“House of Cards” in its first three seasons established itself as one of the best political thrillers currently available on all platforms. Frank Underwood and his wife Claire entered the minds of many viewers while they gave us the insight into the functioning of American politics and we followed the magical couple through the rights and wrongs from the Congress into the White House. After the first couple of seasons where Kevin Spacey brilliantly played uncompromising and uncrowned king of Washington in the third season he has finally taken the crown, but during thirteen episodes we found out that sometimes the crown itself doesn’t give the absolute and unquestioning power.
If you haven’t seen the season 3 of the series I would recommend not to read further because in the following review there are spoilers for the plot and the characters who we have left at the end of season 2.
Old proverb says that power corrupts. Season 3 just rolled its final credits behind me and I’m happy to say that “Netflix” did it again. However, this season more than any before has ended in a cliffhanger which could seriously affect the dynamic of any future season. In the season 3 we can see Frank Underwood in the White House, he is preparing himself to the primaries while at the same time he tries to manage domestic and foreign policy. The burden of the presidency isn’t easy and as the President, he will have less power than he had as the “whip” since his schemes are often done in the dark and far from the spotlight and as President in the 21st Century there is one thing you can’t do and that’s to hide from the spotlights.
Robin Wright truly shines in “House of Cards” and season 3 probably gave her more spotlight than ever before. As First Lady she will find herself in the position of the most powerful housewife in the United States and (if we learned anything about her in the previous seasons) that position will not satisfy her. In the attempt to create a position of influence for herself, she will try to get the Senate to approve her as the ambassador in the United Nations because that’s one position she thinks that she can make the most of and when her Senate hearing goes sideways she will ask Frank to undo the Senate’s decision. At that point the first conflict between Underwood and the other governing elements in Washington begins and during the course of the season differences between Frank Underwood and Congress and Senate alike will grow as balloon that’s ready to explode.
On the other end of the specter President tries to tackle the unemployment and he won’t stop at anything to accomplish his ambitious America Works plan. It is nice to tackle unemployment in this season, but it’s also interesting to see Viktor Petrov, Russian leader (Lars Mikkelsen) who is a former KGB agent and the biggest threat to the world’s stability (I wonder on which politician he’s based on? J ). The dynamic of the two leaders’ relationship is inspired by the current leaders of the two nations, but I think that the roots of the characterization can be traced as far as the Cuban Crisis and Kennedy/Krustchev stalemate in the situation. That part of the plot was wonderfully written and games of the high politics were extremely intriguing. Claire and Frank will find themselves in that high-stakes game as completely opposite players. Frank has ruthlessness and experience to do what needs to be done and Claire is sometimes ruled by her emotions when she shouldn’t be. Sometimes she wants to react independently of the President so much that her reactions will cause a rift into their personal dynamics which will be very difficult to bypass.
Michael Kelly also returned in the Season 3 as Doug Stamper. His destiny in the series was one of the cliffhangers left from the previous season and he spent most of the season sidelined only to enter as some kind of final plot solution in the last few episodes. That’s the biggest minus of the season 3. He spends most of the season looking for Rachel, using his human and financial resources to find the object of his dark obsession and most of that quest looks as unnecessary to the screen. I was hoping that the reason for that quest will play some important part towards the end of the season, but even the end of the quest and the actions of all the characters were so predictable almost to the detail. The season would be much more coherent if that part of the story was just omitted from the plot. However, Doug passed the similar path as Peter Russo did in Season 1 but his destiny is (at least for now) completely different. Doug and Frank understood each other very well in the previous seasons and that dynamic was lost in the two thirds of the season, but I think that was done for a reason since Underwood has lost his social and diplomatic skill set which was the reason why he has come to the Oval Office in the first place. In the first two seasons Underwoods climbed to the top and in the season 3 they do everything they can to stay there. However, that fight is not without high costs in resources and in the personal stability. Underwood was managing things a lot better when he was not the one making decisions, when he was the one influencing from the background. As the President, he doesn’t have that kind of power and nation burned by Nixon, Clinton and his predecessor simply won’t allow implementing the same methods he used as a whip now that he’s Commander in Chief. He openly complains about it to his Russian counterpart, saying that “he doesn’t have to worry about the elections” as the reason he can do whatever he wants. Frank wants the same kind of power, but American democracy (that’s the message) never gives that kind of responsibility to any individual anymore.
Season three is concerned with legacies now more than before and President and the First Lady will have to find a way to cooperate on both personal and political level if they want the things done. However, maintaining the same level of the cooperation as before will be hard because without Doug as the “voice of reason” and the power struggles between Frank and the Hill, Claire will be in the shadow of her husband.
In the middle of the season few other characters are fleshed out too. Jackie Sharp as the new whip becomes important (Molly Parker) and both she and Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) have increased roles in the Season 3, and Remy was the Underwod’s Chief of Staff for the most of the season. Their relationship fluctuates since in the middle of the season Sharp becomes presidential candidate and Remy has doubts of his own, but for me, really, these two characters were the weakest links of the season in the acting and story department.
Two new characters shined the Washington sky in this season and their importance could be increased in the following seasons. Tom Yates, writer and game reviewer who is supposed to write a book about AmWorks and the Underwooods (Paul Sparks) and the reporter of “The Telegraph” Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens, TV lovers will know her from “Treme” or “Sons of Anarchy”). Kate Baldwin in Season 3 is actually more experienced and tough version of Zoe Barnes and she was very good in her role of the uncompromising news-reporter trying to unmask the corruption behind the presidency. That those two ended up having a fling is completely unnecessary, but it was probably useful as a diversion from the main characters within the season.
Main Underwood’s political adversary in this season is Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), another candidate for president coming from the Democratic Party for the primaries. Underwood in this season doesn’t have anyone’s support. Both Republicans and Democrats hate him and both want him out of the office. That is just a new challenge for Frank Underwood and he will do his best to outwit them all. Dunbar is former Solicitor General and she knows her ways through the law, but laws are not the fields in politics and to be a politician Dunbar will have to get her hands dirty as she will find out during the course of the season.
Second half of the season is focused on mending errors in foreign policy committed in the first (which doesn’t come without a cost) and in mending the relationships between the characters. Frank Underwood isn’t used to errors but he’s even more agitated by apologizing. Neither of which will help him to fulfill his goals and the primaries in Iowa are at hand and he must be in his “A” game. I said earlier that it’s easy to forget how you get to the place of power once you get there and Frank’s political and personal maneuvers in this half of the season are dramatically changed in comparison to the ones used in seasons one and two. Here he acts more as a tyrant than ever before and every (even positively meant) advice is quickly dismissed. He’s more under the influence of his counterparts (Dunbar and Petrov) than he listens to the advices of the people which were closest to him in the previous seasons (Seth, Claire, Sharp). While Doug is pursuing his own agenda with Rachel, Frank is left to dry without him since there isn’t anyone around him who will show him the error of his ways. Frank Underwood of Season 3 is much more bestial and much less human than ever before.
“Frank we’re murderers”, says Claire to him in one of the pivotal conversations in the season. “No, we’re survivors”, he answers. That difference between murderers and survivors is the main conflict of the season. I would say that it’s the conflict between pragmatism and conscience and to have the second one is very dangerous in the high politics of the “House of Cards”. As the end of the season comes closer, that rift between the spouses widens and Frank is slowly but surely loses his compass. Most of the characters at the end of the season aren’t anymore at the same positions they were at the beginning and it seems the biggest message this season is trying to convey is that success is worth nothing if you’re alone when you reach the finish line. It would be interesting to see will “House of Cards” fall on the head of Frank Underwood or he will be able to keep the chaos from happening in the following season. Things at the end of season three don’t look bright. More bridges are burned than ever before, most of Frank’s allies are defenestrated and I think he’ll have to show his more humane side if he wishes to succeed in his fight. At the end of season 3, Iowa is over New Hampshire follows and without the team he is used to he will hardly win. However, if we learned anything until now in the “House of Cards” then we know that Frank Underwood always finds a way to climb back to the top. Will his pragmatism win over the fight against his ego? Will he realize that same things could be said with less arrogance and humiliation or he must fall even deeper into the shithole to question his arrogance? It’s a pity that his adversary in this season is not as formidable as Tusk was in Season 2 because in that case the transformation would be even more necessary. How will Russia react to the fluctuations in the administration? All that are questions which will not be answered in this season.
In a nutshell, season 3 of “House of Cards” offers much more questions than answers and it’s far more personal than any season before. In the previous seasons Frank was always the strongest player on the field and this season tries to answer the question WHY? In season 3 he is weakest yet. Spacey even looks more washed-up, almost ill, like the burden on his back is too hard.
Will we see the big turnaround in season 4 or the more powerful opponent will emerge? What will happen with Claire who clearly had enough of being bossed around and taken for granted? It was good to see Frank Underwood who is not omnipotent, but will it punch a hole in the plot structure?
We have to wait and see. I, for one, liked the change although some episodes were considerably weaker than the rest and some actions were rushed (especially Claire’s in the final few episodes). Season 3 was very good at my opinion. I hope that Remy and Jackie will have better script in the following season and that we haven’t seen all from Tom, but I also hope that Frank will find his social skillset and balance he obviously left somewhere outside the White House.
Good things about burning bridges is that you always have boats. Looking forward for a few surprising ones in the Season 4.