Kevin Spacey’s devious Frank Underwood spent two seasons climbing the Washington D.C. ladder to President with the help of his partner-in-crime and wife, Robin Wright’s Claire. The boiling anticipation came from seeing the fruition of their dream as they did the things we can only dream of in the pursuit of ambition and power. How would Underwood wield his brand of ruthless, amoral pragmatism in the most powerful office in the world? The opening does not disappoint, but it becomes clear later on, that this is a bait-and-switch.
Upon visiting his father’s grave in South Carolina (Presidents have to seem human, Frank reminds the audience in one of his signature asides), he asks for privacy . . . and literally pisses on his father’s headstone. It’s the kind of over-the-top display of bravado and middle-finger to political correctness that this show’s main character allows us to experience and enjoy.
After this opening, we spend the next half-hour with his former aide Doug Stamper (a fantastic Michael Kelly), not only revealed to be alive after being brained last season but undergoing a rigorous and painful recovery process. Through TVs and acquaintances and via second-hand information, he gets tidbits about the first 6 months of the Underwood administration. We spend less time with the Underwoods and Frank even less doing his characteristic breaking of the fourth wall. The audience is put in Doug’s position: frustrated and on the outside.
The vicarious sense of voyeurism, and Frank’s role as our ferrymen down the canals of filth that are the hallways of our government, was wish-fulfillment. Denying the viewer that satisfaction is a ballsy narrative move that would have to be backed up by an understanding of what makes the show the hit it is. It’s a noticeably and challenging vacuum.
As Frank deprives us of the window in his alien world, it starts to feel like the creators relate far too much to their lead characters and they may be trapped by the same problems – self-absorption and reactivity.
After obtaining what is ostensibly the final prize, holding onto and managing that power proves to require a very different skill set than the one Frank – and the show – used to get there. And perhaps one they lacks entirely. Maybe that says more about we the audience than it does the show.
Uneven and half-hearted are words I keep seeing in a lot of House of Cards Season 3 reviews and it sums it up pretty well. On the other hand, before I had read said reviews, I used my own simile to describe my feelings on Twitter about this most recent season of the Netflix original.
*Note I know orgasm is not a descriptive, but Twitter, much like my mouth, has no edit button.
Here’s my breakdown of Season 3: ONCE AGAIN, SPOILERS FOR HOUSE OF CARDS SEASONS 1-3!!!!
1. Character baggage
The season was a bizarro-union of criticism-response plotting and extremely obvious and clunky story functions – such as novelist Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) who’s basically there as an excuse to have someone spout ridiculous voiceovers.
The real reason he’s there is something about writing a book (propaganda?) on Frank’s signature legislation America Works, something that, as a fiction writer myself, would hold zero interest for me. So it was not shocking when he decided his book instead be about the fucked-up relationship at the core of the show – the Underwood’s marriage.
For obvious reasons, I imagine my closest counterparts in the House of Cards universe to be the journalists and writers who feebly try to hold the Underwoods accountable. Naturally, none of them succeed. Yet Yates is different not only because he is a politically-neutral novelist, but because he is given unparalleled access to Frank’s inner life. But Frank’s vision of what he wants this book to be is never elucidated or why he asks a novelist – a guy who makes shit up for a living – to write what becomes, essentially, a biography. David McCullough this guy is not.
But Season 3, as it tries to portray how hard it is to grasp power even at the top, undercuts what was so enjoyable about the show to begin with. Yes, we can have Frank struggle with the unsatisfying reality of reaching a destination when it was the journey that was important. But no, we probably shouldn’t have Frank weeping openly at the mere thought that he cannot rally support behind a re-election bid 6 months after inheriting a scandal-swept White House and right after the entire Democratic Congressional leadership refused to back him as well.
Willimon notes that his team likes to add random moments to add thematic and organic weight to the proceedings. Sometimes, the situations Frank finds himself in, like being caught between a hurricane barreling on the East Coast and the funding for America Works, aren’t ones he can manipulate and talk his way out of and it is dramatically powerful to see Frank rendered inert by the forces more overwhelming than himself.
That dramatic power does not extend to the attempts at use character drama as the show’s new bread-and-butter. The tiresome back-and-forth is echoed in Frank and Claire’s relationship. Case in point, Episode 8 jumps around in time after a bitter disagreement leads to a foreign policy gaffe and argument between the Underwoods. The episode cuts around in time, framing it around the couple renewing their vows in Frank’s hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina. This feels like the characters – and the show – purging the demons from the disunity and vowing to learn from their mistakes, as the intelligent people they have been portrayed to be do.
Then they don’t and Claire leaves Frank anyway in the closing minutes of the finale. Cue whiplash.
2. Plot sterility
Now, Season 3 was always going to be a difficult season. If the season had ended after Season 2, with Frank’s climatic and extremely-satisfying knock-knock on the desk in the Oval Office, it would have been enough. The show would have ended on top and with the lingering feeling that there was so much left to explore. And there was. But as Collider‘s Matt Goldberg points out, the show doesn’t really know what to do with that potential and thus, the execution was sloppy.
Naturally, upon reaching the peak of the mountain, after lying, duping, and murdering anyone who got in his way, Frank’s fall was inevitable. And to a degree, a decent amount of what made Frank a seemingly-invulnerable power monster was deconstructed when he actually reached his goal. This is why Season 3 is not a total loss despite its flaws relative to the first two seasons.
Among those flaws: Season 3 Frank is consistently being undercut and put against the ropes. Now, at this point, much of the cast are appropriately self-aware of his manipulations and selfish true intentions after 2 years of being played. This makes for (some) interesting drama as Frank adapts to his enemies (and allies) growing savvier.
But Season 3 Frank doesn’t adapt. He turns up the volume. He grabs the villain ball and runs with it. But for some reason, Frank loses all subtety or understanding, insisting on yelling and fear as methods of control. This is not the guy who, in the past, would make allies, even if secretly plotting those allies destruction (Season 1’s Peter Russo)
One example is a crisis of conscience in episode 4 where he refuses to destroy a court Justice in the most clumsy way and immediately alerts him to his ulterior motives. Then, in episode 5, questioning himself, he goes to a church and consults a military priest who instructs him simply: love God and love others. Upon asking for privacy, Frank spits in the face of Jesus. His attempt to wipe the spittle away makes the Jesus statue fall and shatter.
3. Lack of sufficient arc or payoff
“That’s it?” is not an adequate response to a cliffhanger. And that’s exactly how I felt as the credits rolled on Season 3. Claire’s decision to leave was not expected or out-of-left-field. The season went far out of its way to say Claire was unhappy, consistently. Most of the plot of eaten by the character drama of how our leads function at the top of the mountain and, again consistently, it was shown to be “NOT GOOD.”
So when a cliffhanger is neither surprising nor climatic, what is it? It’s just irritating. There was no sense of narrative closure, a reward for the act of binge-watching that Netflix promotes. Whereas Seasons 1 and 2 had clear goalposts that went “bang” at the end of their runs. Season 3 instead ended had no goalpost and ended with a whimper, contributing to leaving a less-than-satisfied feeling in this viewer.
A fascinating review made by Slate‘s Willa Paskin notes that Frank’s Achilles’ heels, especially this season, are consistently women (reporter Zoe Barnes, presidential nominee Heather Dunbar, Rep. Jackie Sharp, even/especially his wife Claire). Match this with Frank’s bisexuality/closeted homosexuality and it provides a very interesting paradigm to view the show and its leads, behind the admittedly-entertaining underhanded machinations of Frank.
The future of the Underwoods?
A fourth season has not yet been ordered and it’s bizarre to think that there’s even a possibility that the story of the Underwoods could end where we have left them: at odds and in the midst of a difficult campaign for the presidential nomination and, later, election.
Interestingly, Netflix ordered Season 3 ten days before Season 2 premiered in 2014. The project was originally picked up for a then-unprecedented 26 episodes across two seasons with the clear goal of taking Underwood to the presidency. I can only surmise the show’s popularity and success gave them license, and the money incentive, to investigate beyond.
The Frank and Claire portrayed in Seasons 1-2 are seemingly 180-degrees from who they became in Season 3. Sure, at the beginning he was miles ahead of anyone but it slowly caught up as he became more exposed publicly. He was a guy who understood pragmatism – that perhaps fear wasn’t always the weapon, but, as Willimon describes in PBS interview with director Jay Roach and novelist Thomas Mallon, ensuring everyone wins.
Actually, more often than not, he looks for situations where everyone wins. He is trying to move things towards the middle. He’s trying to move people out of the quicksand of intransigence. That is an optimistic point of view. He is doing it for self-serving reasons, sure, but there’s plenty of people who — I mean, if we are really honest with ourselves, you know, we are self-serving a lot of the time.
Losing that pragmatism makes Frank seem incompetent at best and inconsistent and best. Perhaps that was a point. But even if it was, fundamental aspects of what made the Underwoods enjoyable were taken away and nothing was there to fill the void. It was a turn into heavy-handed character drama, complete with long drawn-out voiceovers, flowery metaphors, and incomprehensible dreams.
Perhaps my arguments will be negated by payoffs a year from now. Part of the trouble of the blurring of lines in modern media and storytelling as it is becoming harder to predict or count on convention. For example, the cliffhanger’s failure at tantalization could be rectified by a satisfying Season 4 that pays off much of the unresolved plot threads.
For its future? Spacey and Wright may find the yearly six-month-commitment wearisome and opt to leave and thus end the show. Or Willimon could be building to a conclusion where these innumerable threads will come together. I could imagine a fourth season being the final, containing the second half of Frank Underwood’s downfall and mirroring the years of a presidency, since each season has chronologically covered a year in time, with Season 3 ending at the tail-end of 2015/early 2016.
Point is, I fully expect my opinion to change over time and most specifically if/when Season 4 is released. But as it stands now, the lack of pay-off and tantalizing aspects of the cliffhanger dilutes the narrative punch. Sure, Frank wins Iowa, but it’s almost an afterthought. And how he achieves it is left to the imagination, which is especially glaring considering they spent many episodes reminding us Frank was on the ropes and needed all the help he could yell at.
But I could also imagine (or perhaps hope, it’s easy to confuse the two) a scenario where this season’s cliffhanger is resolved in the Underwood’s favor (my prediction? Claire’s pregnant), perhaps winning them another term in office. Another four years (four seasons?) of an Underwood presidency. That sounds appetizing but Season 3 makes a case – perhaps a purposeful one on the part of the storytellers -that it would be less appealing than we think and certainly less appealing than the ruthless climb.
FINAL THOUGHTS as of March 3, 2015: Another enjoyable season of delicious operatic pulp unlike almost any other TV show, with a pedigree to match, that perhaps has become a little too much like its protagonist – insular, absorbed with itself and unable to see beyond all that he has achieved.