House of Cards Season 3 Review: A Second Take

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The fascinating rise and fall of Frank Underwood.

Please be advised that this post contains major spoilers from House of Cards’ third season.

Showrunner Beau Willimon has been quoted saying, “Politics is theater. It is all about perception.” As a character, Frank Underwood knows this all too well. For two seasons we’ve watched him worm his way through the upper echelons of the nation’s capital with slick talk, masterful manipulation, and a few calculated attack plans (RIP Pete Russo and Zoe Barnes). Still, even when he’s getting his hands dirty, he’s always thinking of how this will play out in the public eye. It’s served him well so far, as season 3 sees him sitting in the oval office. He’s finally made it to the top. Now, he has to take some real action, which, unfortunately for him, becomes his undoing.

As a series, House of Cards could not be more theatrical. Its mix of Shakespearean characterization and Greek tragedy themes are still very much intact this season, and the show constantly tiptoes on the line between captivating showmanship and outright melodrama. Frank continues to break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, clueing us in on his every move. Kevin Spacey is as electric as ever, and breezes through these scenes with his signature southern drawl.

Yet, Frank can’t get by on just his smooth moves anymore. As ruler of the free world, he needs to move mountains. Season 3 sees his attempts to create an America Works jobs program, and to ease tensions in the Middle East when Russia’s military becomes restless. His methods have always been very Machiavellian, but the difference now is that it’s harder for him to conduct business behind closed doors. Every step he takes is analyzed and, more often than not, ripped to shreds.

The America Works program highlights how Frank’s unorthodox tactics play out both amongst his colleagues, and in the public eye. Still, it’s his negotiations with Russia that are truly engrossing. Lars Mikkelsen plays President Putin Petrov with heady voraciousness, and his sparring with both Frank and Claire makes for some excellent scenes. In “Chapter 29,” his visit to the White House for a state dinner ends in somewhat of a frenzy, as he forces everyone to do vodka shots and kisses Claire in front of a room full of people. He’s much more thuggish in nature than Frank, and he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Really though, it’s his impact on Claire that’s the most mesmerizing. In the excellent “Chapter 32,” she visits an imprisoned gay rights activist (The Hurt Locker‘s Christian Camargo) who refuses to make a pre-written statement in exchange for his release. His words—along with his shocking suicide—leave such a strong impression on Claire, that she’s compelled to shame Petrov at a press conference the following day. It’s a bold move, and one Frank never saw coming.

This season, Claire become the moral foil to her husband’s shrewd manipulations. She advocates for diplomacy, which often leads to clashes between the two of them. Her crisis of conscious doesn’t mean she’s lost her icy edge, though. Robin Wright is absolutely flawless, imbuing Claire with a new kind of tenacity, and eventually despair, that’s endlessly magnetic. Look for a scene in “Chapter 31” in which she humiliates the Russian Ambassador in a women’s restroom. She may want to do things honorably, but she’s not above being ruthless.

The saying goes that behind every great man, there’s a great woman supporting him, and this season that great woman has had enough. Frank and Claire are at their best when they’re on a team, but the presidency has put them on an uneven playing field. Claire was never going to be just the First Lady. She wants more than to just read books to children and smile beside her husband. House of Cards is still brilliant at creating a slow and subtle buildup leading to an eventual explosion. We begins to see cracks in the facade of the Underwoods’ seemingly perfect marriage, until it finally comes crashing down.

Some cracks are larger than others. A chilling scene aboard Air Force 1 in “Chapter 33” ends in the following exchange:

Frank: I should’ve never made you Ambassador.

Claire: I should’ve never made you President.

The truth is, for all of Frank’s greatness, he’s nothing without Claire. That’s why the finale is so powerful. “Chapter 39” sees the President win one of the Iowa Caucuses against his rival Heather Dunbar (an exceptional Elizabeth Marvel), a woman who struggles with her own moral compass over the course of the season. Claire and Frank spend so much time trying to present a united front, that it’s volatile when the two of them are finally honest with each other that night in the oval office. She tells him that she wants more, and he says it’s not going to happen. Then Claire tells him she’s leaving him.

Though I’m sad to see one of TV’s greatest couples split apart, this daring move fully payed off. I’m beyond excited to see what Claire does now that she’s stepped out from under her husband’s shadow, and the two Underwoods at each other’s throats sounds truly unmissable.

The finale would’ve been perfect, had it not spent so much time wrapping up Doug Stamper’s revenge on Rachel. As it turns out, he didn’t die at the end of last season, and he spends all of this season doing…I’m not exactly sure what. His narrative arc is disjointed and keeps reverting back to square one. He seems like he’s going to redeem himself several times, even up until the finale, but he always falls back on his old ways.

The real problem, though, is that he’s just not a character I really care about anymore. His usefulness has always been to serve Frank, but on his own he’s not very impressive. Before her—wholly unnecessary—death, Rachel pleads with him, saying, “You don’t need to kill Rachel. She’s already dead. She died back in those woods.” I wish the same could’ve been said about Doug.

That being said, Doug’s nonsense plotline does little to tarnish the greatness of everything going on in the White House. Frank started out the season at the top, meaning there was nowhere for him to go but down. Now that he’s been knocked to his feet, however, I’m sure he’s going to hit back twice as hard. If his fight back up is even halfway as good as his fall, then I absolutely will be tuning in. Grade: A-


By Mike Papirmeister

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