[This is a review of House of Cards season 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
If social media is any kind of accurate barometer, in the hours before House of Cards season 3 dropped in its entirety on Netflix, one might have guessed the stroke of midnight would herald the long-awaited return of a program responsible for two monumentally important seasons, a show that had more than lived up to the hype of its self-proclaimed pedigree. But, as it stands now, just over a week later, round three of The Underwoods vs. the World didn’t exactly set a new standard for television excellence; instead, it came and went like a hurricane refusing to make landfall in the middle of the night.
Now, whether the lack of discussion on the series less than 10 days later is the result of the Netflix binge model or some failing in the season’s storytelling is unclear. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things worth discussing – even if everyone’s already seemingly on to the next big Netflix premiere.
For what it’s worth, like the hurricane that was a trifling plot point during the season, House of Cards did make an unexpected shift. That shift was to take the focus away from Frank and Claire Underwood’s relentless power grab, and to focus instead on the couple’s attempts to maintain power long enough for it to be considered a legacy. It’s worth mentioning, they did this while refusing to acknowledge that their marriage was falling apart.
It is worth mentioning the instability of the Underwood’s marriage because (SPOILER ALERT – but then why would you be reading this if you didn’t already know?) season 3 ends with Claire calling it quits on the 30-year whatever-you-want-to-call-it that propelled her and Frank all the way to the White House.
And so, starting from that significant revelation and working backwards, we take a look at House of Cards season 3: the good, the bad, and everything that managed to stick out in between.
The Underwood Marriage
The fact that the show’s latter portions turned into a relationship drama was indeed something of a surprise, especially considering how, in the previous two seasons, House of Cards had proclaimed to be a great many things, but at its core, a true relationship drama was not one of them. What’s even more surprising is that, when it got right down to it, the show did a pretty good job of depicting an incredibly powerful marriage in decline. And much of that has to do the remarkably understated performance of Robin Wright.
Last season, Claire balanced the cynicism of the season’s narrative with an unbalanced but still valuable thread about the rape she suffered while in college, and how the man who committed it was still doing it to other women, but from a much higher position of authority. While most of the storyline involving General Dalton McGinnis unfolded off screen, the impact of the thread was handled almost entirely by Wright’s performance, and it may have actually been the better because of it.
Now, the weight of Wright’s unfussy performance is used to counter some of the high energy theatricality of Kevin Spacey’s presentation. Wright’s calm, stoic demeanor and generally much quieter depiction not only helps to maintain some semblance of equilibrium during their scenes together, but it also gives Claire an air of authority. That authority allows her final decision to carry considerable weight, regarding questions of Frank’s political future without the woman who stumped for him against surprisingly effective rival Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel).
The Focus on Character
Season 3 was the season that aimed to put its focus on the characters and not the plot. And why wouldn’t it? After two seasons of watching Frank and Claire play a high stakes political chess game like Bobby Fischer from hell, the Underwoods finally achieved their goal of putting Frank in the White House – without having to stump for a single vote, mind you.
But the Underwoods weren’t the only ones getting a greater share of the series’ time now that the couple’s scheming had panned out. Other characters like Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), and most certainly Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) were all on the receiving end of much larger, more substantial storylines that helped make them feel less like pawns in the Grand Underwood Plan, and more like actual characters.
While it’s true that Remy and Jackie’s on-again, off-again romance was not exactly a revelation, nor an example of world-class storytelling, it did offer the series the rare opportunity to put two characters together and find something for them to talk about and relate to one another with that wasn’t entirely based on what Frank Underwood was or wasn’t doing. It would have been nice to see Jackie’s storyline with her husband Dr. Alan Cooke (Shawn Doyle) progress more from start to finish, but having Remy and Jackie connect, even for a brief moment, on the topic of their personal lives was a refreshing change of pace.
The Focus on Character
Now, Doug, on the other hand, was something of a mixed bag. While it was interesting to see the series put so much focus on the would-be chief of staff so early, the initial move to make 80 percent of the season premiere about Doug’s recovery almost felt like too much of a shift. And as the season wore on, Doug’s duplicity in working for Dunbar made for a compelling conflict that helped take some of the emphasis off his obsessive search for Rachel.
But here’s the thing about Doug: he’s a massive weirdo for reasons that remain unexplored. It was fine last season that he had Rachel read to him like he was a child, as his feelings for her grew into something akin to love (but with a guy like Doug, who knows?), because at the end of the day, he got his brains bashed in by the very same woman. Doug’s arc in season 2 was basically chalked up to, “Well, the dude was a massive weirdo…”
In season 3, however, Doug’s image and motivations didn’t quite get the same chance at rehabilitation as his body did, and the result is more weirdness that simply goes unexplained. Yes, the series introduces Kelly Aucoin (Pastor Tim on The Americans) as the older Stamper brother, Gary, but even then, giving Doug someone to talk to – someone that actually knows him – doesn’t offer any real insight into who he is. Sure, we learn that he’s not real big on staying in touch with family, and that he’s very particular about socks being on the floor, but that does nothing to explain the bourbon in the syringe or his feelings for Rachel.
If the series is going to pay more attention to its characters, it has to do a better job of making them feel like real people, instead of mere types – types like, let’s say, the massive weirdo who gets to be chief of staff.
The Yadda-Yadda-ing of Plot Points
Jackie’s quickie marriage of political convenience to Dr. Cooke is a perfect example of the way House of Cards likes to yadda-yadda over storylines. Even though season 3 managed to cultivate a brief but interesting resurgence of Remy and Jackie’s love affair from season 2, much of her being Frank’s running mate initially has to do with how the public will view an unmarried woman with no children. The solution, then, is Dr. Cooke and his kids – who are never seen, of course.
Throughout the season, Jackie’s relationship with Cooke is seen in tidbits that are sprinkled in and around her political maneuvering for the vice presidency. She only mentions the wedding and their home life offhandedly a few times, but then it becomes a major part of Frank’s attack on her in the debate. Although Jackie’s relationship with Remy ultimately takes center stage, the series doesn’t fully exploit what’s at stake with regard to her infidelity. Had there been more development of the Sharp-Cooke ticket, the situation with Remy would have been even more potent.
But the yadda-yadda-ing of Jackie’s relationship doesn’t begin to hold a candle to the yadda-yadda-ing of Frank’s political machinations and the battle to win the primary. For much of the season, Frank is concerned with his America Works program, which plans to get the 10 million unemployed workers back on the job. The only problem is: the show glosses over certain details about the unemployment problem and Frank’s proposed program to fix it.
If the show had just made up some reason for the rise in unemployment it might have felt like a more tangible problem. Instead, Stephen Colbert sets the stage in the season premiere, simply saying that it’s gone up. The ambiguity of the circumstances around the issue results in it feeling too much like a half-baked idea meant to give some superficial substance to Frank’s presidential plotline. And even though the notion of unemployment hits home, thanks to the arrival of Reg E. Cathy‘s Freddy, the circumstances of his joblessness has nothing to do with the nation’s problems, which only serves to further distance the concept of unemployment from the intention of creating palpable drama.
But perhaps the most egregious example of yadda-yadda-ing is in Frank’s political battle with Heather Dunbar, who in the latter part of the season became a fierce political rival, especially when Jackie threw in with her campaign, propelling the former solicitor general ahead in the polls. As a result, much of the last few episodes have to do with Frank stumping for votes – with the help of Claire – in a last-ditch effort to with the primary against such a formidable opponent.
The only problem is, when Frank pulls off the win, the lack of detail as to how or why he was able to do so not only lessens the impact of his win, it also cheapens the focus on Dunbar’s candidacy and the unscrupulous lengths to which she eventually goes (and eventually fails) in order to secure her victory.
The Utter Lack of Cashew
The most meme-worthy character of season 2 is reduced to a single scene in which a caged guinea pig presumably finds a new and happy home? Come on, House of Cards, you can do better than that.
Everything in Between:
The New Supporting Players
Frankly, it’s hard to get a bead on the supporting characters, since the only ones who’ve actually been around long enough to matter with regard to the Underwood presidency are Doug Stamper and Rachel Posner. Now, with one half of that equation dead, and the other acting as the chief of staff, the audience is left to develop some sort of relationship with novelist Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) and über-journalist Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens).
Let’s face it, House of Cards doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to its journalist characters. Zoe Barnes’ death aside, the show’s depiction of journalism has been kooky, to say the least (need we all be reminded of the ridiculousness that was Slugline.com?). From the rapid retirement of Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) to the framing and incarceration of Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), season 2 pretty much tossed the idea of giving Frank a journalistic adversary in front of the same commuter train that claimed Zoe. There was a hint of that being corrected when Ayla Sayyad (Mozan Marnò) made some waves, but the character only survived to be booted unceremoniously from midway point of season 3.
Enter Yates and Baldwin, a couple of writers so good at what it is they do, they inevitably fall for one another. Both characters are used well throughout the season, with Yates being given the lion’s share of good scenes – none of which are wasted by Sparks’ low-key performance. And although Dickens’ Baldwin doesn’t have nearly as much screen time or intimate moments with Frank and Claire, there is nonetheless a strong character being built in Kate.
The only problem is: both characters are designed to either antagonize or illuminate the Underwoods. And while there is a great moment when Yates reads the opening pages of the book he’s writing about Frank and America Works, and Baldwin does the same with her article comparing Frank to a devastating force of nature and a tyrant, the superficiality undermines the power of their words.
Yates’ fictitious anecdote does nothing to enlighten the audience as to who the Underwoods are, nor does the Baldwin’s tyrant piece actually prove to be anything other than an unnecessary bit of handholding for the audience member who wasn’t sure how to feel about Frank. In the end, Frank and Claire remain hidden behind a façade that even Frank’s addressing of the audience doesn’t help them break free from.
The De-emphasis on Frank Breaking the Fourth Wall
Say what you will about Frank’s penchant for addressing the audience, it has proven to be a valuable tool. And in season 3, it was curbed to just a few off-handed remarks here and there. In fact, it seemed as though the season was making a conscious effort to avoid the direct line to Frank’s brain, as several times the camera would close in and linger on Frank, only to cut to the next scene without so much as a passing glance from Spacey.
There are pluses and minuses to this approach. On one hand, the distance from Frank’s thoughts does help build some tension, as it’s unclear exactly what he plans to do next – something that is a boon to his scenes with Vladimir Putin proxy, Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen). But as the season begins to focus more and more on Frank and Claire’s doomed marriage, the distance robs the audience of seeing Frank deal with a truly personal crisis that would have granted far greater understanding of him and his motivations than any unpublishable novel.
Ultimately, House of Cards managed to improve many of its trouble spots that had lingered over the past two seasons. But as certain problem areas were fixed, others worsened and new ones emerged. The show has been good for a quick dose of Kevin Spacey’s particular brand of scenery chewing and for the occasional bit of incongruous weirdness. But with each passing season, even those elements seem to lose their potency, much less their appeal – which probably explains why the discussion of the show dissipates so soon after it is made available.
Screen Rant will keep you updated on the future of House of Cards as news is made available.