This is your first and only warning. There will be spoilers below. Although, since the entire third season of House of Cards has now been out for almost a month, I’m not sure whether I still have to warn people about spoilers. Netflix has ruined spoiler etiquette and changed the whole way we communicate about recently aired T.V. programmes. Honestly, though, if you haven’t finished it by now I’d say you’re probably never going to.
This actually leads me very nicely into the beginning of my House of Cards season 3 review. It all stems from the ‘I-finished-it-in-12-hours’ statements that all television junkies can now make since Netflix made binge watching an art form. I actually did finish season 1 of House of Cards in twelve hours, give or take. It changed me. I am not being over dramatic… (maybe slightly over dramatic). In all seriousness though, watching the first season of House of Cards was like running a marathon. It was difficult, I found myself out of breath but I couldn’t stop. I was carried along by the incredible pacing and momentum. It was fresh, original, it gripped you and it wasn’t letting go anytime soon. I think that’s why I fell for it. I got lost in the deceits, lies and triumphs and I couldn’t wait for season 2. In the second season, it was more of the same. Claire became much more of a focus, we saw power dynamics shift and Frank began to unravel. Beau Willimon took our underdog characters and either killed them, or made them stronger (I’m still not over Zoe). It lived up to the first season hype because the momentum kept moving. By the end of season 1, Frank is the Vice President. By the end of season 2, Frank is the President. So where could season 3 go? The entire trajectory of House of Cards is Claire and Frank climbing up the ladder, taking more and more, never giving anything away. Once they achieve the Presidency though, surely the only way is down?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Not necessarily for Frank and Claire, but for the show itself. It took me two weeks to get through season 3. It’s not so much that it took me longer than the other two seasons, more that watching the show began to feel like a burden. Whilst I had sprinted through season 1 and 2 as if Netflix was going out of business, I coasted through season 3 with no real urge to finish it. By the end, I only kept watching out of a sense of obligation – ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’. It was thoroughly disappointing, House of Cards had been visionary in it’s previous seasons. I had to work out what had gone so terribly, terribly wrong.
To recap, we ended season 2 with Frank doing his trademark fist-pump to the table in the Oval office. He has made it. He has made it all the way to the top, without a single vote cast in his name. It’s pretty impressive. In other news, Rachel whacked Doug over the head with a large brick. Lucas is in prison after internet whizz kid Gavin Orsay and Doug schemed to put him there. A lot of other political moves are made, but these are the only ones that bear any importance when moving on to season 3. Lucas is gone, Rachel is gone, Doug might be dead and the Underwood’s have made it. Season 3 basically charters Frank and Claire’s struggle to stay in power and the power struggles within their marriage. It has good moments, but it clearly struggles. Let me take a minute to explain why.
Frank and Claire’s relationship
The main focus of season 3 was the deterioration of Frank and Claire’s relationship. Or should I say business partnership? This distinction immediately presents a problem, primarily because the Underwoods relationship has previously been presented as very aromantic and business-like (we never see them kiss, the only insinuation at sex was with Meecham involved). This season, however, we saw the Underwood’s undergo an enormous strain on their partnership and Claire, in particular, became far more emotionally invested in Frank. There was that weird sex scene where, I assume, Claire’s vagina restores Frank’s power and makes him a ‘man’ again. Claire and Frank have never seemed to need romantic or emotional love from each other so this odd sex scene seems only to insinuate the emasculation of Frank – he is a man and he needs sex? I’m not entirely sure…
Other than that, the Underwood’s issues were all relatively expected. It was interesting to watch the power dynamic between them and also interesting to finally understand what it was that Claire was getting out of this partnership. We always knew Frank would be the President and I think it was pretty obvious that Claire would never settle for just being the First Lady, but her ultimate goal of serving as a councillor for the UN seemed a little weak. I strongly believe Claire aspires to more than that, possibly the presidency for herself, but this is certainly not something revealed in this season. It seems that Claire’s hopes and dreams were at the UN, so when she is forced to resign, this clearly creates a lot of friction between her and Frank.
Claire, as a character, also completely changed this season. This is probably one of my biggest gripes with season 3. Claire, previously, had been this fantastic matriarch – the evil feminine counterpart to Francis ‘sinister’ Underwood. This is Claire, the woman who had no quarms with ‘letting your child wither and die inside you if that is what’s required [sic]’. This woman was a stone cold bitch. I loved that a character like Claire could exist. She’s no feminist, but it’s incredibly feminist that she can grace our screens. Women can be evil too, and it has nothing to do with their gender. Season 3 Claire, though, was totally different. She became emotional about her marriage, she was bad at her job and she let Frank walk all over her. She also became incredibly involved with freeing an LGBT protester from a Russian prison. Yes, it’s morally right and it’s definitely what ‘should’ be done, but would Claire Underwood do it? Sacrifice her job and everything her and Frank had worked for? I don’t think so.
Doug’s obsessions; alcohol and Rachel
I never cared much for Doug Stamper, and I still don’t. It’s not that I don’t like his character, or even because I think he is morally corrupt. Doug never really developed or changed as a character in the first two seasons, other than being outed as the worlds biggest creep, so it was refreshing to focus on on his rehabilitation in the first episode. His recovery could have held some real weight in the series and could have been the potential catalyst for Doug to break out of the manipulative relationship he has with Frank. Instead, Doug slips back into pining after Rachel and the hard stuff.
To start with, the alcoholism storyline is pretty much recycled from the Peter Russo story arc in the first season. True, it’s not exactly the same but it does feel very similar and overused. Strangely, Frank and Doug actually reference the similarities between Doug’s circumstance and what eventually became of Russo, and Frank reassures Doug that he won’t be another ‘Peter Russo’. Ironicly, he already is. Doug has survived, but the cost of this survival is being completely reliant on Frank. This abusive relationship has been intriguing, but season 3 gave little advance or growth. Which brings me on to the Rachel situation. Presumably, killing Rachel was a way of proving to the audience that Doug will do anything for Frank – even at his own emotional expense. Didn’t we already know this though? His willingness to screw over Heather Dunbar demonstrates just how conditioned he is to impress Frank. It’s a messed up father complex. We didn’t learn anything new by Doug killing Rachel, we have already been given enough indications that a) Doug is absolutely psychotic and b) Doug will do anything to stay as Frank’s right hand man. Also, to bring back a really complex and strong character just to simply kill her off (in turn, enriching a male characters story) sounds a lot like the women in fridges trope to me.
Throughout seasons 1 & 2, Rachel was an interesting deviation from the main focus of House of Cards and developed into a real character in her own right, not just someone in our peripheral. She was someone that we could really connect with and identify with, and helped us see Doug and Frank for what they really were – murderers. Not to mention Rachel and Lisa’s relationship, which had to be one of the healthiest portrayals of sexuality that I have seen in a long time. To be honest, throwing Rachel to the curb was a waste of a perfectly could character, who had the potential to grow with the series. Boo.
The Jordan Valley/Russia storyline could easily have been one of most intriguing and gripping of season 3. The stand off between Frank and Petrov (or should that be Putin) began as callous and calculated, but became incredibly farcical very quickly. The strength of House of Cards has always been its subtlety, it alludes to real life situations and allows the audience to decipher what that means for Frank. Instead, we spend several episodes watching a parody of President Putin, strut around smoking cigars and kissing Claire. The only real gravitas the Petrov plot held was to propel Claire and Frank further apart. There were moments of real tension; Claire and Frank’s discussion aboard Air Force One regarding her dismissal as UN Ambassador, but for the most part it felt almost comic. The Russian accents were dodgy at best, and the Israeli Ambassador portrayal (Eliana Caspi) was almost offensive.
In addition to this, the politics of the Jordan Valley crisis felt immature and under researched. I was in no way convinced that anyone in the White House really understood what was going on, least of all Frank. For all of Frank’s wrongdoings and mistakes, I find it hard to believe that he would be clueless about potential warfare. The numerous discussions between Petrov and Frank felt incredibly cyclical, the only conclusion to them being the firing of Claire from the UN. How convenient. I know Petrov is a dick but is that really his only political motivation? Remove Claire to destroy Frank? Maybe he is right, but it feels like Petrov gains nothing from this move, only to piss Frank off. Frank never seems to be a legitimate threat to Petrov, so why spend so much time simply trying to fuel the fire between Claire and Frank?
Also, Pussy Riot? Why would Petrov bring them to America with him? Are they friends now? Does any of this make any sense? Here’s a great article highlighting the similarities between actual Russia and House of Cards Russia.
And the rest…
As far as the Tom Yates/Kate Baldwin plot goes, I’ve already forgotten 90% of it. That’s how memorable it was. Tom Yates is our new ‘innocent’, our new Zoe Barnes or Lucas Goodwin. Someone who isn’t in Frank’s political circle or in politics at all. An outsider, like ourselves. We gain access to Frank through them, and it helps to keep morality in perspective. Since both Zoe and Lucas met considerably nasty ends, it was very difficult to identify with Tom. I was sure he would be bumped off the minute Frank and him disagreed – especially after the not-handholding scene. I’m not quite sure to what end bringing in Kate as a love interest served; it certainly didn’t make either of them anymore likable or believable.
We also lost Frank’s interaction with the audience this season. Normally, the audience is a character in itself; partly Frank’s confidente and partly someone Frank can show off to. There was a mere handful of glances to the camera this season, and Frank shared barely anything with the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is one of the reasons we feel so invested in the show and this season, for some reason, Frank stopped talking to us.
There were a few good moments in season 3, for all my complaining. America works, although I never want to hear those two words again, was an interesting concept and gave Frank some actual character depth that we hadn’t seen before. Frank’s working class background hasn’t really been addressed, other than going back to Gaffney once or twice, and America Works gave us an idea of how Frank would work as the President. Subtly, it also suggested that perhaps America Works was not actually about employment, but more about Frank’s desperation to leave a legacy – for better or for worse. This doubt about Frank’s true intentions is one aspect of why House of Cards worked so well in the past. To only be allowed a taste of it the duality this season was disheartening. Similarly, both Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp held interesting positions throughout the previous series, and had the opportunity to come into their own in season 3. Dunbar provided a moral opposition to Frank, someone who might actually be able to do good in the White House, instead of pining for power. The Democrats televised debate was arguably the best scene of the series, in my opinion, and it really showcased the strength of both Jackie and Heather’s characters. Jackie wants to do the right thing, and has the sensibility to get out from underneath Frank before he disposes of her first. Dunbar is the complete opposite of Frank, and comes off better for it. I’ll watch the fourth season if only to see what happens to Heather Dunbar; if the writers have any sense, they won’t be finished with her yet.
In the end, the third season just lacked the ambition and the momentum of the two that had gone before it. It had a lot to live up to, and I was really hoping that ‘House of Cards’ wouldn’t burn out so early, but it certainly feels like it has. I feel like a mother whose university educated child has dropped out only to come home and spit in my face. Maybe I’m being extreme, but when House of Cards first aired, I recommended it to everyone. You couldn’t have a conversation with me without me bringing it up, and consequently pinky promising me that you would watch it. I guess the word I’m looking for is disappointed. Season 3 could have been great but instead, it was (at best) average. Very disappointing.