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First Impressions From Netflix’s Leaked ‘House of Cards,’ Season 3

First Impressions From Netflix's Leaked 'House of Cards,' Season 3

In case you missed the feeding frenzy, Netflix yesterday briefly made the first 10 episodes of “House of Cards'” third season available on their website, more than two weeks before its scheduled February 27 debut. Despite speculation that the leak was some sort of Beyoncé-type sneak release or a deviously clever publicity stunt, the more likely explanation seems to be the one Netflix gave: a brief technical glitch. “House of Cards” may lend thrive on convoluted conspiracies, but Frank Underwood only works for Netflix; he doesn’t run the place. It does seem slightly suspicious that only 10 of 13 episodes were accidentally made available, but it’s possible the final three are still being worked on.

Netflix quickly closed the door, but not before enterprising fans grabbed a screenshot of the episode summaries, and anyone who’d loaded up an episode was still able to watch to the end. (It wasn’t, apparently, long enough for illegal downloaders to rip copies, since searches of major piracy sites turn up empty-handed.) The irony of the situation is that, as Time’s James Poniewozik pointed out, due to the embargo agreements they’d signed, critics who received advance screeners from Netflix would have been legally prohibited from writing about the episodes even if the early release had been intentional. But since Netflix didn’t send me links, and anyone who hopped on Netflix’s site quickly enough could have gotten through the first episode the same way I did, I’m free to proceed.

(Spoilers for “House of Cards'” “Chapter 27” follow)

Truth be told, there’s only one thing to spoil in the first episode of “House of Cards'” third season, and it comes a few minutes in: Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), last seen laying face down in the woods after fugitive callgirl Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) cracked his head with a rock, is alive. (Better update that wiki.) As you’d expect, he’s not in great shape. He spends long enough in a coma for the flower arrangement left by now-president Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his scheming first lady, Claire (Robin Wright) to wither, and when he does wake up, a doctor warns him: “Your motor skills will be a struggle, your emotions will be unpredictable.” Much of “Chapter 27” is devoted to Doug’s attempts to get his life up and running again, and making it through the painful rehab process without falling off the wagon. (“House of Cards” being a show devoted to depicting human beings as infinitely fallible, it doesn’t take long.) Even without the much-vaunted 4K resolution, the use of both piercing high frequency and low-end rumbles to convey Doug’s mental disorientation feels a bit peacocky, but it’s effective, especially when wedded to Kelly’s performance, which is to my mind the series’ strongest by a wide margin. Seeing him back was enough to push past the resistance I’d built up over the course of “House of Cards'” increasingly glib and cynical seasons, as well as my accumulated disdain for its canned-“prestige” aesthetics.

As for Frank? Turns out manipulating your way into the White House is not the best way to win the hearts of potential voters, or your former colleagues on the Hill. His approval ratings have sunk even lower than those of the president he forced from office, and he’s lost the support of even his own party. During an interview on “The Colbert Report” — detail that drives home the season’s starting point in December of 2014 — Frank tries to play down the dissension in the ranks with a Beltway bromide: “I think it has been proved that both parties want the same thing.” Colbert shoots back, “A new president in 2016?”

Frank pitches his ambitious “America Works” agenda as a job-creation program akin to the New Deal, but in private, he’s planning to gut entitlements to pay for it. “They were the bedrock of the American dream,” he tells one agitated advisor, “but they’re not any more.” Although he proclaims his desire to leave a presidential legacy, he seems to stand for nothing at all. (In case we’ve forgotten what a disloyal sonofabitch Frank is, the season’s first scene ends with him pissing on his father’s grave; later, he uses the phrase “separate the wheat from the bullshit”.) Most of “Chapter 27” feels like table-setting: We learn that Frank is meeting with the Russian premier in two months time, which to judge from the episode capsules will be a major thread throughout the season; the wheels start turning to propose Claire for a U.N. ambassadorship, which will presumably require her to dye her hair brown at some point; characters like Jimmi Simpson’s computer hacker turn up just long enough for us to surmise we’ll see them again. There’s nothing like the shocker(!) that ended the first episode of Season 2, no equivalent of Zoe Barnes being pushed in front of a speeding train. Maybe that’s in Chapter 28.

Reaction to the “House of Cards” Season 3 Leak

Spencer Kornhaber, the Atlantic

This premiere is gloomier, slower, and far less fun. Yes, there’s an early moment of camp villainy that recalls the old “F.U.” cufflinks moment. And yes, David Fincher’s trademark prettiness is still there—the scenery shots look like museum photography, and faces are captured in aching detail; in one early scene the camera lingers close in on a distressed character’s eyes, to vibrant and disturbing effect. But now that Underwood must govern a nation, the intrigue is necessarily of a different, more delicate sort: The question isn’t how high he can climb, but whether it’s possible he could fall.

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