Now that “House of Cards” weekend is officially over, and we’ve had one extra day to get back to our regular lives, let’s get to it. Two years after its hugely addictive beginning, when David Fincher was directly involved and stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright commenced the portrayal of Frank and Claire Underwood, the show has had a lot to live up to. The second season took significant liberties with viewer’s suspension of disbelief (that Meechum threesome, anyone?). All of a sudden, a show that so deliciously depicted the lives of sharks started to jump them with bizarre scenarios.
But the way the last season ended was certainly emphatic. After he successfully manipulated his way to the presidency, Frank’s signature double-knock ended things on a high note and begged the question, “is there any other way than down for the Underwoods?” While the third season cleverly side-steps that query with domestic and foreign issues (until it doesn’t), the show continued to provide too much space for the problems in Season 2; subpar subplots, weak supporting characters and an impulse to cover too much ground.
But! Like the slogan intoned by one of the show’s best characters, “it’s time to balance the scales.” While not without flaws,“House of Cards” is still worth a damn. Read on to see what I thought were the season’s strongest points, followed by weakest, and let me know what you think. Bear in mind; I try to stay away from the biggest spoilers, and I’ve marked the ones I think are huge. But there might be some you might consider spoilerish, so if you haven’t finished the binge, come back when you’re done.
What Held Up
After Kate Mara‘s Zoe Barns took her last trip to the subway, the show lost one of its strongest supporting female characters. Near the end of the second season, Solicitor General Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) was introduced as a ruthless, no-muss-no-fuss lawyer in charge of probing into a money laundering fiasco. It’s a good thing creator Beau Willimon saw the potential in the character and in Marvel’s portrayal, because she’s back with a vengeance. By the fourth episode, she’s played Frank like a fiddle and announces her candidacy for president in 2016. Unlike last season’s weakling President Walker (Michel Gill), it’s almost impossible not to root for Dunbar. She’s whip smart, always ready to tackle anything thrown her way, and has some of the juiciest lines of dialogue (“Is this how you live with yourself? By rationalizing the obscene with the palatable?”). Watch her play the political game like a pro when she convinces Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) to suspend her campaign in Episode 8, or how she holds her ground in Episode 11’s debate. She’s so good that I almost wished Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) stuck by her side. Also, it’s rare to have a character play by the rules (for the most part) in games this dirty and still be so interesting.
The Russian angle
Speaking of dirty, meet President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen). The biggest new angle Willimon and co. introduced in the third season is to take much of the political focus away from domestic issues and thinly-worn Republican-Democratic dynamics and into the foreign theatre. Contemporary issues like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and global organizations like the UN take center stage in the third season, but it’s Frank’s superpower foil Petrov who holds the most interest. Petrov becomes key in understanding Frank the man vs. Frank the ruler by the time the two have their final conversation in the Jordan Valley. Most of this is attributable to the enigmatic Mikkelsen, the Danish actor best known as the villain in the BBC‘s“Sherlock.”
With the first two seasons devoted to domestic issues, the show seems to breathe the freshest air whenever Petrov is involved, even taking the opportunity to set the sixth episode in Moscow. The tension between Frank and Petrov, the latter’s unpredictability, and the dynamic that develops between him and Claire is all much, much more interesting than anything involving Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) last season.
The direction, especially from Robin Wright, Agnieszka Holland, and James Foley (SPOILERS)
There’s writing and there’s directing. The direction of the show soars above the writing this season, but most especially when the people behind the camera are Wright, Holland or Foley. While Foley had the honors of directing the finale, the episode where he outdoes himself is the 6th, in which Frank and Claire fly to Moscow in order for Frank to finalize a deal with Petrov and for Claire to get gay rights activist Michael (Christian Camargo) released. Once Claire starts to confront Michael, the episode easily becomes the most engaging and thoughtful of the entire season at that point, and when Michael commits suicide with Claire’s scarf, I practically heard the metal of the show’s gears shifting. The close-up on Claire as the two presidents discuss how to handle Michael’s death as a matter of politics is perhaps the single greatest shot of the entire season.
But Foley’s other two episodes (5th and 13th) eat the dust of Holland’s 10th and 11th episodes, sandwiched between Wright’s 9th and 12th. The show’s finest examples of creative control are present in these four back-to-back episodes, which take all the wind from Foley’s finale. Scenes include: Doug’s drunken descent directed by Wright in Episode 9; a beautifully cinematic moment that sees Spacey’s broken reflection staring back at him as he says one of the season’s defining lines “sometimes I think the presidency is the illusion of choice,” directed by Holland in Episode 10; and a furiously engrossing debate between Dunbar, Claire and Jackie in Episode 11, directed by Holland.
Gender equality and identity, over lust for power
The themes of equality and identity, as directly related to Claire and Frank, have always been part of the show. But they’ve never threatened the omnipotence of its animating theme: the lust for power. Until now. There’re only so many episodes and seasons in which the old adage of “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” can be stretched, and it started to wear me down by the middle of the second season. When season three focused attention on Frank’s waining popularity and his new government-funded program, alarm bells rang off. But gradually the show’s axis began to tilt. From the smallest details, like the video game Frank plays as president in lieu of ‘Call of Duty,’ to some of the show’s most compelling moments, such as the final scenes of Episode 6, when Claire stands up to Petrov in a way Frank could never, and later spits back Frank’s vitriol with the crushing line “I should’ve never made you President,” one gets the sense that there has been a major thematic shift.
Supported by the strength of characters like Dunbar, riveting moments where gender equality hogs the spotlight like Episode 11’s debate, and every political scenario Claire finds herself in, the themes of “House of Cards” are built on gender equality and one woman’s identity crisis within what she thought was an equal partnership as much as power.
Claire & Frank (SPOILERS)
Which brings me to Claire and Frank, the show’s constant, impenetrable forces. Writing, direction, strong supporting characters, themes: it feels like all of these issues would be moot if the depth of their relationship, not to mention the continued acting mastery on display by Wright and Spacey, was anything other than stellar. This show has been there and done that with regards to the Underwoods’ paths to power, but the third season looks more inwardly than the previous two, and shows what weight the office of the POTUS has on their marriage and team spirit. It’s basically the only reason Paul Sparks’ Thomas exists. Introduced as a writer to cover the America Works program, he’s really there to reveal how true understanding of Frank only comes through understanding Claire. Once Frank realizes that, he fires Thomas, but it’s too late, because by then Claire has already shifted from being the show’s co-antagonist to being its protagonist; her final words,“I’m leaving you” functions as the sledgehammer Thomas was referring to in an earlier episode, triumphantly breaking the facade of their marriage.
Even subtle touches, like how Frank breaks the fourth wall much less often than in previous seasons (and even when he does, he’s no longer the mischief-loving Machiavellian figure he once used to be), or how the only double-knock in the entire season comes from Claire and not Frank, tells us that “House of Cards” isn’t really about politics, power or corruption, but rather about the evolution of a relationship, where for the very first time, it’s Claire who gets the final word.
And now for the handful of unfortunate circumstances, characters and techniques that threatened to completely topple this season…
News of Kim Dickens (whom you most recently saw in Fincher’s “Gone Girl” as the only detective worth a damn) joining the cast of “House of Cards” was met with much warmth. I couldn’t wait to see her own the politicos and Washington scalawags with her fantastically dead pan delivery. But not only did they take their sweet time introducing Dickens’ Kate Baldwin (her first appearance is in Episode 5), but once onscreen she barely moved a muscle. Other than that one time we see her following leads and bringing up dirt against Frank, Baldwin recedes into the shadows and gets character demotion by getting sidelined in a barely interesting subplot with Thomas. And it’s all the more disappointing when she gets introduced as an untouchable reporter who has Seth (Derek Cecil) by the balls, and is established to have a knack for relentless truth-digging, only to end up a non-factor for most of the season. Zoe 2.0 she is not, which is a miss of gigantic proportions.
Weak sub-plots and supporting characters (SPOILERS)
The ghost of Peter Russo still haunts. The amount of weak supporting characters and thin subplots can populate this entire side of the fence, so with the exception of Dickens above, it’s best to swat them all with a single stroke. When you have incredibly strong leads like the Underwoods and enticing situations on both domestic and foreign fronts, what good does it do to overstuff the show to the gills with ancillary characters and their tedious problems? Gavin (Jimmi Simpson) is back after he was forced to put Lucas in jail last season, and still works for the FBI. He keeps dragging the issue of his jailed friend all the way from season 2, back when no one could care less, and is tasked with finding Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), which allows for Lisa (Kate Lyn Sheil) to re-emerge and slow the entire season down. Meanwhile, the pangs of Remy’s (Mahershala Ali) and Jackie’s breakup and her subsequent marriage to a new guy only serves to remind us that Jackie and Remy are at their most interesting when in career-mode. Most egregious of all is the surprising return of Freddy (Reg E. Cathey). The bitter but staunchly realistic way things ended between Frank and Freddy in the second season is all but forgotten and they’re allowed to get back on friendly terms.
The caricature of Russia (SPOILERS)
Wait, hold on. I’m not flip-flopping! While the whole idea behind President Petrov and Mikkelsen’s snaky portrayal are excellent and hold the season up, there are an unfortunate number of moments when the behind-the-scenes agenda becomes clear and characterization turns into caricature. Petrov is introduced in Episode 3, where he is depicted in such a malicious light that Frank (a deplorable murderer, remember?) is allowed to have a heroic moment at the end. Petrov’s exaggerated flirtations with Claire, culminating in a kiss that borders on cartoonish, are followed by a moments when he scoffs at the importance of the UN in Episode 6 with a brisk “they mean nothing to me,” and a late political move when he orders the death of his own men only to blame it on America and Frank’s inability to be objective when it comes to his wife. Those are samples of instances when it feels like the creators of the show are trolling, using the unpopularity of Russia’s real life president as an inflammatory tactic for viewer investment. Oh, and if you’re looking for an authentic flip-fop, look no further than Russia’s UN ambassador Alexi (Alexander Sokovikov). Introduced as chauvinist pig only to turn into a victim by the end. Hmm..
Wobbly writing from the men
The direction may have reached new heights this season, so much so that I didn’t yearn for Fincher’s meticulous control from the show’s beginnings. But the writing? Different story. Series creator Willimon penned four episodes for the season (Episodes 1, 7, 12, and 13), but apart from some truly insightful lines (Frank telling Dunbar “you’re finally one of us, the men” comes to mind) and the show’s flashiest (and best) use of symbolism —the Tibetan sand painters in Episode 7— his episodes lacked the wonderful spark of previous seasons. This was mostly felt in the season’s lackluster and glacially-paced season opener.
Others, such as John Mankiewicz and Frank Pugliese, don’t fair well either as they both derailed the season from achieving greatness. Mankiewicz wrote Episode 2 and gave Frank the fantastic “you’re entitled to nothing” speech (boy, would I love to see Barack Obama give a speech like that!), but in the very same episode allowed lines like “money gives power a run, well, for its money” to be included. Pugliese wrote some of the show’s oddest moments (a completely, left-field, homosexually charged scene between Thomas and Frank in Episode 10, for example) and is the biggest culprit behind entry #3 on this side. Meanwhile, Melissa James Gibson (Episode 6 and 11, easily the two best episodes of the season) and Laura Eason (Episode 4) help keep the kind of writing integrity this show used to have in spades in Season 1.
Way too much investment with Doug and Rachel (SPOILERS)
This really pains me. The moment in Season 2 when Rachel runs away from Doug and leaves him for dead in the forest crushed me. I immediately Googled “is Doug really dead” followed by a thousand question marks, and most articles I found speculated that yes, Doug was dead. That was immediately put to rest by this season’s opener, as we spent a lot of time with recovering Doug. But what didn’t kill Doug didn’t make him stronger, because he’s one of the season’s biggest obstacles. In the first 10 minutes of this season, Doug smiles (and sobs!) more than he has in the entire length of the previous two seasons, which immediately makes you realize that this isn’t the old, apathetic Doug. We get more insight into a man whose lack of insight in previous seasons was exactly what set him apart and made him interesting. Part of the issues with the second season was his weird mom stuff with Rachel, and now they bring it all back, turning entire sub-plots (like the one involving his brother) into meek engagements at best and noticeable distractions at worst.
Even worse, everything involving his search for Rachel —Gavin’s ludicrous ways of getting sparse information from Lisa, Doug’s drunken breakdown when Gavin misleads him— has a “get over it already” feel. It drags on until the very last episode, when you realized that all of this should have been dealt with earlier. Aside from that brilliant cut at the end (thank you, James Foley!) when Doug changes his mind one last time, this is the worst subplot of all, and the fact that it runs for the entirety of the season, taking time away from Doug’s political chess plays with Dunbar and Underwood (you know, the stuff we love the guy for) is this season’s biggest misfire. Thankfully, it gets 100% resolved by the end, and with Doug squarely back in Frank’s camp, this will be like that Meechum threesome last season and we’ll never hear about it again. Let it be known, however, that none of this is directed at Michael Kelly, who does an amazing job for the third time in a row.
Seeing as how the season ends on a crucial moment in Frank’s career as president, and most importantly leaves his role as husband dangling over the edge, it’s very safe to assume that a fourth season is coming. With that in mind, you can read my points above as my advice for where to keep the focus and what to discard for next season. Most importantly and clearly of all is that there should be way more written episodes from Gibson and Eason.
It’s time for you to take to the comments, dear readers. What did you think of the season? Are you so done with “House of Cards?” Are you looking forward to the next season? Do you agree with my assessment above, or do you have some bones to pick? Take it away!