House of Cards: Season 3 Review
By the time House of Cards finished its second season, protagonist Frank Underwood had achieved all of the goals he set for himself when the show began—he brought his vengeance down upon the administration that passed him over for Secretary of State. He managed to cover up the traces of his previous crimes (namely, the two murders he’s committed). He triumphed over all his rivals—both real and imagined—and his reward was nothing less than the presidency itself. The final scene—Frank rapping his knuckles on the desk in the Oval Office—offers up a chilling commentary on the nature of power, and the ruthless lengths people will go to in order to obtain it. In truth, I would have been perfectly happy if the show had ended right there.
But that would not have been the proper ending, not for a show that wears its Shakespearian influences so proudly on its sleeves. Our anti-heroes must always have a reckoning—Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White. It is the price they must pay for our continued sympathies. And season 3 of House of Cards shows us that the reckoning is coming for Frank Underwood. Maybe not right away, but it is coming.
In a Nutshell:
Where seasons 1 and 2 focused of Frank’s quest for power and revenge, season 3 focuses on what comes afterward. It’s no spoiler to say that Frank is no better of a person now that he has everything he wanted. In fact, now that he’s actually in the White House instead of just scheming to get there, his particular brand of strong-arm politics is shown to be much less effective. He alienates allies left and right, or else oversteps himself when he is too sure of an outcome. Claire, too, is struggling to adapt to their new change in circumstances.
Season 3 is when the show seems to shift its tone entirely. In a few scenes, it can almost be mistaken for Game of Thrones. The focus is no longer about a corrupt politician and the journalists struggling to expose him; instead we see more of a character drama: an embattled leader and his staff, all of them with their own motivations and hang-ups. Results are mixed, and the season comes off feeling like Frank Underwood’s current term as president: a place-holder.
Frank’s entanglements with Russia. The end of season 2 seemed to be forecasting the Chinese as possible antagonists for an Underwood presidency, but they are never mentioned again after that. That doesn’t matter, however, since Lars Mikkelsen as Russian president Viktor Petrov is probably the best new addition to the show. Yes, he’s supposed to be Putin, right down to the KGB background and extreme-sports hobbies, but that is forgivable in a show that is supposed to take place in a world similar to ours. And Mikkelsen just nails it: all quiet arrogance and dead-eyed reserve, a perfect foil for Frank’s brash, folksy charisma. Petrov takes the place of Raymond Tusk this season—a power player that Frank cannot simply push aside, and must instead try to meet halfway. Their scenes together were so well done I found myself scanning the episode synopses before I watched them, hoping that Petrov would be in each one. Here’s hoping he returns for the next season.
- The production quality is as slick as ever, with the same dark colors and deep shadows that made the first two seasons look so cool. The little stylistic flourishes are, as always, a nice touch. A particular favorite of mine was the scene of Claire walking around her empty rooms while Frank’s Iowa stump-speech plays in voice-over, only to cut off abruptly when she slams a door. It was a deft and subtle moment, refreshing in a season that seemed to be relying less and less on subtlety.
- Frank’s protégé Jackie Sharp has more to do, which I’m thankful for. Many attempts were made this season to give the supporting cast some depth of character, and not all of them succeeded. Out of all the various subplots, Jackie’s feels the most natural, her motivations the most organic.
Gavin the hacker, a secondary character from the last season, steps up this time. Actor Jimmi Simpson is probably most famous for his role as one of the odious McPoyle brothers on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but here he gets to stretch out a bit and showcase his dramatic chops. His gritty, cyberpunk take on the conflicted young rebel is something to behold, radiating palpable feelings of desperation and paranoia. It’s a shame that his story only existed to further the Stamper subplot, because I would have loved to see more of him working undercover. Plus, who doesn't love Cashew, his pet guinea pig?
There seemed to be a deliberate effort this season to get the main cast out of Washington more often. Set pieces this season include Air Force One, the Kremlin, a bunker in the Middle East, and the deserts of Arizona.
- Frank’s Richard III-inspired monologues to the camera have pretty much run out of steam by this point. Yes, I know they're a staple of the show, but there’s really no reason to hang onto them anymore. They worked well in the first two seasons whenever Frank needed to drop some exposition, or outline his latest scheme to the viewer. But by season 3, the audience is already familiar with most of the characters, and Frank is doing less underhanded plotting and more straightforward politicking. Most of the villainous asides this season consist of Frank sharing how he feels about something that just happened, which to be honest feels like a waste of Kevin Spacey’s talent.
- And speaking of Kevin Spacey’s talent, the show seems to have let Frank Underwood’s pop-culture status go to its head between seasons. It’s as if the writers are beating the audience over the head with the fact that Frank is a villain (Look! Frank smashes a crucifix! Frank pees on his father’s grave!). The brief flashes of Frank’s temper we see in the first seasons, the moments of impulsive rage, were excellent glimpses into the man behind the façade. But glimpse is the key word. Too much iron fist and not enough velvet glove comes off as camp rather than drama.
- Remy Danton. It made perfect sense for him to be on Team Underwood this season, even though it deprived Frank of a great sparring partner. Watching the two of them square off was one of the highlights of both previous seasons. And while his desire to work at Frank’s side this season make sense, his ultimate decision to leave was one of the great missteps the show has made so far. Remy worked as a character because he was his own character: more of a moralist than Frank (not hard to be), but a ruthless operator all the same. Self-interest always seemed to be his greatest motivation, and as a viewer, I was fine with that. Self-interest is the lifeblood of this show. So when Remy threw away his job as Chief of Staff to the President of the United States because of some unresolved feelings for Jackie, my suspension of disbelief ended. Jackie walked away from her job as Frank's "pit-bull" out of principle—because she found out there were some lines she was unwilling to cross, even in the pursuit of power. That felt right. That felt real. But Remy’s defection made no sense at all, and effectively yanked all the backbone out of the character.
- Claire. I love Claire as a character, I really do. My issue with her is not who she is becoming, but the fact that the writers seem to have no clue what to do with her. While it was probably necessary to drive a wedge between her and Frank at some point, I found the wedge they ended up choosing to be completely ridiculous. She’s upset that she doesn’t have as much power as a president? Seriously? Someone as smart as Claire should have known that was never an option in the first place. To make matters worse, the writers spent the first half of the season hinting at a Lady Macbeth-style attack of conscience, only to go nowhere with it. That would have actually made sense.
- Stamper. I saved this one for last because it’s the one that bothers me the most. When Rachel beat him up and left him for dead at the end of season 2, I couldn’t bring myself to care very much. I felt bad for him, but pity alone isn’t enough to make me invest in a character. And Doug Stamper is a hard character to invest in: disturbed and obsessive, smug when he’s in power and groveling when he’s out of it. He’s all of Frank’s bad qualities with none of the good ones. But season 3 makes the mistake of thinking that Stamper deserves his own plot. Not just a few minutes here and there, but several long scenes per episode. Frank picking BBQ ribs out of his teeth in slow motion would have been more compelling than anything Stamper does here, and would have probably advanced the plot further too. Because the problem with the Stamper plot this season is that it goes absolutely nowhere. His connection to his brother’s family? Nowhere. His mutual attraction to his physical therapist? Nowhere. Working for Dunbar? Nowhere. Even the final episode, where he finally finds Rachel again, is a letdown. Had he turned over a new leaf and let her live, as he seemed about to do, then maybe there would have been some point to the long and painful recovery plot that was forced upon the audience. But nope—he kills her and goes on working for Frank, same as ever. It is a season-long character arc that could have been summed up in fifteen minutes.
Season 3, while far from perfect, certainly leaves the audience eager for more. Frank is in the early stages of the Presidential race, facing perhaps the worst personal crisis he has ever faced. Most of the characters are still in play, and it really does have the potential to become anybody’s game. The one thing we can be sure of is the coming downfall, and that plenty of fireworks will go along with it. Hopefully the fourth season will tighten its focus and keep the action centered on the main players, instead of forcing minor subplots into a narrative that clearly doesn’t need them.