[Review] - House Of Cards, Season 3

Courtesy of Media Rights Capital
As they say, once is a mistake, twice is a pattern, three times is a habit. Now that we're three season into the reign of Frank Underwood, some uneasy patterns are emerging, that I fear are all signs of a habit. The first season of this series was remarkably strong, and managed to maintain a laser focus throughout it's entire initial 13 episodes. The second season did not deliver the same; I found it to be woefully inferior to it's predecessor, operating at half strength. My hope would be that this third season would find itself re-energized by Frank's ascent to power, and bring this magnificent bastard to the crippling end that he so rightly deserves.

Except that it didn't. And unlike in previous years, it ended on a cliffhanger (of sorts), meaning that a show that really should have only been three seasons is intent on at least a fourth, and possibly a fifth. I fear this is a sign that their success has went to their heads, and caused them to lose focus on what made the series so good that first year out: harsh, bold, quality storytelling that is unmatched on HBO or any other network. Sadly, they can no longer make that claim. With two lesser seasons to compare with one extraordinary one, the series has lapsed into a realm of adequacy that the evidence suggests is the way of things, and that season one was more fluke than anything else.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers which have what it takes to kill a man with their hands.

I should make clear one very important point: I enjoyed season three considerably more than I enjoyed season two. I found season two to be horribly paced, getting hung up on side stories that went no where, then speeding through important plot points that should have played out over the course of a season in an episode or two. Season three was much more reasonably broken, with the major stories getting the appropriate amount of screen time to play out believable. There were missteps, as one has unfortunately come to expect. But this was a better, more buoyant season that the last.

Which is not to say that it wasn't without it's endemic flaws. Perhaps the most notable is the tendency for the writers on this show to get obsessed and bogged down with secondary story lines that either: 1) outlive their usefulness, or B) aren't useful to begin with. I understand that just focusing on Frank and Claire would put strain on those storylines and characters, and that B and C-plots are needed to pad out episodes. But the cost on shifting these B and C-plots to the forefront of multiple episodes is that they have to be able to hold our attention, be meaningful, and add something to the over all plot. This season, more than likely any other, seemed to be in need of a shorter episode count. If this had been a six or seven episode season, it might have had the potential of being the strongest. Except they needed to fill those other half dozen hours, and that is where the bloat and the sag appeared.

It was a ballsy move, pushing Frank and Claire to the background of the first episode, and pushing Doug's recovery into the A-slot. Considering that we all expected him to be dead at the season's start, his return to life was a shock. Michael Kelly is a rock on his series, and Doug is meant to serve as an example of the sort of character that has been completely seduced by the Underwoods. When this was held in contrast to Remy, Zoe and Russo in season one, these characters served as a timeline of the effects that Frank and Claire have on people over the course of lives. By the end of season two, he was an example of what happens when the Underwoods exert too much influence for too long. His death at the end of season two would have been illustrative of the environmental danger the Underwoods pose. His survival undercuts that, and sadly, he spends most of the season languishing without purpose. If the show were about Doug, if it were a show about one man fighting addiction and obsession, then this season would have been a triumph of character. Instead, it's another example of the writers being shockingly unwilling to let something go.

I think what drew so many people to the first season was the audacity the series had. It was shocking; Frank was shocking. He did things, and the show allowed him to do things. He wanted power, and he was literally willing to kill for it. He acted brazenly, and was awarded for it. Except, since they pushed Zoe in front of a train, the show hasn't been shocking or audacious. It has been complacent. It dresses things up to be shocking; Frank and Claire's threesome with Meechum last season, or Frank's spitting on the statue of Jesus this year come to mind. But those are empty jump scares, unearned because they lack payoff. The expectation is that Frank is an extremophile, so every so often he does something extreme, but unlike in season one where his actions brought change, here they are just action for our sake. Water-cooler moments meant to propel us into bingeing the next episode, to see what he'll do next. Frank threatens friends, colleagues, enemies, and heads of state in this season, but it all feels empty. Frank has lost his ferocity. He's a barking, snapping dog whose had all his teeth pulled.

Maybe part of that was the writers attempting to show how ultimately powerless the President is. If so, kudos on the attempt at metaphor, but minus several on failing to properly execute (and minus several more for failing to stick the landing). As just another face in the crowd, Frank could act with impunity. As Vice President, he had influence, but still had a certainly degree of latitude in what he was able to get away with. As President, his power is checked and balanced. He can't sneak out and push anyone in front of trains, or smother them to death in their cars, or do anything of the things that allowed Frank to rule in the first place. For the first time, he has to play by the rules. And that was part of what I liked about this season. Frank was forced for the first time to be beholden to the system he was actively perverting. This season might have been the most accurate portrayal of American congressional politics ever displayed in fiction. He couldn't get anything done, because no matter what he wanted to do, there was resistance, and because he couldn't bully, threaten or eliminate, he had to act within the confines of expectation. Those times he did step up and think outside the box, like using the FEMA money to fund his bill, the system weighted him down. It was beautiful, in a way, that all his direct action gave him exactly the power he wanted, and discovered that it was all completely useless. It was a gun with no trigger, sights, or bullets.

If this season had a real star, it was Robin Wright as Claire. Part of why I felt so disappointed by the season finale was that, this season Claire had more and better things to do than in the previous years, and none of it felt like cliched "women's plots" and that the whole thing was building towards a bolder realization and statement than what we ultimately got (anyone who has seen the original British series knows what I was expecting). But Claire took the spotlight away form Frank this season, and it was Wright that deserves the accolades rather than Spacey. And, perhaps the wisest thing the writers did this season, at least for the most part, was finding a way to split the characters so that both domestic and international diplomacy could be explored, and how one affects the other. Making Claire the UN ambassador opened up the show to an entirely new kind of politics, and I was immensely disappointed when they slammed that storyline shut. I was hoping that Claire might take on a Eleanor Roosevelt quality of independence, and realize what she was truly capable of separate from Frank. She got there, in the end, but it was after manipulation and threats, rather than having her realize it through her success and his failure.

The one aspect this show has never failed on is in the creation of great villains. Frank of course was the villain of season one, and Tusk was the baddie of season two. This year they were put to shame with the wonderful performance of Lars Mikkelsen as Russian President Viktor Petrov, as thinly veiled as the show has gotten for a real-life analogue. Petrov really is Frank's bosom buddy, a kindred spirit in the realm of manipulation and audacity, except that Petrov can continue to act as Frank once did because in his system, he reigns supreme. Unfortunately, by the end of the season, Petrov's use fall back on forcing Frank to act against his nature, so that the writers can jarringly move the plot from one position to an unnatural one, and not have to do the leg work. But the early episode of the season, during the two official state visits, Mikkelsen really had something he could bite into.

Everything else pretty much caused the show to trip over itself. Since killing Zoe, the show has wanted to include reporters as major characters on the show, but never known how to do that. Last year's Zoe replacement, so bland and undeveloped that I remember nothing about her other than she got fired this season early on, was replaced by another played by Kim Dickens who did about the same amount of nothing. The character of Seth receded into the background, taking any and all interest with him. Jackie and Remy, and Freddie again, all reemerged, and receded, doing little but retracing the same storylines they already have, and with none of the effect (Freddie is interesting though, as he seems to have fallen out of love with Frank. He puts on a smile and a show, and plays on Frank's desire to be liked by at least one man, but as soon as he's gone, sets folk straight on how he feels about the President). Doug languishes in the unending Rachel storyline, and don't expect just because she's in the ground that we've heard the last of that. And as part of that, the hacker who only wants his freedom is the C-Plot that won't die. It was a carbuncle on the side of season two, and it has only grown and sprouted a few wiry hairs.

The biggest drag on this season was the weird inclusion of the former junkie/trick turned celebrated author, whom Frank hires to write a novel about his job's plan, and who in turn becomes obsessed with writing the story of the power couple that is Frank and Claire. It is never clear exactly what this storyline is meant to do. If the character of Tom is meant to be an instrument of Frank's eventual defeat, a replacement for Zoe who is capable of rooting out all the rotting corpses in Frank's closest, then they are playing the long game. As it stands, Frank's scenes with Tom seemed to replace his direct comments to the audience, which were at an all time low this season. Except, as he is revealing himself to Tom, his revelations are filtered and edited, whereas his direct addresses are pure and honest. And like so many of the various side roads that this show is intent on visiting, it doesn't seem to lead anywhere. It is a lot of conflict with very little result. And that is perhaps the most succinct statement I can make on the direction this series is headed.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. I agree that the 3rd season could have been much better. One of the thinks that I didn't enjoyed was that Frank was more tamed and that he wasn't as free. This new Frank I felt brought down the quality of the character and turned him into an ordinary President. Although there were times when the real Frank would come out (i.e. when he is yelling at the people in the conference room about America Works, in addition to his televised message to the public).

    Any Comments?