Series Review: House of Cards

Note: This review contains significant spoilers that are unavoidable when discussing the overall success of the season. Consider yourself warned…

Viewers of Netflix’s Emmy-winning series House of Cards generally fall within two camps. There are those who love Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his Machiavellian political maneuvers so much that they’re willing to overlook all probability and logic to embrace this new-age J.R. Ewing. Conversely, there are those who watch the show in spite of previous seasons’ dedication to giving Frank everything he wants.

And they grumble about it… A lot.

As a viewer who appreciated House of Cards for its Scandal-light nature – more serious than that over-the-top spectacle but still amusingly melodramatic, Season Three took a while to find its footing. Spoiled by the massive surprises offered by Season Two, I had to adjust my expectations around its forward momentum. In a way, this season is nearly a completely different show, dramatically different in plotting and tone than previous seasons, and it’s taken me a while to accept that. Still, there’s no denying that Season Three closes on a dynamite note, highlighting the true star of the series (Robin Wright) and accentuating her with the most satisfying female roles seen in the series thus far.

After the odd opening where Frank Underwood urinates on the grave of his father (previously described in my review of the season’s first two episodes), the series drifts through Frank and Claire Underwood pushing forward with their own agendas – Frank seeking Congressional approval of his America Works (“AMWorks”) job bill and Claire seeking an appointment to US Ambassador to the United Nations. One of the strongest scenes early in the season is Claire’s Senate confirmation hearing even if it seems highly unlikely that such a controlled and confident woman would stumble as badly as she does.

Denied approval by a handful of votes, Frank nonetheless appoints her to the post using some vague Presidential power he wields while Congress is out of session. Unbeknownst to us, this appointment, despite giving Claire exactly what she wants, puts the first crack in their relationship. Later in the series, Claire laments needing Frank as much as she does. We are initially led to believe it is an emotional connection, but she’s really talking about hating that she needs him to get where she wants to go in the world. She is irrevocably tied to Frank, and as such, she is incapable of achieving her goals independently. And she despises that by season’s end.

My least favorite aspects of the season deal with Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) and a diplomatic struggle / double-cross over occupancy in the Jordan Valley. The sequences dealing directly with Petrov and his interactions with the Underwoods are fine (and often funny), but this whole sequence carries so much weight in the series that it bogs down the proceedings in political mumbo-jumbo. Underwood and company are often saddled with impossibly heavy dialogue that serves to constantly remind us of the political stakes. Plus, the Russian connection feels stale and too safe, although I suppose focusing on Middle Eastern terrorists would have placed House of Cards in too-familiar Homeland territory.

The series improves dramatically when the focus shifts toward Underwood’s inevitable re-election campaign, despite his public statements to the contrary. This shift in the season opens the playing field to more interesting characters, particularly Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker). Ironically, Frank Underwood’s greatest weakness – his understanding of and relationship to women – becomes his potential downfall.

Dunbar and Sharp

To understand this, you have to appreciate that Frank’s succession to the presidency elevates him to a higher playing field – one that he understandably struggles to contain. Where in previous seasons his political prowess is largely unquestioned and unparalleled, Frank’s Season Three successes are significantly limited as he is often dealt with significant blows. President Frank Underwood becomes a big fish in an even bigger pond, and his ego (like many Shakespearean characters before him) seems to lay the ground for his undoing.

Frank becomes soft when he should be tough, and he uses a sledgehammer where the white glove treatment is required – particularly in his interaction with the women in his life. While the best episode has to be the Iowa debate, my favorite aspect of House of Cards Season Three is how the focus shifts from politics to a political marriage. This time, the “house of cards” is the Underwood’s relationship. And, boy, does it come a-tumblin’ down. By the time we reach the series’ final scene, Claire Underwood’s final words are expected but still shocking. They not only liberate Claire the character but also confound the audience’s expectations for Season Four.

The MVP of Season Three is undoubtedly Robin Wright, delivering an incredibly complex maturation of Claire Underwood. She somehow manages to express the inner turmoil and desperation of a woman drawn to be so remarkably unexpressive. Her journey through the series – from First Lady to Ambassador back to First Lady and Woman Scorned – is the real through-line of the season for me, supplemented by the intriguing characterizations of Dunbar and Sharp. Molly Parker, in particular, has grown for me as an actress as her character becomes more realistic – less naked ambition and tattooing to “love the pain” and more inner turmoil over her political choices. Marvel is fine as Heather Dunbar, but the character is played in a one-note key – all over-baked bravado with very little subtlety. In a way, she’s the female version of Frank Underwood, albeit more polite and less murdery.

By focusing on the women of House of Cards, I am consciously omitting another weak aspect of the series, the once-favorite character of Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). Stamper’s arc of longing and regret over his treatment of Season Two’s Rachel leads to an unpleasant downward spiral into addiction and alcoholism. He is improbably abandoned by Frank (despite earlier being his right-hand man) and then even more improbably goes to work for the Dunbar campaign in a thinly veiled fake-out. When his multi-season Rachel arc resolves itself by the end of the season, you’re more relieved to avoid this topic again than moved or surprised by its conclusion. Also, less inviting are author Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire) and reporter Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens, Gone Girl) who are given little to do but pull information out of or react to the Underwoods. And poor Senator Mendoza (Benito Martinez) doesn’t even warrant a proper goodbye.

Still, House of Cards Season Three is a strong entry in the overall arc of the show, if only for the focus on how Frank is foiled by the women he cannot understand. I called the show Shakespearean before, and I still think the term applies. Frank Underwood’s arc is not unlike that of a Richard III or Henry IV, if drawn in more modern colors. I only wish the writers were more interested in giving him more creatively constructed foils. Season Three is a step in that direction, and I look forward to Season Four to capitalize on this momentum.

After all, all the great Shakespearean heroes have spectacular downfalls.

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