*Please note this article has spoilers for Season 3 of “House of Cards.”*
After two seasons of political machinations and backstabbing — of the literal and figurative sense — Frank finally holds the highest seat in the land. The third season of “House of Cards” seeks to distance itself from the fun, albeit campy plot lines of the first two seasons, with varying degrees of success.
The first season’s end goal was clearly the vice presidency, and the second season’s was clearly the presidency, but there is no concrete goal that the Underwood’s work towards here. Those real objectives are what make Claire and Frank really thrive: give them a target and a wide open playing field and they’ll move heaven and earth to get the job done. Faced with the abstraction of leading and the constraints of the White House, they’re not as good. Claire and Frank’s most powerful enemies this season are their own doubts about why they wanted the presidency in the first place, which makes for a far more introspective season than previous ones.
Structurally, the two halves of this season don’t fit together as nicely as they might. The Petrov storyline is forgotten by the time the campaign gathers steam, and while both will doubtlessly resurface in later seasons, they feel half-finished here.
The pace of season three is slower, but fits the subject matter — the steady deterioration of Frank and Claire’s marriage. There’s always been a sense of fate to the show — from the sharp camera movements to the ascension of the Underwoods — making everything that happens feel doomed to happen. That’s never helped the show foster tension, however, and it isn’t helped by this season’s lack of jaw dropping moments…
…Except for the fact that Doug is still alive. It’s arguably the most shocking moment of the season, and it’s revealed within the first few minutes of episode one. Doug’s story line pulls at the heart strings; as much of a total creep he is, it’s hard to watch his character spiral so out of control. He falls deep into alcoholism and depression, then reveals a glimpse of humanity in his love for his brother, only to fall even further by the season’s end. Doug’s story is the most emotional — and the most unnecessary.
There are few surprises with Doug. Of course he couldn’t let politics go, of course he ends up killing Rachel, of course he returns to be the right hand of Frank. For the amount of screen time he held, I learned almost nothing new about his character. He did come close to letting the conscience we’ve seen glimpses of take over and let Rachel go, but as soon as he pulled over on that highway, there was little doubt about what he would do. Rather than being emotionally impactful, her death was reduced to stray plot threads getting cut loose.
After deftly launching a coup under the nose of every politician in D.C with little more than the occasional hiccup, Frank has never been more lost than he is here. His southern accent still drips with venom when he flies into rage, but he’s more bark than bite now. There are moments where his threats feel genuine, particularly when he speaks with Dunbar about the journal, but they’re few and far between. Gone are the days when Frank would frequently look into the camera and address the audience. It changes the viewer’s relationship with Frank from trusted co-conspirator to just another one of the rabble. Frank does try some soul searching, like when he visits the bishop. The shattered crucifix, still wet with his spit, feels like an accurate summation of the results. Frank realizes that the presidency was a hollow goal, but he has no intention of letting it slip away.
The stronger half of the Underwoods this season was undoubtedly Claire. After two seasons of solid character work but a distant relationship to the main plot, Claire finally hit her stride this season. Her righteous dissatisfaction with being just the president’s wife is hammered home in a scene where she awaits the results of a vote that could make her a United Nations ambassador at the same time as she must select the official White House Easter eggs. Watching her fight for approval in the U.N. is one of the most satisfying joys of this season.
The collapse of the the Underwood’s marriage is almost entirely her doing. I doubt it will be anything resembling a clean break; politics aside, their dependency on each other has been too entrenched for it to end so easily. It’s still nice to see Claire taking the initiative in her life. From becoming the U.N. ambassador to leaving Frank, her character has never had so much to deal with — and she’s never been stronger.
“House of Cards” has never cared much for its supporting characters, and that’s still true in season three. Remy and Jacqui’s sexual tension wasn’t very interesting, nor was the inevitable hook up, and Gavin’s hunt for Rachel didn’t add much to his character. Thomas Yates is the exception. He makes us curious about his life while simultaneously giving us juicy character moments for Claire and Frank.
The third season of “House of Cards” asks its audience to take it more seriously. It works because of its characters and the consistently wonderful performances of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, but ultimately, this season felt like a set up for greater things to come. With Frank and Claire separated, Petrov firmly established as a villain, and the campaign well under way, there’s a lot of story to tackle right away in the fourth season. It’s shame it didn’t dig into some of that story earlier. While the heightened political drama is a different type of fun, it’s hard not to miss the good old days when a moving train was all the Underwoods needed to solve their problems.