Kevin Spacey/Netflix

At the end of my review of the House Of Cards season two finale, I posed the question, “Who is Frank Underwood now that he’s achieved everything he set out to accomplish?” The third season premiere wastes no time in letting us know (as if there could be any doubt) that President Underwood is not a kinder, gentler Frank. The cold open finds Frank back in Gaffney visiting his father’s grave; out of view of the press, he pisses on the tombstone. Three seasons in, no one has ever accused this character, or this show, of subtlety.

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As it turns out, becoming president isn’t the key to fulfillment and happiness Frank might have hoped. He’s got the title and the office, but the power he craves remains frustratingly out of reach. If there was a honeymoon period for the Underwood administration, we don’t see it; as “Chapter 27” begins, Frank’s approval ratings are already in the toilet and he’s unable to push any legislation through Congress. But our antihero is a spectral presence for most of the first half of this episode. Following the cold open, he’s only glimpsed on television as we observe the slow recovery of Douglas Stamper.

It’s an unusual choice, and a surprising one for those of us who assumed Stamper was dead at the end of season two. After he’s found in the woods, Stamper undergoes brain surgery and a painful, halting rehabilitation process. It remains to be seen whether keeping Doug around turns out to be a good idea, but for now he’s determined to be a good soldier for the Underwoods and work his way back into the fold. He agrees to Claire’s version of events, in which he was carjacked by a man who injured Doug when he chased him into the woods, leaving Rachel Posner out of it. Doug’s continued devotion to the Underwoods is oddly poignant and (as with all things Stamper) at least a little creepy. It’s all mixed up with his desperation for continued relevance, which sees its most vivid expression in the scene where he slips in the tub and breaks his arm, then splints it himself with a wooden spoon and electrical tape lest he miss a rare opportunity to meet with Frank.

When the Underwoods finally do take center stage, it’s a bit underwhelming. Part of that has to do with the introduction of another patented House Of Cards piece of fantasy legislation, the America Works bill. It makes sense that Frank is seen introducing “AmWorks” on The Colbert Report (a venue for which he is clearly ill-suited), because the only sensible reaction to it is to laugh. As Frank explains (using not high-tech presentation tools but an over-sized pad of paper and a marker), the program will create universal employment by carving $500 billion out of Social Security, Medicaid, and the rest of the federal safety net. Leaving aside this show’s continuing weird obsession with “entitlements” and a Democratic administration intent on gutting them, the idea that the government can magically create a job suitable for every unemployed person, regardless of their individual circumstances and qualifications, doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny. And while I‘m sure most Americans would love to see the unemployment rate greatly reduced, it’s hard to buy that the vast majority of employed people would go along with having their own golden years threatened as the cost of putting the rest of the country back to work.

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As always, it’s best to treat the politics of House Of Cards as seriously as those of Game Of Thrones, if that seriously. On those terms, “Chapter 28” is a juicier hour than the premiere because it puts the Underwoods back in defensive mode. Claire has blown up her chance of becoming the US Ambassador to the UN by lashing out at Senator Mendoza, the likely Republican nominee in 2016. Frank has been told by the Democratic congressional leadership that they won’t support his candidacy in the next year’s election. A montage shows us each Underwood trying to earn back support in the traditional way by working the phones, but it’s soon evident that more devious tactics will be required. Anxious for more prestige than picking the right Easter eggs allows, Claire urges Frank to make her a recess appointment to the ambassadorship and he agrees. Frank makes a speech announcing he will not run in 2016, but it’s clear this is only the beginning of another long con. What appears to be straight talk about harsh realities is just another form of Underwood deception… which is fine, because that’s what makes this show tick when it’s working.

When it’s not working, House Of Cards is either dull or overwrought. When Frank is at a low point in “Chapter 28,” sobbing on the floor, Claire pulls down his pants and mounts him as operatic wailing fills the soundtrack. Is there any way to appreciate a scene like this other than as camp? From a technical perspective, House Of Cards still carries the sheen of “prestige television,” but it’s a lot more fun when, like Frank at his father’s grave, it lets it all hang out.

Stray observations:

  • If you’ve already binge-watched all 13 episodes and you’re looking for a full-season review, Joshua Alston has you covered elsewhere at The A.V. Club. As for the individual episode reviews, our schedule will be accelerated this year: I’ll still be covering two episodes per review (except for the finale, which will stand alone), but those reviews will appear twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays.
  • Frank’s appearance on The Colbert Report got in just under the wire, as it happens in December 2014 and Colbert’s final show aired on the 18th of that month. The portion of the show we see isn’t especially convincing, but I liked Colbert’s dig that the one thing both parties can agree on is “a new president in 2016.”
  • Doug doesn’t seem to understand that a shot of bourbon is merely a unit of measure; it doesn’t actually have to be administered with a hypodermic needle.

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