House of Cards has never been a great show. It doesn’t have nearly as much to say about politics or the nature of power as it thinks it does. At its best, it’s a classier version of Scandal; filled with backstabbing, long buried secrets coming to light, conspiracies, corruption, and murder. At it’s worst, it’s portentous, self-indulgent, and dull. Well, at least that was the case for the first two seasons. I expected more of the same when the show returned for its third season but was surprised and pleased to discover that showrunner Beau Willimon decided to change things up a bit. Granted, he sort of had to seeing as where Frank Underwood was when we last saw him. The first two years were all about Frank grabbing for power. He lied, cheated, and killed all in order make himself the most powerful person in the country. The show’s rhythm was simple: Frank would be presented with an obstacle and then do something horrible to get it out of his way. Rinse and repeat. We enjoyed watching because Kevin Spacey made Frank into an entertaining monster and because he was usually the smartest guy in the room. It’s always fun watching a smart man destroy a bunch of idiots, no matter how immoral his methods are. Now though, he’s achieved his goal. He occupies the highest office in the land. The question the writers must have faced when they first sat down to break the third season was, “where do we go from here?” The answer turned out to be surprisingly simple: inward.
As the season begins, we find that Frank is already struggling to hold onto power as the President. He wants to make sure he leaves a legacy behind but no one is making it easy for him. The Democratic leaders don’t want him to run in 2016, his controversial jobs bill, titled America Works, has hit a wall because Congress won’t provide the funding, and his foreign policy is going to hell because of Russian President Petrov, a man who may be even more ruthless than Frank. There’s also the matter of Claire, his supportive and manipulative wife. She’s not satisfied with merely being the First Lady and wants to carve out her own place in history. Trouble is, she needs Frank’s help to do that and he’s worried about more than being accused of nepotism when she demands he appoint her as UN Ambassador.
Then there’s Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). Remember him? Former Chief of Staff, last seen close to dead in the woods after being slammed in the head with a rock by a hooker he’d been hiding/tormenting. I thought for sure Stamper was dead as a doornail at the end of last season but he turns up alive and well five minutes into the first episode. In fact, much of that first hour is focused on Stamper, with Frank and Claire only showing up at the halfway point. Right away, this clues us in on the fact that Willimon is playing a different game this season. The pace is languid, slow even, but not in a bad way, as we get reacquainted with Doug. Stamper wasn’t much more than a noble henchman for the first two seasons but now that he’s suffered a terrible injury and lost his place by Frank’s side, he’s a more interesting and complex character. We see how deep his devotion to Frank runs and how far he’s willing to go to get back into his master’s good graces. But there’s another side of him that maybe wants out of the world of politics. He just doesn’t know how get there. His arc is both frightening and surprisingly moving, even though it sometimes falters. The side plot of him trying to track down the hooker with the help of that hacker from last year (Jimmi Simpson) is dull and never feels like more than filler. It takes way too long for the writers to finally resolve that story. When they do though, it’s satisfying and it brings Stamper full circle. Kelly relishes his expanded role–he’s basically the third lead–and successfully knocks down the criticism that House of Card’s only interesting characters are Frank and Claire.
That criticism still holds true for a few other characters though. The show has never quite known what to do with Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), the former lobbyist who now serves as Frank’s Chief of Staff. At first, I thought placing him in Frank’s inner circle would make him more interesting but he’s just regulated to doing whatever Frank tells him to do. When the writers finally decide to give him an arc, it’s too little too late. Where he winds up by episode 13 is puzzling. We don’t know him well enough to understand his motivations so all we can do is throw up our hands and say, “whatever”, which is presumably what the writers did. Also sidelined is Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), the Senator who Frank groomed to take his place in Congress. The writers can’t decide if she’s as ruthless as Frank or actually has morals. They go back and forth so much that by the end we simply don’t care. And her romance with Remy is a distraction from more interesting plotlines. Every scene between the two of them is dead on arrival.
Thankfully, we get four new characters who pick up a lot of the slack. First, there’s Elizabeth Marvel as Heather Dunbar. She appeared a couple times last year but takes on a much bigger role when she announces her candidacy for President in 2016. She’s a different sort of foe for Frank because, unlike nearly everyone else in government, she is truly a good person and the kind of political candidate that most of us beg for in the real world. She says what we’re all thinking and cuts through the bullshit with ease. Then there’s Kim Dickens as a tough as nails reporter who sees Frank for exactly what he is: an atom bomb. It’s fun watching her sink her teeth into him during press conferences. She develops a romance with Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) a novelist who Frank hires to write a propaganda book about his jobs program. He’s another fascinating character, with secrets of his own, and an addiction for figuring out what makes people tick. His scenes with Frank are some of the season’s best as he becomes the only person besides Claire capable of getting the master manipulator to actually tell the truth, even if it’s only in bits and pieces.
No season of House of Cards is complete without a political enemy for Frank and season three provides the best one yet with Lars Mikkelsen as President Petrov. He’s clearly modeled after Vladimir Putin but is even more ruthless and calculating. We first meet him when he arrives at the White House for a state dinner, where he reveals himself to be a petty yet dangerously cunning leader. He insults Frank’s wife directly to his face and then kisses her on the lips at the end of the evening. Naturaly, Frank would love nothing more than to push him down the stairs–he tells this to the audience directly–but needs Petrov if his foreign policy is going to work. One of the best episodes focuses on Frank and Claire as they visit Russia in order to make a deal with Petrov and get him to release an american activist for Gay Right’s who has been locked up in a Russian prison for weeks. The hour cuts back and forth between Frank and Petrov ironing out the deal and Claire as she tries to convince the activist to make a statement that would compromise his entire belief system. The hours ends well for no one and sets in motion the central conflict for the rest of the season: the growing rift between Frank and Claire.
The two of them have always been allies but each slowly begins to question the other’s motives. Claire sees a man who doesn’t need an ally, who rules with an iron fist, and does only what serves him best. Frank sees the woman who helped him come so far become ungrateful and foolish. The scenes between Wright and Spacey have always been terrific but they outdo themselves this year. They’re not merely talking about what their next move is or how they’re going to destroy so and so. Instead, their arguing about their choices, the lies they’ve told to each other, and why it is that they both need power in order to stay alive. The finale doesn’t end with a big shock or jaw-dropping cliffhanger. It builds to a fight between Claire and Frank that’s been brewing ever since they got married. It’s one of those most chilling scenes in the show’s entire run because it perfectly illustrates what a monster Frank Underwood is. And it doesn’t need to have him throw somebody in front of a train in order to show that.
The previous two season were more about those shocking moments. We sat there saying, “oh man what the hell is he gonna do next?” without thinking much about why he was doing these things. It’s a wise move to make the show more about the characters of Frank and Claire rather than their actions. As Frank moves forward with his jobs program it becomes clear that being the President will never be enough for him. He needs to leave his mark on the world. But he can’t see that his wife does too. The shifting dynamic between them suggests that next season (which can’t come soon enough) is going to bring a a very new sort of conflict to the forefront.
Of course, the show is not perfect and is still not quite great. It remains addictive as hell though and features two fantastic performers at the top of their game. Making the season more introspective and thoughtful was a necessary change but one that Willimon only scratches the surface of. He needs to dig a little deeper next year and not repeat himself. He also might wanna either tone down or tighten up Frank’s asides to the audience. They used to be funny or insightful but this season they’re generally expository or obvious. Thankfully, they’re barely used at all in the last two episodes, which shows that Willimon is more confident in his characters and audience. We don’t need every detail told to us, we know the characters well enough that we can figure things out on our own without them spelling it out.
It’ll be interesting to see where the show goes from here. Based on the way things are left in episode 13, it seems to me that next season should be the last. There’s only so much story left to tell and it would be better to go out on a high note rather than exhaust the characters and themes for all their worth. We need to see Frank laid low, to finally get his comeuppance. The groundwork is there so it’s time to start building. It’s going to be a long wait till season four though. Sigh. I recommend that if you’re a big fan, don’t binge watch season three like I did. Let it stay with you for a little while longer. Let Frank and Claire face the cold truth about themselves at a nice steady pace. I also think watching that way makes for better viewing. You can more easily appreciate each individual episode. When you watch it in a mad rush, the whole thing feels like one big blur. Oh who am I kidding though? You’re not gonna do take it slow and steady are ya? Totally understandable. After all, Frank and Claire demand attention. You wouldn’t wanna piss them off.