House of Cards is dangerously close to being good TV. (Warning: if you haven’t finished your binge-watch by now, full spoilers ahead.)
House of Cards returns for Season 3 with a new sense of dramatic drive. Most of that has to do with everyone’s favorite criminal politician, Frank Underwood, positioning himself as President of the United States — thanks to some shrewd political maneuvering, blackmail, a wet mop of a former president, and plain dumb luck (or screenwriting convenience). Last year House of Cards fully embraced the tawdry, pulpy elements that had only simmered under the surface of its debut season. By letting the audience know that the show was fully aware of how absurd it could be, it gave showrunner Beau Willimon some creative firepower, now free from the constraints of the “prestige drama” label.
Yes, House of Cards is still the most elegantly produced and constructed piece of trash masquerading as art on television (that signature David Fincher look is still intact), but something rather surprising has happened – Season 3 actually borders on good dramatic television for over half of its 13 episodes. Frank Underwood and his wife Claire (who becomes a real power player this season) have a new spring in their step, and even when other elements of the show don’t quite work, their on-screen chemistry and prevailing battle of minds produces actual binge-worthy fireworks.
Season 3’s main narrative force is Frank dealing with the pressures of the presidency as his poll numbers are dismal (more so than any real sitting president in history), his own party resents him and wants to replace him, and the international community (specifically Russia) thinks he is a joke. Much of the season revolves around Frank trying to create a jobs program (“America Works”) by cutting “entitlements” like Medicare and Social Security. Never mind that any President, Democrat or Republican, who tried to do this in real life would be laughed out of the White House — Frank is trying to position himself as a new “New Deal” president. And then there is America’s strained relationship with Russia, which the show utilizes to brilliant effect and brings itself much closer to actual political reality than it has ever dared to do before (we even get Pussy Riot cameos!). Lars Mikkelsen as Russian President Victor Petrov makes an imposing stand-in for Vladamir Putin, and exudes 100 times more charm in the process. He is a foe equal to and possibly even greater than Frank on almost every level, and their scenes together are quite special for their intensity.
Claire Underwood, who was content to play Lady Macbeth the past two seasons, takes the reins of her own story as she desires more and more power, even positioning herself as ambassador to the UN. Robin Wright gets to shine brighter than ever before as her character moves from supporting player to true co-lead. When the dynamic of her strained relationship with Francis begins to shift, Claire becomes a dimensionalized character for the first time as she begins to reflect on the atrocities they have both committed to get to the power they don’t equally share. Season 2 began to set up Claire’s own awakening, but here in Season 3 the ball gets rolling rather rapidly, coalescing in the single greatest episode in House of Cards history.
Episode six (or “Chapter 32″) finds Claire and Frank in Russia negotiating the release of an American citizen and LGBT rights activist named Michael Corrigan (played with conviction by Christian Carmago), who was arrested during a protest under Russia’s horrendous (and dangerously real) anti-gay law. Rather than give in to Russian wishes by reading a false statement acknowledging his alleged crimes in order to secure his release, Corrigan decides to hang himself with Claire’s own scarf, as she sleeps quietly on his cell cot after hours of desperate pleading for him to give in and read the statement. It’s enough to send Claire over the edge and grow a conscience, as she admonishes the Russian president standing right beside her during a joint press conference. This sends Frank’s other negotiations with Russia into a tailspin, leading to Claire and Frank’s first real on-screen fight as he rips into her, declaring “I never should have made you ambassador.” Her reply? “I never should have made you president”. Ouch. Needless to say, episode six marks a turning point in their relationship that they will probably never recover from.
Spacey and Wright are better than they have ever been before, and much of that is due to the richer material given to them. There’s a lot for both of them to chew on, and the more strained their relationship becomes, the more heightened the drama becomes. The show is at its best when it’s focusing on just the two of them, and in the season’s final episode Spacey and Wright tear into each other with such ferociousness, it’s pretty damn uncomfortable to watch — that shot of Claire sitting behind the Oval Office desk is chill-inducing. Not since Season 4 of The Sopranos has marital bliss been eviscerated so effectively. (Spacey and Wright will both be in the hunt for Emmy victory, and at this point it’s embarrassing that Wright hasn’t won.) By the time Season 3 ends on its twist cliffhanger with Claire leaving Francis on the morning after his primary win, the thirst for Season 4 to immediately become available is insatiable.
While the rewarding power struggle between Claire and Frank makes up the bulk of the season, there are some unfortunate sub-plots that drag the proceedings to a crawl. Doug Stamper has survived his ordeal in the woods with Rachel and is now in physical rehabilitation, all the while trying to trace her whereabouts in order to tie up loose ends. Stamper has always had the emotional range of a lima bean, so watching him struggle through recovery and his weird family guilt is particularly painful. He’s just not very interesting, and the pitch at which actor Michael Kelly plays him makes for some lackadaisical and boring television. Just die already, Stamper. (Poor Rachel does meet an undignified end, but that last shot of her is darkly humorous.) We even have to sit through even more of the tedium that is hacker Gavin Orsay (played with puppy dog eyes by Jimmi Simpson), though he at least gets out of that nightmarish, heavy metal computer room and is used more effectively than last season. Other subplots and characters are better employed within the narrative, including senate whip Jackie Sharp and attorney general Heather Dunbar, who both find themselves running for the Democratic nomination for president against Frank Underwood. Their storylines will surely come more into focus in Season 4.
House of Cards has struck a chord with viewers due to the growing general public distrust of our own government, and as that distrust becomes stronger so does the show’s relevance. In Season 3 House of Cards has taken steps to align itself ever more closely to our current political reality, and because of that it has managed to elevate itself to a new plane. Its former DNA is still intact, but it’s beginning to mutate, and the show is now dangerously close to becoming what it has pretended to be all this time – great prestige television. It still has a ways to go before it gets there; many have said Season 3 felt like a transition season, and in many ways it is, but Beau Willimon and company should take that as a compliment. The stage has been set for next season (and hopefully beyond) to be something truly special. House of Cards is back, and better than ever.