House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) – that’s President Frank Underwood now – returns in the first two episodes of the 13-episode season with the deck impossibly stacked against him. And that’s kind of what we’ve come to expect of House of Cards in general.
If you’re looking for dramatic growth in the series, Season Three looks to disappoint. As with previous seasons, the only growth House of Cards displays is in the elevation of the playing field: Majority Whip to Vice President, Vice President to President. The stakes here seem to be in whether or not Underwood gets to keep his job in 2016 when he officially comes up for election (having, of course, received the presidency after his Machiavellian tactics resulted in the previous president resigning).
Yet, those who enjoy the melodramatic plots in which the series wallows – I count myself among them – will find comfort in the fact that nothing has changed. Underwood continues to face impossible dds with unemployment at an alarming high and his approval ratings at a stunning low. Worse, neither the Democratic leadership nor his wife Claire (Robin Wright) appears to be in his corner. This being House of Cards you know the season will be dedicated to Frank digging himself out of this deep hole, and you know mostly how it will end. The joy is in the improbable events that transpire to keep Frank in power.
The season opens with Frank making a visit to his father’s grave to pay respects. The press held at bay for “privacy,” Frank pays his respects as you would expect – he taunts his father’s memory by relishing in the fact that only Frank attended his father’s funeral and, when Frank dies, many will be forced to attend. He then urinates on the tombstone. I’m debating whether or not this moment potentially foreshadows the end of the series (and of Underwood), but only time will tell.
“Chapter 27” is largely devoted to establishing the drama that Underwood will presumably face through the rest of the season. In response to his dwindling political future, he is pushing a radical jobs proposal (America Works) along the scale of FDR’s New Deal that will put 10 million people to work while ripping the entitlement system – Social Security, Medicaid, etc. – to shreds. Naturally, it’s an unpopular plan, and even without specifics available, the media is already sharpening their knives. The highlight of the first episode deals with Frank’s skewering by Stephen Colbert – a heavily scripted and improbable moment where Colbert openly skewers a sitting president who announces his forthcoming jobs package as “AmWorks” (echoing the much-ridiculed pyramid scheme “Amway”). It’s exactly this kind of improbable reality that House of Cards revels in, and you either accept it for what it is or tune out.
The rest of the premiere episode is dedicated to the somewhat surprising return of Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) who we’d all thought was bludgeoned to death by political liability Rachel at the end of Season Two. Stamper is alive, but he has months of painful and exacting rehab ahead of him, complicated by his status as a recovering alcoholic unable to consume addictive pain meds. After several scenes dedicated to his rehab, Stamper is invited to the White House to finally meet with Underwood only to slip in the shower and break his arm. Rather than forego the anticipated meeting, Stamper duct tapes a wooden spoon to his arm as a splint. Somehow, I find it hard to believe that he would make it through White House security with an object (even a wooden one) duct taped to his arm, but remember, logic need not apply. It was all for naught, though, as Underwood only wanted to stress how important it is for Stamper to get well. Clearly, he is seen as a liability – one that has no place in a flailing presidency.
My main issue with the premiere was that it focused entirely too much on Stamper’s situation and established a potential slide in his sobriety, although he appears to carefully manage that by having a hooker use a syringe to squirt bourbon into his mouth. I question the syringe…
I wanted more of Claire out of the first episode. Her only scenes in the pilot show her sleeping in separate bedrooms in the White House thanks to “that cold” she can’t seem to get rid of. Clearly, there is a marital rift between the two characters. Or is there? Was there ever really a marriage in the first place? Is this just the logical conclusion of a marriage based on power and greed? Now that she is First Lady, does Claire have any interest in Frank as a husband? “Chapter 28” tells us a little bit more about that.
More broadly focused on multiple scenarios, “Chapter 28” is a smoother operation. Its primary goal is to balance the two Underwoods against each other as they momentarily falter. Claire’s drive to become ambassador to the United Nations receives a (momentary) setback when she (improbably) fails to dazzle at the Senate confirmation hearings. Frank is faced with losing the presidency completely as the Democratic leadership ask him to not run for the seat in 2016. But the Underwoods are scripted at their best when the odds are stacked against them, and after an exceedingly uncomfortable yet rejuvenating sex scene, they devise plans to bounce back into power.
So, with two episodes under my belt, I can now see where the season is going. Despite the Senate voting to deny her appointment to the position, Frank will appoint her as Ambassador anyway while publically announcing a plan to focus on America Works over seeking re-election in 2016. Raise your hand if you believe that one.
Given the near-certainty of the outcome (this is House of Cards after all), I hope that the real drama of the season is to be mined from the deteriorating relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood. For me, the jury is out on this development as, even if their marriage was loveless and sexless before, they always had a mutual respect and friendship between them as they scraped their way to the top (more so in Season Two than in Season One). It’s not shocking that she’s only using him for political gain – she even refers to running for office on her own in one exchange – but the subtleties of their marriage are completely absent in the start of Season Three.
But this is House of Cards. Who has time for subtlety? I mean that as a compliment.