As a Netflix series, each episode of “House of Cards” opens with the network’s logo, reminding you where you happen to be watching the award-winning drama. But Season 3 introduces a fun tweak to that opening card: A sharp “tap-tap,” echoing the final seconds of the Season 2 finale, in which Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) leans into his hard-won position of authority by rapping his brand new ring on his brand new desk.
While the show tries to grab your attention right away in this fashion, the third season of the series actually proves to be a slightly quieter affair than the seasons which have come before. And this works both for and against “House of Cards” in its return.
In many instances, the third season of a show offers an opportunity for fans to truly consider a series; to re-evaluate whether or not they’re still truly engaged. And a lot of times, it comes down to character. There are no shortage of programs that have held my personal interest as a viewer well beyond their glory days thanks entirely to my enjoyment of the characters; great, intriguing characters can go a long way towards extending the life of the series.
In short, Season 3 is a great time to ask yourself: Do I still care at all about these people?
In the case of “House of Cards,” the answer depends on, of course, the character. There’s still a lot of Frank Underwood left to dig into: The Frank of Season 3 is a less desperate creature — and savvier as well — which makes him both more palatable over the course of events, but perhaps a little less exciting. Thanks to both Spacey’s performance — as always, a vital and show-defining anchor for the series — and creator Beau Willimon’s ability to push his limits, however, the shift holds together.
For the most notable change in the action comes as a result of the Season 2 finale, which made Frank the 46th President of the United States and Season 3 into a show that shares a lot of key DNA with Aaron Sorkin’s seminal series “The West Wing.”
Of course, while “West Wing” had an optimistic, Capra-esque spin to its depiction of back-room politics, “House of Cards” maintains the same grim attitude towards human nature that got reporters pushed in front of subway trains. But much of the show is devoted to both domestic and international policy debate, not to mention election drama (as Frank only inherited the office of the President and has limited time before a real election takes place).
It’s hard to get much more detailed without delving into spoiler territory; the intention here is to lay out what to expect from the show and what not to expect. The most notable new addition comes later in the season, in the form of Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), a writer who Frank draws into his inner circle for the purposes of writing a book about him. Frank wants the book to be about public policy. Tom wants it to be about Frank, the man. It could be seen as a commentary on the show itself — and personally, I’m on Tom’s side.
One of the most troubling threads of the third season, which runs from premiere to finale, is the resolution of the events that left Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) dead in the woods last year. Without revealing any specifics (because, believe it or not, Netflix very specifically said not to), it’s a storyline which stretches the likability of characters to the breaking point and grows legitimately disturbing at times.
But where “House of Cards” has really succeeded, this time around, is in its deployment of Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. Wright’s role in the show has been one of the show’s greatest strengths as well as one of its greatest vulnerabilities; while always an acting powerhouse, her character has often operated on the fringes of the main plotlines, distracting from the meat of the story. The show has steadily improved on this situation year by year, however, and here, she’s finally at the center of the narrative. Claire’s goals and relationships are given equal weight with Frank’s here, and she’s a key element of nearly every major development.
A key side effect of this is how “House of Cards” truly devotes itself to portraying one of television’s most complex and difficult marriages, which becomes one of the season’s most captivating threads.
The thing about “House of Cards” was that it always had the patina of a subtle cable drama, but the heart of a pulpy soap. The show’s most memorable moments have nothing to do with political policy, but betrayal of a personal nature, whether it be an illicit affair or a startling murder. Most of Season 3 moves away from this, and the overall effect proves less entertaining as a whole than the seasons before. But unless you were only on board for the crazy sex and plot twists, it might actually be a better show in the long run.
When it comes to a Season 4, there’s no official announcement yet, but Season 3 certainly plays like a show that has a lot more life in it, with many elements set in motion to indicate such should it return, Willimon and his team will have plenty of story to explore, and that’s perhaps the most exciting twist of all; what began on Netflix as a bold experiment is now a lynchpin for the service, and a tradition we can hopefully look forward to for years to come.