Making the Case for ‘House of Cards’

Note: Wrapping up this week, the Awards Daily TV Crew will be making the case for each nominee in the Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama Series categories in random order. We’ll be dropping one each day leading into and through the Emmy voting period, which ends this Friday. Share/retweet your favorites to build the buzz! 

Netflix’s House of Cards

Metacritic Score: 76
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76
Number of Nominations: 11
Major Nominations: Drama Series, Lead Actor (Kevin Spacey), Lead Actress (Robin Wright), Supporting Actor (Michael Kelly), Casting

In a year where the outlook appeared to be barren without Breaking Bad and True Detective in contention, House of Cards began as the default Emmy consensus front-runner earlier this year. It just seemed to “fit” as the next Drama Series winner after having to stand by Breaking Bad for two Emmy cycles as a bridesmaid. In theory, House of Cards would be the perfect winner: it’s the show that “started it all” for Netflix’s original series success (if ever the time to make a declarative statement about the development of streaming to the television landscape, this is it); it’s rooted in film industry star-power (David Fincher and the two leading actors); and it has the qualities Emmy voters are attracted to (its somber tone, a political setting, upscale production values, and dramatic storylines and twists).

And voters would be wise to reward Netflix soon, as its influence is growing, and they have a great opportunity with the third season of House of Cards, which is the most independent season of the series to date. While Beau Willimon focused more on Frank Underwood’s climb to power in plot-driven arcs in its first two years, he the took the risk of letting the characters drive the narrative of the third season.

Now, character work was never House of Cards’ specialty, but season three’s effort in reshuffling the cards to focus more on the deconstruction of the marriage at the show’s center was superb. Even though there’s a political competition (mostly to set up next season’s election) surrounding Frank and Claire’s storyline and the follow-through of Doug’s affair with Rachel, it’s the personal struggles, decisions, and motivations of the characters that guide the season’s arc. By the time each thread in story has been placed and cultivated, the outcomes in “Chapter 39” feel seismic and just as impactful as when Frank unceremoniously killed Zoey Barnes in the subway or when he epically assumed the presidency in the previous season finale. The fact that the House of Cards team could equate the build-up of the character’s inner, emotional resolutions to that of towering moments of plot and action should impress even the people who passed the series off as a glorified soap opera.

The earlier seasons relied on Francis Underwood being a villainous cartoon who had the sharpest one-liners and manipulated his way up to the highest office in the nation. Season three still uses the same device of Frank talking directing into the camera with cunning dialogue, but it doesn’t define and impose on the rest of the show. It was part of House of Cards’ charm in its earlier years, but relinquishing that trait allowed for new blood to run through the show’s veins – a warmer and more human blood. Seasons one and two were fun because of the fantastical figure Frank Underwood was, but season three is easier to connect with because the dark sides of the characters were redirected and the more sympathetic, realistic characters within were put before us. House of Cards has always been skewered by critics for its on-the-nose symbolism and suffocating motifs, but since they were focusing on the characters in season three, things like the black egg, the sand mosaic, and shots in the cinematography confirming the rift between the Underwoods prove to be the most effective and poetic House of Cards’ symbolism has ever been.

The greatest thing the third season of House of Cards capitalizes on is the show’s mostly untapped resource: Robin Wright’s performance as the First Lady Claire Underwood. Claire dominates the season, and as someone who felt the “lead actress” of the show was always sidelined with the screentime of a supporting character, making her relevant was the key in making television magic in this season. The audience became very acquainted with Frank in the earlier years while Claire remained an elusive, chilly figure. But her coldness begins to thaw in season three and she finally ascends to being the queen House of Cards has always pretended she was. The writers make use of her in nearly every episode, even in episodes when she is less of a screen presence.

Wright was granted access to unearth Claire’s complex feelings about her role in Frank’s life and her desire to achieve something for herself, and she performed every the journey to Claire’s final decision with such clarity. And even with all the empathetic development Claire undergoes, the terrifying roots of the character remain and are revealed especially climatic moments of the season. (Who was able to easily shake off Claire’s “Every Seven Years” speech before falling unconscious or the rival of the rowing machine when she exercises in in the finale?) Season three proved that if you give an actress of Wright’s stature an intriguing character, the resulting performance (and effect on the rest of the season) is tremendous.

House of Cards took a time-out from its routine with its efforts in season three. Most of the season did not amount to anything except the simple conclusions of Doug wanting to murder Rachel and Claire deciding to leave Frank. And yet, it was a riveting 13-episodes journey that delved into (and sometimes rejected) the compassion of its characters. Season three not only produced some harrowing standalone episodes, but also assembled the greatest House of Cards episode ever in “Chapter 32,” where Claire defiantly acts against the Russian president after commiserating with a gay man being held in prison. (“Chapter 32” was the Emmy acting submission for both Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and the latter could win with such an explosively good showcase.) The writing was laudable, the directing was treacherous, and the character work was sublime, and it deserves to be mounted as Netflix’s achievement at the Emmys this year.

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