House of Cards Season 3 Review: Heroes and Villains

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Netflix’s Shakespearean political drama is back and, with Frank as president, bigger than ever. But the show’s third season puts each of its main characters under a moral microscope, eventually drawing lines between hero and villain. As the shades of grey veer toward light or dark, House of Cards makes some of its most daring and rewarding decisions. To put it frankly, this was one hell of a season. (BEWARE OF SPOILERS)

Frank Underwood is a bastard. The series never shied away from that. After the murders of Pete Russo and Zoe Barnes, it didn’t appear there was a line Frank wouldn’t cross. In season three, Frank’s last bit of humanity is tested as he betrays Claire time and time again. There’s no murder from Frank’s hands this season, but Claire’s life hangs in the balance due to his ignorance. There’s more than one not-so-subtle hint to the possibility of Claire committing suicide throughout the season, especially in the back half. Had she, it’d have been Frank’s fault.

But instead of going for another big, shocking death, Cards gave Claire a seasonal arc where she must achieve some form of clarity in her and her husband’s sinister actions. What’s Claire’s function now that her husband sits in the oval office? First Lady isn’t enough for her. Before one final argument, Claire sits in the president’s chair, staring off into the beyond, dreaming of a life in power. She wants the same thing as Frank.

Season three is Claire’s journey to become the hero of House of Cards. It’s a big transition for the character, and it’s certainly not a post she holds for the entire season.

For most of the 13 episodes, Heather Dunbar, whose role greatly expanded this season, looks to be the straight-as-an-arrow challenger to Frank for the 2016 presidential election. Dunbar does her best to run a clean campaign against the failing president, but eventually joins in the behind the scenes cock fight that is politics, just as Jackie Sharp did last season. But just when she turns the corner, Claire is ready to become the morally grounded character of the series.

Claire’s defiance toward her husband and strong will come to a head in the final moments of the season when she shockingly tells Frank that she’s leaving him, right before the New Hampsire primary. The season smartly builds Claire’s popularity among the public. She achieves a love from the American people that equates to what Michelle Obama has now. Frank can only dream of that high of an approval rating. Claire knows that leaving Frank will lose him the presidency, but she may have just won it for herself in a future election. Additionally, take her outspokenness to Russian President Viktor Petrov after an American gay rights activist being held in a Russian prison hangs himself in his cell. “This wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for you,” she says on a microphone on national television. Frank even says himself looking at the headlines the next morning, “They’re calling you quite the hero.” And they should be. Claire put aside the politician facade and stood up to a nation’s leader that cost an American life over what should have been a non-issue.

Throw in Frank’s controlling, borderline-sexist maneuvering of his wife throughout his campaign, and her release from his clutches feels like a stand for all women. Claire won’t stand for First Lady. Why should she? Mrs. Underwood played an equal part in putting Frank in the oval office. She deserves the rewards he’s reaping as the leader of the free world. By the end of the season, Claire knows she’s never going to get them at Frank’s side. Their marriage turned destructive once he became president, so there is absolutely no reason she should stay. Claire Underwood is a hero for refusing to accept the role politics put her in and striving for everything. This season may very well turn the icy, Washington darling into a feminist icon.

Sadly, to move away from the masterful political interplay and character work this season, we have to talk about Doug. Yes, Doug, who looked very dead in the second season finale, is in fact very alive. Throughout the season, we’ll watch him recover from his head injury, struggle with sobriety, and finally continue his arc with Rachel. It’s the worst part of the season, undercutting everything brilliant about the story of the Underwoods. I can’t believe it took a whole season to find Rachel and enact his revenge. Did it have to be such a prominent part of the finale though? Before these characters leave us until some February weekend in 2016, the last thing I want to see is Doug’s drawn out subplot concluding in an even more drawn out manner. It’s a black mark on an otherwise pretty much perfect season of television.

Luckily, it still doesn’t change the fact that House of Cards is easily one of the best shows out there right now. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright continue to deliver outstanding work as their characters’ marriage burns in a pit of lies and selfishness. The politics were bigger and more interesting than ever, thanks to the season focusing in on the role of Commander in Chief. The wait to season four is going to be a long one, but this is a season worth rewatching just to see the seeds planted throughout for Claire’s monumental arc. I hope to see the day we get President Claire Underwood in office. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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