It’s nice to have Frank Underwood back in my life.
One benefit of this very long and very cold winter is that I don’t feel too terrible when I decide to spend the weekend curled up on my couch binge watching TV shows or movies. The idea of venturing even a mile down the road to the movie theater seems like too much effort when you have to clean off your car and deal with the wind chill, so I am more than content to fully immerse myself in multiple episodes of a TV show or a mini-movie marathon in the comfort of my apartment. Thank goodness for Netflix, who may not have invented the idea of binge watching, but certainly increased its popularity. Their habit of dropping entire seasons of shows has made this winter somewhat bearable. Knowing that House of Cards was dropping on Friday, I didn’t even care that there was even more snow predicted in the forecast; even if there was a blizzard on the horizon, knowing that I had 13 new hours to spend with everyone’s favorite scheming fictional politician was enough to make my winter blues momentarily fade away.
As I’ve written before when discussing the first two seasons of the show, House of Cards is definitely a program that benefits from binge watching. It’s a good show, but not a great one, and it is much easier to gloss over the show’s failings when you quickly move on from one episode to the next without dwelling too much on what just happened. House of Cards is a show that runs on adrenaline and plot twists: even when you think a baseline has been established for what these characters are willing to do to each other in the name of power, they move the needle to even more deplorable and ridiculous behavior. I easily sat through ten episodes of the series on Saturday; every time that I considered taking a break, the knowledge that there were more episodes right at my fingertips proved too compelling. House of Cards is like crack – once you’ve had a taste, you just can’t help yourself.
This season of House of Cards examines a slightly different dynamic that we’ve seen in previous seasons; while the first two seasons focused on Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) trying to climb his way to the top, the third season examines Underwood’s attempts to stay in power. Just as campaigning and governing are two different animals, Frank for the first time has to focus on maintaining his position rather than his upward mobility. Once you are the king, you become the target and this is a spot that Frank is unfamiliar with. He has a much higher profile and his Machiavellian tactics don’t necessary work as well as they used to. A frustrated Frank Underwood is a new Frank Underwood. It’s a refreshing change of pace.
The third season also finds Frank not only dealing with conflict in his political life, but in his personal life as well. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) has been her husband’s partner in crime from the beginning and has complicit in a lot of his questionable actions. However, she has tired of being the woman behind the man and wants her turn at the spotlight. Her patience has run out and she wants to start her political career – no matter how much that adds to the difficulty of her husband’s already precarious position. In her mind, this political marriage is a full partnership and she’s been denied the spoils of their victories. Seeing discord in the Underwood marriage is also an interesting new development; while Frank and Claire certainly have an unorthodox marriage by most standards, the one thing that you could count on was that they always had each other’s back. Watching the two of them plot out their next move over a secret shared cigarette was a hallmark of the first two seasons. To see them deviate from the established game plan shakes things up and adds a compelling new dynamic to the new episodes. It’s one of the most interesting new storylines.
Unfortunately, there is also a lot of time in the third season devoted to storylines that simply refuse to die. The issue of Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) has been an issue since season one and was getting kind of tedious in season two. That storyline is still chugging along in season three and takes up way too much of the narrative. She’s a lose thread that I’m not really sure why anyone is still worried about, given that after watching every episode I can barely remember why she’s an issue. Frankly everyone on the show has much bigger fish to fry and the amount of energy and time spent on this former prostitute is mind numbing. I know that it can be the smallest slipup that can topple an empire, but considering how poorly Frank and his cohorts have covered their track in general (like don’t use your own cell phone for nefarious plotting – that’s The Wire 101), it seems odd that this particular problem confounds them all so much. It’s boring and I found my attention drifting whenever this particular issue came up. Overall, as much as I enjoyed House of Cards, this new season didn’t require my full attention; I could work and watch the show without either suffering, which is not necessarily a bad thing but gives you an idea of how compelling the series is. When if grabbed me, I was fully invested – scenes between Frank and Claire, for example – but for the life of me I couldn’t get super excited about anything related to Rachel or the press corps (as much as I enjoyed the addition of Kim Dickens to the cast). This happens every season to some extent, but I thought season three had more ignorable storylines than in the past. It was more hit-or-miss than I remember earlier seasons.
Some other thoughts:
- My biggest complaint about season 3 of House of Cards – not enough Meechum (Nathan Darrow)!
- In a case of life imitating art, these new episodes introduce a new roadblock for Frank – the very Putin-like President of Russia, Victor Petrov (it’s even the same initials!). Even Pussy Riot gets a cameo.
- I now have a new item on my bucket list – beer pong at the White House!
- We see a lot of Frank’s bodily fluids this season. I won’t elaborate further.
- Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), the Solicitor General, gets a lot more screen time this season. More of anyone named Heather is a good thing.
- Some familiar faces from previous seasons that you might not have been expecting to turn up do in fact turn up.
- Kevin Spacey does not miss an opportunity to drag out his Bobby Darin impression.
- I become about 50% more scheme-y after watching House of Cards, which isn’t good for anyone because I am pretty scheme-y to begin with (though I usually don’t act on it).
The third season of House of Cards was more uneven than the first two, but there is still plenty to enjoy. One major improvement this season is that Frank is no longer able to plot and scheme is his way out everything. In the first two seasons there were some hitches in his master plan, but he always seemed to land on his feet pretty quickly and things tended to break his way. After a while, that’s not as exciting. This season, he gets himself into some quagmires that are not so easy to extract himself from and he can’t bully his way out of them quite the same way. For the first time in a long time, Frank Underwood is something of an underdog and seeing him struggle and have to get scrappy is far more interesting television. The tension in the Underwood marriage is a fascinating extension of this and I think was a necessary change to liven things up. The refusal to abandon some storylines is the major hindrance to this season and is a distraction from the pieces that are really working; hopefully in the show’s presumed 4th season, we get a tighter and more focused narrative. It’s time to cut some bait and move on and the latter episodes of season three indicate that they might be willing to do so. Here’s to hoping.
Even with this unevenness, House of Cards was still a fun way to spend a weekend. I don’t think this will ever be a great show, but it’s an addictively fun one, which is just as important. Even with all this two-timing and manipulation, the fictional government in House of Cards gets more done than our actual one, which makes me wonder what our elected officials are actually doing with their time. This show does nothing but reinforce negative stereotypes about politicians, but that’s a far more entertaining prospect and what we want to believe anyway. Frank Underwood’s house of cards isn’t quite as steady as you would think, and I look forward to seeing how this show continues to play out.
House of Cards is currently streaming on Netflix.