The third season of popular Netflix drama, House of Cards, is simultaneously the best and worst season of this show. In this season, the show has come to realize the criticisms that have been directed towards its first two seasons, but it also has some good ideas of responding to them. After depicting raw, Machiavellian scheming for the past two years, House of Cards makes a very important and hard pivot into character drama. Previously, it was the plot driving the characters and now it is going in reverse. For two years, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) got everything he wanted, but season three has decided to give him some opposition to make people care when he finally does get what he was after.
After executing an almost perfect coup at the end of season 2, Frank has finally become president in the third season premiere and he visits his hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina to see his father’s grave. Frank tells his most cherished confidant i.e. the audience that he has to act human if he wants to be president. This statement alone highlights the contradictions of democracy; presidents who don’t show their fallibility and frailty aren’t elected and those who do are crucified as soon as they take their post. However, this also acknowledges the limitations of the show and gives a preview of the entire plan.
The near-omnipotence of in the initial seasons hasn’t been highly appreciated because he has been spared battles with competent adversaries. It is certainly a valid complaint. Frank’s quest of the Oval Office is similar to an arcade game where there are no bosses, but the pursuit is a bit hollow. He carried out a vengeance campaign for two seasons as he was screwed out of a job, which may not be enough. Nevertheless, it was his war council that made House of Cards worth buying and not his war.
When this indignity is revealed by Frank to his wife, Robin Wright’s Claire, she doesn’t put a salve on his ego. Instead, she stokes his rage and encourages him to harness his anger and use it for eliminating his adversaries and opponents. This is where House of Cards actually becomes powerful and relevant; when it spotlights Claire and Frank’s ability of sharpening each other’s blades. Their calculated and complex union meanders the show in the first two seasons. But, now, there is no longer any need to jockey for position as Claire is First Lady and Frank is President.
The show has finally had a chance to embrace its complexity and messiness and transform into a thoughtful and mature show about the Underwoods escalating power. Now there is no longer anyone left to eliminate so Claire and Frank don’t have many outlets for unleashing their fury and have become animals in glided and golden cages. As soon as they realize what the White House really is, they start nipping at each other and become more and more aggressive. Previously, their mission was to reach the mountain top, but now they have to face who they have become and accept the things they have done to get there.
Now the battle is between the kingmaker and king. Wright and Spacey have never had better material to work with. While they have always given exemplary performances, the tight focus in the third season give the Underwoods incisive duets that further enhance their characters. Their arguments are fiery and leave blisters, but the most unsettling part is when the couple try to act like normal wife and husband, which they have never been, by acquiescing to each other’s demands. Their fracturing marriage is definitely one of the major aspects of the new season, but Claire isn’t the nemesis that Frank has been waiting for the past two seasons. After years of inerrant manipulation and unqualified success, Frank has become its own enemy and he is aware that everything has been easy for him.
Therefore, he courts conflict during his interactions such as barking demands at Molly Parker’s House Minority Whip Jackie Sharp and Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), his Chief of Staff. He is practically daring them to disobey him so he will have something to do. He angers his fellow democrats by launching a massive job bill, his signature legislation, which is funded by entitlement reform measures. He also appoints his wife as ambassador to the United Nations despite her lack of credentials. Hence, no one can say that he doesn’t try to have sparring partners.
Eventually, we get to see Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) as a decent playmate for Frank. The strained diplomatic relations between the two countries are another one of the meaty ideas of the third season. Another storyline of the new season is the damage that Frank inflicted on the executive branch when he blamed Walker for a finance corruption scandal. Even though he is a master strategist, Frank didn’t consider that he would be left to harvest the crops from the same ground. This storyline dominates the first portion of the third season. The second season focuses on the marital strife of the Underwoods amidst primary election.
The problem with House of Cards season 3 is that it cannot break off from the reality now as Frank has finally become president. There are some gradual changes in the season such as Jackie Sharp turning against Frank and even Doug considers doing the same, but he returns to the Underwoods in the season finale. During elections, it seems that Frank may eventually lose to his opponent, Elizabeth Marvel’s Heather Dunbar. However, Frank manages to triumph against her, even though the show doesn’t give a solid reason as to why.
The show now has more real estate to occupy as Frank has become president and there is no longer an administration that he has to topple. Regardless of the missteps in the third season, House of Cards has become the most focused and lean and absorbing too. If only, the actual government could also reshuffle its deck like the House of Cards.