House of Cards: Season 3

A house divided.


By Louis Balzani
Posted

WATCH THIS IF:

  • You’re already a fan of the series, and the past two seasons have you hooked and ready for more.

WARNING: Minor plot spoilers for Season 3 follow. Read at your own risk.

If nothing else, House of Cards suffers from sky-high expectations. After gathering awards and gushing praise from critics and fans alike, we all expect each successive season of the drama to outshine the last, and that’s a pretty high bar to meet year in and year out. Nevertheless, Beau Willimon and crew have a job to do, and so Season 3 serves up another quality dose of political intrigue and biting character drama, though not quite as effectively as the seasons that precede it.

Picking up some time after the end of Season 2, we find the country in the throes of the Underwood presidency, for better or worse, and everyone has something to prove. Doug, alive and recovering after Rachel’s panicked assault on him, desperately wants to return to work. Seth seeks to further assert himself as Press Secretary. Claire yearns to step out of Frank’s shadow and make a name for herself as a UN Ambassador, despite her complete lack of experience. Frank himself struggles to establish his legacy and leave a lasting impression on the country he fought so diligently to take command of.

Now that the Underwoods run the White House, they find it’s not so easy to strong-arm their agenda, not when so many other issues demand their attention. The season leaps back and forth between plot lines, occasionally to its detriment; there’s a crisis in the Jordan Valley, an imprisoned gay rights activist, and drama surrounding an election caucus, just to name a few of the things on Frank’s mind. While some of it generates excitement, none of it really reaches the everything-on-the-line, so-close-you-can-taste-it intrigue of last season. Ultimately, Frank’s shifty, manipulative climb to the top proved more interesting than that which happens now that he’s made it, but I’ve always assumed it would be that way. Some curious governing follows suit; political buffs will probably laugh as Underwood, an ostensibly Democratic president, attempts to eliminate public welfare programs like Social Security to fund his ambitious America Works jobs plan. Any Democrat who suggested such a measure in real life would get laughed out of the party, but I’ll give the show a pass on that – this time.

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The proceedings do get a much-needed injection of intrigue and mystery thanks to Viktor Petrov, the President of Russia and a man every bit as underhanded as Underwood himself. He openly relishes the opportunity to outsmart Frank, to get under his skin, and he manages to leverage Underwood’s relationship with his wife to great effect. Other new characters appear and quickly make their mark on the series as well; a famed writer hired by Frank to publish some America Works propaganda probes a bit too far into the personal life of the First Couple, while an observant Telegraph journalist strives to keep the White House on its toes. To some degree, it’s thanks to this well-conceived cast of new characters that the plot of this season finds its feet – along with many of its more interesting moments.

Other returning characters benefit from additional characterization as well. We thoroughly explore Doug’s life as an addict and a workaholic, and while this look into his personal struggles is welcome, his exploits harm the season pace’s rather considerably at times. Frank lets the facade down to some degree and some cracks begin to show, though he addresses the audience much less frequently than before. Claire faces her fears of failure and insignificance head-on, taking one in stride and genuinely struggling with the other. Unfortunately, other characters like Meechum remain intriguing but woefully underutilized, while others such as Senate Majority Leader Mendoza and new Vice President Donald Blythe appear only briefly before getting sidelined.

As a side note, fans know that the series has always taken itself exceptionally seriously, and it continues to push its jet-black tone just a bit too far every now and then. Scenes where Frank pisses on his father’s grave or spits on a statue of Christ nearly propel him past soulless politician and straight into comic book villain territory. It speaks to the immense talent of Kevin Spacey that these missteps are as fleeting and forgivable as they are. Finding the sweet spot between developing Frank’s cold, aggressive personality and shoving it in the audience’s face is a fragile, delicate balancing act, one that the series still struggles to perfect.

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That’s a theme House of Cards has focused on since its inception, really: fragility. Relationships develop and unravel at the drop of a hat. Tender diplomatic situations dissolve into chaos thanks to one impulsive thought or action. Characters appear strong and put-together, though they may well be one mistake away from falling apart. Entire empires of power and force hinge upon one or two key elements that could cause the entire scheme to instantly collapse. As a matter of fact, many of these fragile pieces end up coming to a head in the season finale, one that proves rather bland and boring until its last ten minutes, at which point it drops some of the best and most arresting scenes of the series on you with gleeful and reckless abandon.

And that’s the thing about House of Cards. It’s not a perfect show, and it certainly has its lead-laden moments. Yet despite its flaws, it has an exceptional knack for catching you off-guard and reeling you back into its twisted fantasyland. Like President Underwood himself, it lures you in with its charm and charisma before manipulating your emotions at it sees fit and tossing you aside at the end of the season. When that time comes, you’ll likely be confused and exhausted, yet wide-eyed and begging for more…

…and if you’re like me, that’s just the way you like it.

SCORE: 7.5/10

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