House of Cards, Season 3 Review

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(The following is a comprehensive review of Season 3 (Chapters 27-39) of House of Cards. It contains spoilers. If you haven’t watched and plan to do so, proceed at your own risk. You’ve been warned.)

For many of you, here’s the good news: House of Cards is still very much House of Cards. For others of you, here’s the bad news: House of Cards is still very much House of Cards.

Sometimes we must be ruthless with those who hate us, and sometimes we must be ruthless with those we love. (Viktor Petrov – Chapter 36)

Amidst its 13 new episodes, House of Cards spans the entire yard stick between being outstandingly entertaining and mind bogglingly mediocre, but that’s no change from the first two years of Netflix’ flagship original series. As season two concluded, Vice President Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) ascended to the Oval Office as a result of President Garrett Walker’s (Michel Gill) resignation. Walker was a truly hideous character, written so unbelievably toothless that he’d have no need for a dentist, like a bald man naming his favorite barber. But I digress…

To put himself in position to take the most important job on the planet, Frank literally murdered a fellow politician and a potential threat in the new media, engaged in scheme after underhanded scheme, and made mincemeat out of what amounted to a group of useless idiots inside the Washington D.C. beltway. Spacey’s performance has been the subject of widespread debate over the past few years, but it echoes the same polar opposite opinions that have defined House of Cards since Beau Willimon and David Fincher first placed it on our streaming screens in 2013.

Spacey has been one of the most sought after and well-respected actors in the industry for over two decades, stretching all the way back to GlenGarry Glen Ross in 1992. He received heavy acclaim for Fincher’s film, Seven, and The Usual Suspects, both of which released in 1995. The resume is highly impressive. Hell, even K-Pax was an awesome movie. He’s already won a Golden Globe for House of Cards for the ultimate ham performance as Frank Underwood, and he’s been nominated twice for an Emmy. Knowing nothing else, on its face, take this giant acting talent, put him next to an actress, Robin Wright, who can give him a run for his money and also has a Globe win and Emmy nom under her belt, and you’re all set. David Fincher directs the pilot and stays on as executive producer. Beau Willimon adapts a British series taken from a successful trilogy of Michael Dobbs novels. This thing can’t possibly fail, right?

The answer is no, no it can’t. Success, however, doesn’t mean a show is particularly good. House of Cards is usually pretty good, sometimes very good, but it’s rarely great. There are many examples of popular shows that stunk but were on forever. By no means is it a terrible show, but it’s polarizing, and while the public seems to accept it in droves, many critics have ripped it to shreds. I was more in the “like it quite a bit” camp, not hating its guts by any means but always finishing a season and feeling a tinge of emptiness to the proceedings. On Friday, I watched all 13 episodes of Season 3 and my reaction was confusion. Did I like what I just saw or was it unimpressive as a whole?

What we learned in 2015’s House of Cards is what we already knew in 2013. At the end of Season 3, the reveal wasn’t particularly shocking and didn’t elicit the reactions of some of the bigger moments of the series. There was no scene akin to Zoe Barnes and the subway or Peter Russo in his garage. What were available in spades, however, were the trappings of bureaucracy and insider politics, red tape and backroom deals, and a few new acting additions that stood out in a big way.

In the first few episodes, we see a subdued Frank Underwood embroiled in a chaotic interim term as the 46th President of the United States. His approval ratings are in the toilet, he hasn’t been able to turn anything around, he’s lost his party’s support, and shortly thereafter, Democratic leadership sits him down, urging him not to run for re-election in 2016. He sobs next to his bed as he fails to attract any big campaign money that could help him, and his wife throws him a bone as she takes off her pants and…lets him throw her a bone. Hopefully you laughed there, because the scene itself is as uncomfortable, cold, and flat as you could possibly imagine a sex scene to be.

This couple has zero chemistry as husband and wife. As an acting pair, they’re dynamite. Back to Frank and Claire, though, they don’t even like each other anymore. It’s not even feasible to believe they love each other. That’s not bad acting or bad writing. That’s the reality of a made-for-Washington marriage, mutually beneficial professionally and socially, but mutually miserable in private. In the first season and throughout much of the second, Frank and Claire did seem to enjoy each other’s company and respected each other’s intellect. They used the term love, though it was often in opportunistic fashion. In Season 3, the gloves come off.

Throughout most of the back half of the season, the rift between Frank and Claire (Wright) deteriorates in spectacular fashion, first driven by Claire’s desire to be more than just the First Lady. Her wish to exist on her own, independent of her husband’s stature, is the first step towards the downfall. She decides she wants Francis to nominate her as Ambassador to the United Nations. During her confirmation hearings, a grandstanding Republican, played by The Shield’s Benito Martinez, raises her ire and forces her to make the unfortunate statement that “the military is irrelevant”. It’s taken completely out of context, and largely helps defeat her bid, which fails 52-48. She then asks her husband to issue a recess appointment for her once Congress goes home, which he does. He’s now shown favoritism in front of the nation and in front of Washington, neither of which are in his favor. As a result of a near international incident in Russia, she ends up resigning, but resents her husband after the fact.

Robin Wright is superb in Season 3, overshadowing Spacey, who is also, as always, very good. Claire at times elicits sympathy, but not consistently, because she’s a pretty horrendous, extremely selfish woman. That’s a blunt statement, but it’s accurate, only because nearly every character in House of Cards is a complete piece of trash. She’s not the worst, but she’s pretty close. You can sympathize with her, but it crumbles around her posh lifestyle and her stature. It’s hard to buy the argument that she made sacrifices, even if she did. They’re all politicians, they’re lobbyists, they’re abused spouses, girlfriends, or the occasional hooker paid to sternly grasp a politician’s anatomy while he uses a needle to squirt the taste of bourbon into his mouth. You know that last part is true, because who would make it up?

The season is about Claire Underwood and her realization that she’s always going to be the subordinate, unless she either kills her husband, submarines his career, or leaves him. Her actions as Ambassador show her to be both unqualified and impulsive, but in defense of the portrayal, that’s probably the way it should have been written. She’s flawed, just like her husband, just like everybody she meets, even the mother on the campaign trail who talks of occasionally fantasizing about smothering her new daughter to get her own life back.

Season 3 is also about Frank Underwood’s fight for a respectable approval rating and a chance at re-election. He pushes a new left wing initiative, America Works, which pledges ten million new jobs, government sponsors of course. It’s liberal and he uses the New Deal to help define it, but the expense is a conservative concept, ending entitlement programs, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As expected, that doesn’t go over well in Washington, but the public does seem to respond. To fund AmWorks, Underwood controversially reallocates FEMA funds, eventually having to reverse course due to impending inclement weather. AmWorks severs his ties with Democratic leadership. My main issue with AmWorks is I have no idea how it could possibly work in practical usage. I know it’s a television drama, but it’s a program that doesn’t seem to make sense. It’s barely ever explained, and just kind of sits there like an enigma. Maybe that’s the point. A lot of government promises on both sides of the aisle don’t really add up.

Frank hires a popular fiction author, Thomas Yates, who Underwood remembered for writing an inspired review of the mobile video game, Monument Valley. The game, by the way, does have good reviews on the AppStore, but the main criticism is its length. It can be completely beaten in around 40 minutes. Pretty funny as Frank asks a fellow staff member, “Do you play Monument Valley?” It might be more accurate to ask if the man HAS played Monument Valley.

Thomas is supposed to sell AmWorks and re-energize Underwood’s positive attributes. A bit further down the line, Yates admits to Frank that he stole the manuscript of his best friend and finished it after the man died. That book, “Scorpio”, became a huge success, but it was built on a lie and Yates took all the credit. Later, he informs Frank that he used to be a gay male prostitute and House of Cards teases an Underwood-Yates night of passion. Oh, and he’s also a recovering junkie and he’s sleeping with a reporter. He becomes a caricature of a troubled man, as if a bunch of writers were in a roof describing potential Thomas Yates blemishes and they finally just said screw it and green-lighted all of them.

The most enjoyable, compelling parts of Season 3 are the additions of Lars Mikkelsen and Kim Dickens. Lars, brother of Hannibal (a better show) star Mads Mikkelsen and the baddie in Season 3 of Sherlock, to me deserves serious consideration for a Best Supporting Actor or Guest Performance Emmy. His work as Russian President Viktor Petrov was extraordinary. Petrov, who is supposed to at least evoke thoughts of Vladimir Putin, is paranoid, he’s arrogant, he’s dangerous, and he’s truly evil. He, just like Putin, is presented as extraordinarily intelligent and calculating in his decisions. Mikkelsen’s performance had far more depth and richness than Spacey’s, but Petrov was a much superior character to Underwood in virtually every scene the two had together. Much of that comes down to the writing and the difference in screen time. Petrov was the best part of the entire season, along with Michael Kelly, but more on him in a minute.

Kim Dickens (Deadwood, Treme) makes everything she’s associated with better immediately. When she arrives as the tough-nosed reporter for the Telegraph, back from London, who joins the White House press corps, the media side of House of Cards becomes far more entertaining. She’s believable as Kate Baldwin from the first second she’s on screen. Baldwin is no nonsense and very good at her job, not afraid to ruffle feathers in the briefing room or on Air Force One. I will say that the longer the show goes without her, the more I wish Zoe Barnes was still with us, because Kate Mara’s character was so interesting, her work was so powerful, and I loved the idea of Slugline. We’re back to more standard or old media now, which feels outdated. That said, Kim is an applause-worthy addition.

Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), who we’ve known for a while on the show, has the most natural evolution of any character in the entire three season run, going from lobbyist to consultant to Chief of Staff and then, by choice, out of Washington and in love. Remy represents everything we should support as an audience, partially spurred by the show’s moral compass, Freddy (Reg E. Cathey). No more rib joints and soothsaying moments, but Freddy understands that his societal place has been decided. He tells his grandson not to dream of being President, not to let fantasies exist in his mind. He can dream, but dream in reality. This is the House of Cards vision of the fallacious American experiment and the failures of the current system. It doesn’t require anyone to believe Freddy, but simply to realize that his way of thinking does exist in this country and isn’t a radical opinion anymore.

Chapter 37, which featured the debate between Underwood, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), and Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), was the best of the season. It was written well, it was fun to watch, it moved quickly, and it showed the deeper motivations of everyone we’ve been watching for the past ten hours. Incidentally, Marvel and Parker were both terrific throughout the season. Parker was arguably the breakout star of Season 2 and the Jackie Sharp character continues to shine. Dunbar at first appears to be the real deal, a long time Supreme Court solicitor general who polls well and decides to run against the incumbent. But, by the end, she’s just like everyone else, issuing threats and wiling to destroy the First Lady’s private life to strong-arm Frank into dropping out of the race.

The problem with some of the middle ground of House of Cards is it relies on merely positioning its characters because those fictional creations are concerned with positioning themselves to make whatever big move is left in their arsenal. As a result, plenty of things happen that really don’t mean much, except to put people in quadrants for the finish. It’s the same as the throwaway episodes of a 24-episode network drama. Both strategies are done more for filing time than distributing compelling television. Almost every show does it, but Cards tends to do it a bit more often than it should.

There was less filler in Season 3 because the show wasn’t building to some “holy bleep” moment that would have us talking around a water cooler (if that kind of thing still happened). While there was another egregious murder, it wasn’t striking or shocking, because we’re conditioned to see seemingly normal people do despicable things. This was a more reasoned season relative to its pace. It moved smoothly and didn’t have the weird episode about a Gaffney peach (which I liked, maybe because I drove by it every day for years) or the Season 2 funeral (which I didn’t particularly enjoy). However, it did have Douglas Stamper.

Douglas Stamper (Kelly) was left for dead in the woods in the second season finale after having his head bashed in with a brick by Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), who he was either obsessively stalking or protecting, depending on who you ask. If you ask anyone other than Stamper, he’s a borderline psycho, but he’s either in love with Rachel or a sketchy father figure. Much of the Season 3 opener is focused on Stamper’s recovery and the beginnings of his physical therapy. He survived the attack. We’re reminded of his former problems with alcohol and other addictions, which make the whiskey needle scenes important, as he still needs that taste to fight his urge. Two Douglas Stamper figures emerge during the season, a narrative choice that starts out much better than it finishes. The first Doug wants back into Underwood’s inner circle or back in politics as a whole, even flirting with the idea of aiding Heather Dunbar. The second envies his brother, who is married, has started a family, and lives a normal, happy life. The reason for the dichotomy seems to be so that the audience can see Stamper struggling between a life in politics and a life in the private sector.

In House of Cards, politics and those involved are scumbags, which we talked about earlier. It’s not far off from the reality, regardless of your affiliation, but there’s very little complexity to the depiction. Before falling back into the Washington intoxication for good, Stamper tells his brother, Gary (Kelly AuCoin), that the eight weeks the two spent together after Doug fell off the wagon were the happiest of his life. Gary’s family visited and he was able to play with his brother’s children, to be with them, to meet them, to experience what that existence would be like. Much of the problem with a life in the federal government is that politicians, through the campaign process and the constant electioneering, lose touch with America and live in the D.C. bubble. House of Cards treats that reality as biblical truth, fire and brimstone-style, and then takes a razor blade to the face of anyone who doesn’t buy that every last stinking one of them is a soulless monster.

Stamper, who continues to try and locate Rachel through the help of a shady hacker (Jimmy Simpson), is constantly challenged to make a decision on whether he’s a decent man or a malevolent force and a morally repugnant person. After he takes the Voldemort path, he chases her down in New Mexico, buys the seediest white van I’ve ever seen this side of a Ted Bundy docudrama, purchases acetone and bottled water, and plans his Dexter Morgan moment. He makes the girl urinate in her clothes, not allowing her to use the restroom, then digs her grave. After a momentary tinge of conscience, he kills her and buries her. As an allegory, I get it. As an actual character, it’s ridiculous. Stamper is Underwood’s bagman, but he’s also now just fine being a killer, and dresses like he’s on the way to a string of unsolved homicides, or a Mississippi fishing trip. Throughout all of this, Michael Kelly is, in a word, fantastic. He’s never boring; he becomes the late-stage Walter White of House of Cards. How it will end for him, eventually we may find out. For now, he finishes up as the President’s Chief of Staff and Gary is in his rear view.

Originally, my expectations for House of Cards were that Frank would be VP to end the first year, President to end the second, and in the final season, he’d either be killed or would be outsmarted. He’d be the final card to fall in someone else’s house. Then the show became extremely successful and the lead cast didn’t run back to Hollywood. Robin Wright, who directed an episode last year, directed two this year. Spacey is a consulting producer. House of Cards is a brand and not a limited series. There’s no shortage of money to pay the actors. It’s one of the slickest looking television shows in history. Award voters are ready to shower the program, even if undeserving.

We live in a Shonda Rhimes era of television. Whether you’re a Grey’s girl, a Scandal gladiator, or one of Viola’s students, chances are you’re either watching one of those shows or one of their derivatives on another network. She’s known for success, but also for the return of the true primetime soap opera, a never-ending spiral of treachery. House of Cards isn’t even in the same league as The West Wing, but at times, it’s very much reminiscent of the most preposterous portions of Scandal. The protagonist, Underwood, is such a scoundrel, written so comically over the top, that it’s hard to take the role and the performance seriously. Politicians may be evil, they’re assuredly vindictive and much more concerned with re-election than actual governance, but in Season 3 of House of Cards, Frank Underwood LITERALLY breaks a ceramic Jesus Christ into several pieces after spitting in its face.

Late in the season, Frank Underwood screams at his wife like a soon-to-be domestic abuser, grabs her jaws hard, perhaps better described as clinching her face, and tells her she’ll do anything he demands. He’s killed a man via carbon monoxide poisoning. He’s thrown an opportunistic, young journalist, in front of a subway train. He’s approved the murder of a witness to other criminal activities. He’s decimated the lives of countless colleagues. He is Satan, but not believably Satan. Shawn Ryan’s Vic Mackey was a believable Satan. Beau Willimon’s Frank Underwood is Gargamel in a Washington world filled with prickish Smurfs.

It’s arguably the most visually stunning drama, aesthetically, of all-time. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Jeff Beal’s score is fantastic, and, although they could stand to back off the bed music during soft dialogue, it does set the mood. But, the drama itself can be less than ideal, because it’s presented in such an over-emotionalized, end of the world fashion. It loses quite a bit of its credibility in many sequences. In the end, we’re left trying to decipher where Frank and Claire will be and what collateral damage is left in their wake. In the first two seasons, Frank outwitted morons. These weren’t savvy, smart people. It wasn’t shocking to see Underwood on top, nor to predict how he would get there, because we too would have outsmarted the empty simpletons in even emptier suits. Season 3 does provide much better opposition, particularly from Dunbar, and was thus much more plausible on that front.    

As the credits rolled on Chapter 39 (S3E13), I said out loud, “That’s it?” After all the spinning around in circles, hanging out in bunkers in the Middle East, watching a gay activist hang himself with Claire’s scarf, following Stamper the murderer, dealing with a Supreme Court Justice’s Alzheimer’s, and seeing Frank’s bisexuality re-emerge, the final scene simply shows Claire announcing to Frank that she isn’t going to New Hampshire as planned and is in fact, leaving the marriage. A whole lot of ish went down to get us through the run-up and finish to the Iowa primary. The cliffhanger leaves everything completely up in the air. Nearly half a day of scripted content and at the end of it, we get a potential divorce. That’s it. See you in 2016. So was it worth it?

The short answer, after all 13 new chapters, is I enjoyed my time watching the story play out, but I also recognized a lot of it was patently absurd and in many cases, that stuff was written in the simplest, most mind-numbing way possible. The Russian storyline was very entertaining, as were many of the tales of The Wild World of Douglas Stamper, but the cliffhanger lacked any sense of bite. Rachel’s murder bothered me tremendously because it was such a basic television drama thing to do and felt cheap and salacious for those purposes alone. Think Huck’s lowest moments on Scandal. If you liked House of Cards before, you’ll still like it. If you hated it, you’ll have plenty of ammunition to back your stance. For me, I’ve always liked the show, particularly the first season, but as desperately as I want to love it like a newborn child, and as impressed I am by the cast, the cinematography, the editing, the subject matter, and the talent involved, I can’t get past the “like quite a bit” stage yet. I’d definitely date her seriously though. I might even meet her parents.

She’s doing crazy business for Netflix. She’s a big time star, but she’s a little more Blake Lively than Jennifer Lawrence or Cate Blanchett. She’s Margot Robbie, drop dead gorgeous but we’re not quite sure what the ceiling is yet. We’re all still willing and ready to find out, though. She’s not Paris Hilton, nowhere close. Three seasons in, House of Cards’ legacy as a streaming cash register is set, but its legacy in the annals of great television has yet to be decided. I could see Wright winning an Emmy for Season 3 and also wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Kelly or Mikkelsen get Supporting or potentially Outstanding Guest (for Lars) nominations. Spacey, unquestionably, will be nominated, as will the show.

In the most sigh-inducing way I can conclude, House of Cards Season 3 is a pair of kings with an outside chance of a flush. It’s going to depend on the river if anybody decides to chase. It’s not a bad hand, it looks really good in most regards, but I have a nagging feeling there’s a pair or a set of aces out there across the table. It’s not the best drama on TV and it’s not a top five show on the current landscape, probably not top ten. It’s no higher than second on Netflix. But, I had no problem getting through it at all. I enjoyed my Friday greatly.

Better than Season 2, probably better than the first, binged it in one sitting, so it kept my attention, the new characters all worked, though Yates and his backstory was a little much and his story ended up going virtually nowhere. I’d also have liked to see more of Kate Baldwin in a professional setting.

Is a B minus fair?

All three seasons of House of Cards are available on Netflix. Seasons 1 and 2 are also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power. I didn’t say that, but I do say a lot of interesting things on Twitter @GuyNamedJason. (Pretend I said that with even more of a southern drawl than I do and looking at you through a camera lens.)



Written by Jason Martin