I watched House of Cards season one in 2013 over three days. I was mesmerized, captivated, and inspired. Just when you think all of the brilliance has been squeezed out of the world, along comes Frank Underwood, the most devilish antihero this side of Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller. In many ways, Underwood was like Teller – blurring the bloody lines between loveable and despicable with all the demonic glee of a fallen angel wearing a party hat. But unlike Teller, who was motivated by what was best for his club and his family, Underwood’s motivation was simply to further his own ascension – regardless of who he hurt in the process. I found myself cheering on Underwood’s fiendish plots, even envying him for his brash effectiveness and his soul’s seemingly bulletproof coating.
When season two came along in 2014, taking three days to watch it seemed like unnecessarily delayed gratification. I powered through it in a day in half, literally pumping my fist in the air as I watched Underwood lay trap after trap and climb his way into the most powerful position on the planet on a stairway made of the crunching bones of those too naïve or idealistic to see him coming. And then just like that, season two was over. I felt that ache of emptiness, that gnawing sadness that a dear friend had abruptly left my life for another year. Yeah, I know – get a life, John! It’s a freaking TV show! But the best art gets behind your eyes and beneath your fingernails. House of Cards was that kind of art, making me long for the days when I covered Capitol Hill and local government as a budding journalism student.
And then February 2015 arrives! I knew that in just a few short (okay, long) weeks, my dear friend would be back from his year-long sabbatical. I couldn’t wait to hear his stories of brazen selfishness, his tales of conjuring the dark forces within his blackened spirit to defy the natural order of things and rightfully assume his seat on the throne of the world. But 30 minutes into our visit I realized something that made me sadder than our year of estrangement. This wasn’t the friend I knew. Who was this imposter? What the hell happened? Did he spend the past year crunching Quaaludes like fun-size Mr. Goodbars and sleeping on a park bench in Guam? I kept telling myself his stories would get better, that there was a brilliant, overarching purpose to the slobbering boredom that drooled from his slack-jawed mouth. Would there be a moment where it all made sense to reveal that his incessant, sleep-inducing drone was just a red herring for a spectacular sucker punch in the final few minutes that would make my friend seem even more brilliant?
***HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD! IF YOU HAVE NOT WATCHED HOUSE OF CARDS SEASON THREE AND YOU PLAN TO WATCH, STOP READING NOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. ***
President Frank Underwood has manipulated his way into the highest office in the land, bloodied with the lives and careers of others who dared to cross him. But now he faces his ultimate challenge. He must actually be elected president in 2016. Season three focuses on his efforts to secure the Democratic nomination. Several obstacles block his course: party leadership who despise Underwood and withdraw their support from his presidential bid and instead back the sexy solicitor general, Heather Dunbar; Underwood’s hope for a crowning jewel, a program called AMWorks (short for America Works) that aims to provide jobs for all out-of-work Americans through federal funding, is sidelined when the threat of a hurricane eats up the funding he steals from FEMA to fund the program; and the faltering relationship with his wife, Claire.
It’s the third obstacle, the Frank and Claire story, which actually derails season three. While the season is masked as a journey through the bruising process Frank must endure to secure his party’s nomination, it’s actually a love story – or a lack-of-love story – about Frank and Claire. One episode is even sleepily dedicated to the renewal of their wedding vows (I actually dozed off during this 50-minute yawn-o-rama and had to watch the episode again). The arc of Claire being infinitely more popular than Frank despite a failed run as a U.N. ambassador is interesting. But it fails to deliver – much in the way Frank fails to deliver when Claire demands that he “take her” in a New Hampshire hotel room. The final episode concludes with Claire leaving Frank. This could have been the sucker punch I was craving if her leaving Frank was punctuated with her own run for the party nomination. But that doesn’t happen. She just leaves. Credits roll. I had to force myself not to throw my Apple TV box out the window.
While it’s true that Congresswoman Jackie Sharp, chief of staff Remy Danton, author Tom Yates, and the aforementioned Heather Dunbar take up considerable screen time, they are merely supporting cogs in the dirge-like movements of season three. They seem to exist only to move the plodding plot along and provide some sort of conflict outside of the straining Underwood marriage.
Sharp is a meandering amoeba of a character who is a shape shifter of loyalty, depending on who is nicer to her or can offer her the most at the moment. In a rare moment in season three that gives us a glimpse of the devilish Frank we all know and love, he and Sharp conspire to undermine Dunbar’s chances to win the nomination with a promise that Sharp but will end up as veep on the Underwood ticket. But when Frank throws her under the bus during a live debate, Sharp gets concerned that he isn’t giving her the necessary respect. She jumps ship to Dunbar, which leads Danton to fulfill the only purpose he seems to have in season three – to vacate the post of chief of staff. And speaking of staffs, as we all know Danton was dipping his into company ink with Sharp, has feelings for her and throws a hissy fit after Frank blows up at Sharp during one of the more entertaining scenes in the season.
Yates is a former male prostitute-turned-award-winning author trying to escape the shadow of his first novel. Frank hires him to write a book about the AMWorks program, but Yates is more interested in the Underwood marriage angle (as are the season three writers, apparently). He is eventually dismissed for this obsession, but not before his best scene when he and Frank come one unzipped fly away from getting busy.
In the end, the season boils down to three characters:
Frank Underwood: Frank has always been an asshole. But what made him sing in the first two seasons was the dark fairy dust he belched at those all around him, the black-tinted magic that made the fact that he was an asshole just a necessary byproduct of his grim and fatal effectiveness. He’s still an asshole in season three. But the magic is gone. Frank limps through the 13 episodes with the workmanlike presence of wizard whose powers have vanished overnight. He seems to be the only one who hasn’t noticed. It may have been the writers’ intentions all along to show us a Frank who is stripped of his scorched-earth vigor. But instead of it being an engaging character study of a dark master past his prime, the Frank of season three is reduced to the cranky old neighbor yelling for kids to get off his lawn and pull up their pants. His almost demonic efficiency has been replaced with occasional outbursts of anger that only bring more setbacks. The Frank of the first two seasons would never stand for this. And while it is Frank who delivers one of the most satisfying moments in the season when he tells Dunbar –from a place of rare, undeniable strength – to go fuck herself – these moments are so few in season three. This Frank is a shifting shadow of his former self, even letting the Russian president get the better of him. His weakness makes him barely recognizable.
Claire Underwood: Claire gets the award for the most interesting character in season three. Granted, that’s like giving someone praise for being the most cooperative hostage on a hijacked airplane. Still, Claire is exceedingly effective and a towering presence on the flat screen. The hostage analogy is actually apropos, considering that Claire sees herself as little more than Frank’s hostage. He actually needs her to win the nomination. People like her a lot more than him. Yet she is trapped. She wants to make a name for herself outside of Frank’s shrinking sphere of influence. She asks Frank to make her an U.N. ambassador. He hems and haws but finally relents. After the Russians play her nativity against Frank’s trust in her, a U.S. soldier dies in a plot point that seems to exist only to undercut Claire. The Russians have invaded Jordan (or something like that) and the only thing that will get the Russian president to agree to pull out is Frank canning Claire from the ambassadorship. Frank gives into the demand, and it’s just another punch Frank lands on the beautiful body of the longsuffering Claire. Frank alternately disrespects and praises her throughout the season, even though we know that the praise is only because he needs her to further his own agenda. While Frank does love Claire, he loves himself more. And that is his undoing. The final moment of disrespect comes as Claire (in a not-to-subtle bit of foreshadowing?) sits in Frank’s chair behind his desk at in the Oval Office. Frank, after winning in Iowa, barks an order at her to be on the plane for New Hampshire after she tells him that he is not enough to satisfy her. When the next morning comes and she leaves Frank instead of accompanying him to New Hampshire, it isn’t really a shocker. I couldn’t blame her, and half-expected her to leave him at the season’s mid-point. For the sake of the season three storyline, I wish she had.
Doug Stamper: When we last saw poor Doug at the end of season two, Rachel had beat the living snot out of him and left him for dead in the woods. The opening of season three shows us that Doug survived, but is fragile to say the least and must endure months of painful rehabilitation. That rehabilitation is painful for the viewer also, but not in a wincing, I-feel-bad-for-Doug way. Almost every scene with Doug in the first half of the season seems as though it’s happening within a dense, gray, slow-motion fog. As he recovers, we see him double dealing with Dunbar in a plot point that I am still a little confused about. Was he really, in his mind, working for Frank all along as he tells Frank at the end? Or was he pulling a Jackie Sharp and going wherever the winds of opportunity looked like they might be blowing? Hard to say, especially since he falls off the wagon during all of this nonsense and comes a few breaths away from becoming nothing but a worthless drunk. But he bounces back with the help of his brother and maneuvers his way back into Frank’s camp to take the chief of staff position that Danton vacated. Good for Doug. And it’s Doug who lands two of the most entertaining scenes in the season: one, when he beats Gavin half to death with his walking cane to get Gavin to divulge Rachel’s whereabouts; and, two, when he finally finds Rachel and agonizes over his decision to kill her even after he has dug her grave. When it looks as though he has opted for mercy and Rachel is safe, he plows her down with his piece-of-shit Dodge van and puts that grave to good use after all. It looks like the one people really need to fear isn’t Frank at all, but Doug.
The Bottom Line:
I have to say that the first part of season three is close to being some of the most boring television I have ever seen. Much like this review, it meanders and teases without really delivering anything of substance. By the time things started to heat up in episode eight, my expectations for a sensational ending were so high, that I don’t know if anything would have satisfied. I would have rather seen all of the events of season three happen within the first six episodes, with the remainder of the season focusing on Claire’s attempt to take the Democratic nomination from Frank. I suspect that will be the main arc of season four, but I don’t know if it’s worth a year’s wait to find out. I might have second thoughts about answering the door when my old friend comes knocking again in 2016.