Post Mortems
House of Cards Season 6

House of Cards Showrunners Lament Season 5's Huge [Spoiler]: 'It Was Really Painful to Write and Shoot'

Last year, Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese were handed one of TV’s most daunting tasks: Succeed House of Cards creator Beau Willimon at the helm of Netflix’s prestige political drama four seasons and 52 episodes into the series’ run. Well, according to preliminary Season 5 exit polls, the duo — who were promoted to co-showrunners after several seasons of working as EPs under Willimon — are enjoying mostly solid support from critics, some of whom (read: me!) approached these 13 new episodes with a healthy degree of skepticism. The fact that House of Cards didn’t crash and burn like Leann Harvey’s ill-fated Mercedes made me much more enthusiastic to hop on the phone with Gibson and Pugliese to break down Season 5’s biggest twists, turns and unanswered questions.

TVLINE | I want to lead with what is arguably the biggest moment of the season: Claire [Robin Wright] murdering Tom [Paul Sparks]. That marked a major shift for the character and the series. Was it a no-brainer in your eyes? Or did you heavily debate whether to have Claire essentially become as evil as Frank [Kevin Spacey]?
MELISSA JAMES GIBSON | It was heavily debated. Part of what we were grappling with is how is Claire really Frank’s equal? On a certain level, she’s not his equal until her hands are as dirty as his. Until she can prove that she’s willing to stop at nothing to get what she wants. Claire’s ambition is a major theme this season, so, of course, it had to be justified. It was actually really painful. It was painful to write and shoot. [Tom] is a beloved character. And I believe that a real depth and love had developed in that relationship. It was the highest price she had to pay.
FRANK PUGLIESE | At some point it would’ve been impossible not to do it. It had to happen, as difficult as it was. So much of the arc of the season is Claire coming to terms with her ambition and embracing it and figuring out how to become different that Francis but also his equal. The world of the show is very corrupting and there’s a price you pay for power. And many times it’s some piece of your humanity. And, in a way, Tom was asking her to be human.
GIBSON | And now she is fully as culpable as Francis. For a while on the show, if anyone was going to go down it was going to be him. Now it’s no longer true. The stakes could not be higher for the two of them.
PUGLIESE | And when Francis learns [what she’s done] it makes him realize that he has someone formidable in front of him, and it happens to be his wife.

TVLINE | Robin Wright is an exec producer on the show as well as a frequent director. Was she on board with it?
GIBSON | She had really strong feelings. She loved the character, she loved working with [Paul]. This was a big, long discussion. But we all landed on the fact that this was the correct and brave path to follow.

TVLINE | A part of me thought the season was going to end with someone opening up a mysterious package containing a copy of Tom’s manuscript on the Underwoods. Tom was a smart guy. It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that he would’ve had a plan for his book in the event something happened to him. Is that fair?
PUGLIESE | It’s so fair. I think we’ll see that. In the [finale], the [tour guide] he was involved with begins to ask the question of where is he. I don’t think anyone should get away with anything too easily on this show.
GIBSON | It’s a totally valid question.

TVLINE | One ongoing frustration I have with the show — and this is something I shared with Beau previously — concerns so many of the Underwoods’ biggest enemies getting killed off. For me, so much of the tension of the show is wondering when Frank and now Claire will get caught and be forced to pay for what they’ve done. But that tension is undercut every time a threat is killed off. It feels like it’s a bit of a narrative cheat. I imagine that must be something you struggled with this season.
PUGLIESE | That is definitely something we’ve talked about. One of the things Season 5 is trying to accomplish is [putting forth the notion] that maybe it’s not someone outside of the marriage that’s going to catch either one of them. Maybe it’s someone in the marriage. As much as they need each other, they may turn out to be each others’ biggest opponent.
GIBSON | It should not feel like murder is the magic answer. We agree with you. That’s the dance: To [balance the] pursuit of holding them accountable with keeping them as one-step-ahead as possible, without it being too easy.

TVLINE | I feel like the show is never better than when Claire and Frank are at odds, so it’s encouraging to hear you talk about them being each others’ biggest antagonist. 
GIBSON | It’s almost like they get off on it. 
PUGLIESE | And it’s how they gain each others’ respect at the same time. There’s something really perverse about that.

TVLINE | Also, she’s the only person that truly scares him.
GIBSON | I agree. And I think one of those moments for him is when he understands that she’s killed Tom. He’s like, “Oh, I thought I knew you… ” We leave them in a different place this season. The juice of the show is the degree to which their destinies are inextricably intwined.

TVLINE | Speaking of neutralized threats, can you confirm that Leann [Neve Campbell] did in fact die in that accident?
PUGLIESE | We don’t need to confirm that. [Laughs] Who knows? Season 6 will tell us.

TVLINE  | We never really learned how badly Catherine Durant was injured from her fall down those stairs…
PUGLIESE | She’s injured enough where she can’t testify, which was [Frank’s] goal. Or she’s injured enough that she realizes if she testified something worse could happen to her. But we’ll find out how bad off she is [in Season 6].

TVLINE | Is the Zoe murder case closed now that Doug [Michael Kelly] has taken the fall for the crime?
PUGLIESE | I don’t think it’s completely closed, because there’s a doubt in Hammerschmidt [Boris McGiver] that I don’t think can go away.

TVLINE | Is Michael/Doug still a part of the show moving forward?
GIBSON | It’s pretty hard to imagine the show without him. If [the series] is a triangle, he’s the third [person].
PUGLIESE | Doug has been haunted by what he’s done [to Rachel], and Frank and Claire take advantage of this and set him up in a way. He still doesn’t know what happened to Leann. He still doesn’t know how the rest of his so-called confession is going to play out. These are all open questions.

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Annie Sisk says:

    Madame President’s turn! Nice button on the season, for sure, but I’m a little leery of the same concerns raised in this interview – “problem person? kill ’em!” Seems a little … easy. Cheap, even? But the performances are top-notch.

  2. John036 says:

    if they killed leann off the last thing keeping me with the show is gone. i was so excited when it was announced that neve was joining the show. but of course they wasted her. leann could’ve been just as interesting as doug. they could have given her a storyline that could illustrate the internal fight of willing to go as far as it takes to prove her loyalty to the underwoods. it would’ve been fantastic! but instead, they limit her to standing in shadows and talking on the phone. it’s aggravating. neve campbell is lead actress in a drama-level of talent.

  3. Michael says:

    I hope Doug returns. He’s my favorite character.

  4. Ella Jasper says:

    Too many murders (easy outs) for me. I think the series has always been that way. Makes it unbelievable.

  5. Tomm Huntre says:

    Well, if so many of their enemies are getting murdered or dying off, that just makes ’em like the CLINTONS!!

    • Jeenee says:

      Amen. Just like the Clinton’s. Both of them. Dirty, money hungry and corrupt through and through.

      They have a problem with someone, a personal or political liability? Suicide them or outright murder them and then set someone else up to take the fall for it, all the while increasing themselves with more powerful positions.

      I just about could not watch this most recent season of House of Cards. Too much, too much.

    • JamesK says:

      Ooooh, I think it’s more like the Trumps – you know, now there are juicy rumours of a Melania side-piece (her Tom) being her reason for not moving to the White House. Way way more skeletons in their closet than the ill-kept Clinton secrets! :-)

  6. GB says:

    Really hope Leanne’s storyline isn’t finished. She just got started!

    Plus, Neve Campbell has survived a total of 7 Ghostface killers. Nobody kills off Sidney Prescott like that!

  7. Thomas Christian Hirkoama says:

    More Neve Campbell also Jayne Atkinson is brilliant. Love this show hope it continues

  8. Greg says:

    Great season, and interested to see the shift in dynamic with Claire taking over and Francis kept outside the white house grounds. She is a powerful force, but he did really put her there when she didn’t even know she wanted it yet.

  9. Walkie says:

    Absolutely horrendous 5th season. The story was boring.

    And they had too many actors walking around like zombies. No emotion.

    The Claire/Tom storyline was awful from the beginning. Don’t understand why they made it a focal point.

    Also, the idea that Frank would just resign the Presidency without a fight is absurd.

    • dbmllc says:

      He engineered his “downfall.” HE was the leaker. He ensured it, as it’s a step UP — he will rule the private sector, Claire the public, ie govt. Didja miss the last half hour of the season?

    • xvoorheesx says:

      Frank said that was his goal anyway… he set the plan in motion to resign, thinking he could have more control in the private sector.

      I do agree with the Claire/Tom storyline though… what a bore. Tom was such a boring character.

  10. Abdul Rehman Tariq says:

    Leanne Harvey was driving a Porsche, not a Mercedes.
    Season 5 was very choppy, but enjoyable.

  11. Vishal Watwani says:

    Frank saying he was the mastermind to all this ‘saga’ of theatrics was quite unpalatable… There was no need to be so secretive about it… Not with Claire atleast who was always frank about her power hunger… The twist of Frank’s revelation seemed more of a desperate screenplay tool than an organic ‘wow’ moment.
    Doug’s dogheaded loyalty at times seems a little unreasonable..
    Robin Wright as usual steals the show…
    This by far was the weakest season…

  12. Leanne’s car is actually it’s own storyline. It is a Porsche 911 GTS, not a Mercedes-Benz. The car is specifically a “Club Coupe” edition which only 50 units were made. This is huge for the narrative- being that most figures in Washington, real and fictitious, choose a vehicle that cannot be easily identified so that they may blend in, or consider the car expendable- even though their income permits them to afford extremely opulent cars. A small easter-egg is that the presumed-fatal crash scene was actually an older, “throwaway” Porsche 911, not like the limited edition one she was driving with her meeting with Macallan. She is the first in the entire series to have a car of signficance, which is ironic considering the organization’s want to keep her low profile.

    • Alex says:

      Good eye! Also, I find it hard to imagine an SUV being able to run down a 911 GTS on an empty highway. If Leanne wanted to get away she wouldn’t even have to floor it.

  13. tess says:

    Did not care for this season. Too much of many people with the power to take down the Underwoods and than giving that power up to the very people that will destroy them anyway. Leann being the prime example. If I had that kind of information I would not give it up so easily.

  14. Yeah, I can’t decide if this was worse than season 3 or if that season still holds the record for being the worst season of HOC. I think they need to wrap this show up next year. It started as a show about trying to obtain power and get to the top and now that they have, there’s not many more places they can go with it.

    I think this season had too many twists that were just for shock value and didn’t feel organic. I also didn’t like how all of the characters surrounding the Underwoods just seemed like robots that would do whatever they were told, especially Doug. His unwavering loyalty has to stop somewhere.

  15. leo says:

    I kinda like this show, but it’s so confusing.