Spacey-Free ‘House of Cards’ Still Spins Entertaining Yarn

House of Cards is back, its sixth, and final, season rolling out Nov. 2 on Netflix. Kevin Spacey is of course no longer with the series, dismissed following sexual misconduct allegations late last year. But that’s not to say Frank Underwood is gone.

While Spacey’s slithery Frank of course does not appear in the new season, his ghost looms in a ubiquitous manner. It takes two minutes for Frank Underwood to get a mention in the new episodes, and he looms largely over the two I watched.

Season five ended with Frank, facing impeachment, resigning, and his VP Claire taking over the big job—“My turn,” she said--and promising to pardon her husband. Now Underwood is dead, and details of his death are murky.

The new season picks up as Claire, played by Robin Wright, reaches her first 100 days in the Oval Office. It is the Fourth of July, and Claire reminds her handlers that “the first female president of the United States is not going to keep her mouth shut on the Fourth of f***ing July.”

The show depicts the fury a female president faces from those who feel a woman should never occupy the White House; the season starts with Claire’s aides sharing their hate mail. “"I thought everyone loves a widow,” she responds coolly.

Even the most egregious display of distaste for a female president—we can’t give away the details here but it’s frightening—elicits a unique response from Claire. She sees it as a rare sign of respect, that someone is actually taking her seriously as president.

At one point, she locates a bird trapped in the wall. She gets the bird in hand and takes it outside, then sets it free. “Francis, I’m done with you,” says Claire. But she hardly is.

Like her husband, Claire breaks down the fourth wall now and then to communicate directly with the viewer. Would it be a more entertaining season without the ghost of Frank flying about? Perhaps. Claire is certainly a strong enough character to exist without her deceased husband informing her every move. And Wright surely has the thespian chops to pull it off.

Wright is engaging as ever as Claire, the bloodless Beltway player. In her ear are the new characters portrayed by Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear, a calculating brother-and-sister billionaire team, the Shepherds, who donate generously to their political leaders, and expect the world in return. Lane’s Annette is an old friend of Claire’s, but is puppet master more than pal, reminding Claire that she once slept with Frank. Kinnear’s Bill is even worse, harboring no feelings of friendship with President Underwood. Annette and Bill both remind Claire that Frank went to the grave owing them a serious favor.

There are eight episodes in the final season. Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese are the showrunners. They are also executive producers, along with Wright, David Fincher, Joshua Donen, Dana Brunetti, Eric Roth, Michael Dobbs and Andrew Davies.

The cast includes Michael Kelly, Jayne Atkinson, Patricia Clarkson, Constance Zimmer, Derek Cecil, Campbell Scott and Boris McGiver. And it wouldn’t be House of Cardswithout Doug Stamper, played by Kelly. Frank’s former chief of staff is outside the Washington loop, but angling to get back in. As always, Kelly depicts Stamper as cool, calculated and conniving as he and Claire jump between allies and adversaries.

Is Spacey missed on House of Cards? Sure. Are there enough compelling characters and storylines to keep the show going? For one more season, sure.

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.