House of Cards Season 3 Is Compelling and Generally Too Much
There will be spoilers in this article. I’m saying that out of very generous courtesy, because if you can’t find a measly 12 hours in your Friday and Saturday schedule to bingewatch an entire season of one of television’s1 most exhilarating shows, then you deserve no mercy.
Let me begin by saying that at no point during my gruesome viewing marathon did I feel like I had to will myself to watch another episode. With the exception of a sluggish, overplayed focus on the rehabilitation of Doug Stamper in the first couple of episodes, the show is very exciting to watch. It delivers on its most pronounced strengths: electrifying dialogue, commendable acting, absorbing plot. Sticking to those guns made the third season, for lack of a more colorful word, good. Watchable, no doubt. By no means has the series lost its vigor and intensity; if anything, it has developed more.
The beauty in the first season of House of Cards — in my opinion, one of the most gripping seasons of TV drama one can find — is its simplicity. It’s nothing more than a chess game. On one side of the board, Frank and Claire Underwood, a couple bound by unbridled ambition. On the other side of the board, everyone who stands in their way. Their game strategy is calculated with utmost care and develops slowly, one move at a time, rarely hinting at their next move. They encounter occasional hitches, but always know how to respond. Lose a knight, take a bishop. Lose a queen, take a king. It is paced impeccably and keeps you on your toes, never sure what will happen next or how far the Underwoods are willing to go to secure their goals. (Spoiler: It’s killing people.)
The second season of House of Cards retains much of this quality, too (although not done quite as well, in my opinion). It’s probably unfair to hold the two seasons to the same standard, since the shock value of the first season raised the bar considerably. As Vice President, Underwood has more on his plate, and has a number of loose ends to address from his ascent to the position, but the plot still plays out as an unhurried battle of wits and strategy between the Underwoods and their obstacles to the presidency. It makes for another enthralling season of television drama.
In this third season, however, the pace quickens tremendously. It feels less like chess and more like basketball. Instead of playing the long game and adroitly building strategies to distract and deceive opponents, the Underwoods are frenetically setting picks and lobbing airballs before going back on the defensive. Not that this isn’t interesting in its own way — it turns out the Underwoods are much better at chess than basketball — but it feels busy. It feels hurried.
The main reason for this change of pace is simply that the showrunners tried to fit too much. Over the course of 13 episodes, Frank Underwood has to up his approval rating; pass an enormous job creation bill; negotiate a prisoner release; force cooperation with Russia; deal with an impending natural disaster; corral the United Nations into overruling a veto from the Security Council; diffuse an international crisis in the Middle East; attain his party’s nomination for reelection; engineer a ghost campaign for a Congresswoman so she can eventually endorse him; work with a biographer to build a piece of propaganda; deflect the persistent nagging of yet another hard-hitting journalist; convince a Supreme Court Justice to resign; appoint a new Supreme Court Justice; appoint his wife to Ambassador of the United Nations; appoint a new Chief of Staff; campaign for president; and hold together his increasingly fractured relationship with Claire. And that’s just Frank — Claire has a few subplots of her own, as does Stamper.
Sure, it’s understandable that things get a little hectic when you’re the president. The show was right to add more chaos to the equation. But instead of adding a healthy dash of chaos, we ended up with only chaos.
That’s not to say there weren’t elements of the show that shone brightly. Frank’s strained, tense relationship with Russian President Viktor Petrov was a definite highlight of the series. Petrov is cut from the same stock as the Underwoods; deceptive, ambitious, and very clever. Frank and Petrov go toe-to-toe on a number of the aforementioned issues throughout the season, including a crisis in the Middle East, the release of a prisoner, and Claire’s posting as UN Ambassador. It’s essentially an innocuous pissing match, in which they almost immediately turn inwards and piss on each other. At times, Petrov ends up on top. At other times, Frank ends up on top. They are well-matched and worthy foes. It’s the kind of relationship that captivates you, consumes you, makes you keep watching the show just to find out who lands which blow, much like Underwood’s adversarial relationship with Raymond Tusk in Season 2. Unfortunately, it was also only one element of the plot, and was entirely absent from the last few episodes of the season when the focus shifted toward Frank’s campaign for reelection.
We also met a new journalist in Season 3: Kate Baldwin, a deep digger with a distrust of Underwood’s politics. Baldwin is, by my count, the show’s fourth journalist character who threatens to or does publish unflattering information about Frank and Claire Underwood. At this point, it’s an exhausted plot device, used only to force Frank to either adhere to some level of accountability or find a way to silence the journalist (hint: it’s always the latter). Baldwin also fired up a relationship with Tom Yates, Frank’s biographer, but their relationship seemed to serve a purpose more of exposition than character development.
I want to reiterate that, on the whole, I did enjoy the third season of House of Cards. The character developments were generally meaningful, most notably Frank’s unmistakable transition from a “politician who isn’t afraid to play a little dirty” to “a tyrant who acts unilaterally and disrespects all those around him,” which, as you can imagine, has enormous repercussions. Frank and Claire’s troubled relationship grows ever more complex and uneasy. Stamper’s character is deepened, although the end of the third season puts him in basically the same place he always was. We get more insight into Remy and Jackie’s confused mutual feelings, and continue learning bits and pieces about smaller characters like Meechum, Seth Grayson, Cathy Durant, and the like.
When it comes down to it, Season 3 simply tried to do too much. The upside is that the audience doesn’t emerge feeling anything was left out. Hell, even ol’ Freddy made a few appearances. But the show feels scatter-brained and hectic, unlike the meticulous design of the last two seasons. Maybe it’s a deliberate reflection of the Underwoods being in over their heads as President and First Lady. Maybe it’s due to the absence of Stamper, the great architect of political manipulation, from Frank’s team. Whatever the reason may be, I already look forward to seeing how the show’s plot, characters, and pace continues develop in Season 4.