulated during its run.
Spacey was necessarily and justifiably fired last year after multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault, as well as allegations he’d turned the House of Cards set into a “toxic” environment. But Spacey and his character — the villainous, flamboyant, murderous congressman-turned-president Frank Underwood — were the point of the show. House of Cards was frequently absurd, and narratively incoherent, but the recurring pleasure was watching Spacey drawl hokey, invented aphorisms like an obscure Tennessee Williams character and extricate himself from increasingly thorny situations with the derring-do of a brilliant con man. As with Transparent and The Conners, other shows forced to remove its leads after compromising situations, there was much pre-release rhetoric from the House of Cards cast and crew about the importance of finishing out the stories of the other characters. This kind of wishful thinking ignores the truth that, despite the best intentions of the writers, Frank Underwood was the only character whose story mattered.
If you’re being generous, there was also Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), the congressman’s wife-turned-vice-president-turned-actual-president, who opens the new season as a commander-in-chief trying to assert her presidency while solving the death of her husband. (Frank is killed off-screen; the mystery of what happened to him haunts the whole season.) Wright was the compellingly icy counterpoint to Spacey’s extravagance; he may have been peerlessly cunning and diabolical but only she knew how to get under his skin, and she usually helmed the only subplots worth following.
Still, the show’s attempts to recast her in Spacey’s position — most notably, with Frank’s trademark reality-breaking monologues to the camera — are unconvincing. Rarely does Claire get the chance to whip up the same devilish plots that made her husband such a force to watch. Instead, she spends much of the season playing defense against Bill (Greg Kinnear) and Annette Shepherd (Diane Lane), a brother-and-sister billionaire team styled after the Kochs, who are backed by shadowy globalists and try to push their corporate Republican agenda onto the new president. The first jaw-dropping, I can’t believe she did that moment doesn’t come until the fifth episode — a long time to wait, considering there are only three episodes after that.
More damningly, Claire cannot escape the pull of Frank’s void. Almost every episode features characters wondering about what happened to the former president, quoting things he said, or obsessing over his legacy. There’s some metaphorical point about how bystanders take on the burden of grappling with the wrongdoing exposed in the #MeToo movement, but narratively, Claire’s position is completely compromised — she can’t move forward without acknowledging why she’s in such a position. This is incongruous with her show of force at the end of the fifth season, when she stared into the camera and delivered a chilling promise: “My turn.” (That, by the way, would’ve been a much better ending to the series — certainly better than the one on which it settles.) But Claire barely gets started before it’s all over; her presidency, like the planned final season in which she would’ve sparred with Frank for power of the country, is left unrealized.
Among television critics, it’s generally agreed that The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire are the four TV dramas that have achieved cultural canonization, inspiring books, college courses, and beyond. (That three of these shows are centered around morally dubious, easily incensed white male protagonists suggests something about whose interests are served during the formation of a canon, but that’s another conversation.) Since Mad Men ended in 2015, this upper echelon has remained off-limits to newcomers. Critical reputations need not be burnished by the passage of time — Mad Men and Breaking Bad achieved sainthood when they were still on the air — but no other shows have combined the same outsized critical acclaim with audience attention. (Atlanta, Mr. Robot, and Transparent lack the ratings; The Walking Dead stinks; Game of Thrones comes the closest, though its fantasy roots will always lead the tastemakers to scoff at it.)
There are many reasons why no new show has carved out this rarefied status — cable subscriptions have further dropped, splintering viewerships; critics, the arbiters of such reputations, are increasingly less white and male, leading to a more fragmented consensus — but the overwhelming explanation, besides the uncharitable interpretation that no shows since have been as good, is the proliferation of choice. Because there’s so much out there, it’s much harder for any one show to become an event, communally experienced by a giant viewing bloc in real time. That so many acclaimed shows are released all at once enables audiences to experience them at their own pace — a theoretically sound idea that nonetheless leads viewers to “binge” them either because they want to avoid spoilers or because the shows are just there, the next episode autoplaying until there are none left. (The notion of parceling out the eight House of Cards episodes over eight weeks, as would happen on a cable network, is difficult to imagine.)
This is not a bad evolution for television. It’s a good thing for viewers to have more choice; it’s a good thing for the medium to move away from the idea of “canonization” and admit that nobody needed to write that many blog posts, magazine articles, and books about Mad Men. But binge-watching, as an activity invented in the last five years, strikes me as a bad habit, especially as it remains exclusive to television. It shifts television away from film, the medium it aspires to be, and toward video games, rewarding ceaseless immersion in the content, stopping only when you have to go to the bathroom.
As an occasional distraction from more pressing concerns, or much-needed “self-care,” watching a giant chunk of television in one go is not overly worrisome. But as a default, expected mode of cultural consumption, it’s obviously unhealthy. It encourages passive intake without any grace period to reflect on themes and plot points (a benefit of the standard model of weekly release). It’s not good for your eyes or your back; it also produces the unique despair of realizing you have somehow spent seven hours in the same position, and you’ve still got seven hours left in the season. Do you put it off until tomorrow? Do you finish it now? This nagging pressure to finish turns television into homework, the thing people usually watch television to get away from.
This cultural shift is in large part thanks to House of Cards — which when it debuted in 2013 was the first original programming on Netflix and the first to release all its episodes at once. It’s hard to believe, but it was a huge risk for a prestigious director (David Fincher, who was involved with the first season) and mega movie star (Spacey) to commit to such a project without knowing if anyone would pay attention. Now, there’s more of these shows than anyone knows what to do with: Over the weekend, writer (and Outline contributor) Sean. T. Collins noted the relative dearth of attention surrounding Homecoming, a new Amazon series also starring a mega movie star (Julia Roberts) and helmed by a prestigious direction (Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail). Five years ago, that would’ve been a groundbreaking project; today, it’s just one of a dozen new things you can check out.
This is a dubious legacy for House of Cards, patenting an approach to cultural consumption that abets our depression, and incentivizes streaming services to commission more original television than anyone has the time for, but it will be its enduring creative contribution. The best reason to watch this final season, if you’ve come this far, is that it’s short. Before you know it, you can move onto the next show.