In its first two seasons, the Netflix political drama House Of Cards showed flashes of promise it was never able to deliver, the result of confidently executing a fundamentally flawed vision. The show renders Washington, D.C., as a toxic, mendacious, ego-driven ecosystem, as much a sprawling symbol of America’s cynicism as Las Vegas is a symbol of its vice. The Washington of House Of Cards is hopeless in an oddly soothing way. There’s cold comfort in the idea that politicians are getting something accomplished in lieu of efficient governing, even if that something is limited to the systematic destruction of the colleague three offices down.
To build that world requires populating it with characters like Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his ever-outmatched foes, politicians for whom machinating is reflexive and havoc is its own reward. The characters are so consumed with strategic maneuvering, it’s difficult to get a read on who they are outside of what is essentially a high-stakes role-playing game. All the busy scheming gives House Of Cards the contours of a mischief-laden nighttime soap, but due to its lack of inscrutable, messy humanity, it plays more like a showdown between two chess computers. A show with this much literal and figurative bloodshed shouldn’t feel so antiseptic.
But House Of Cards evolves in its third season. In the season premiere, Beau Willimon, who adapted the show from the British version, tips his hand almost immediately. Frank, now serving as president after executing a too-perfect coup at the end of season two, visits his father’s grave site in his hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina. The audience remains Frank’s most cherished confidant, and he uses his designated moment of reflection to explain himself in an aside to camera: “I wouldn’t be here if I had a choice, but I have to do these sorts of things now. Makes me seem more human, and you have to be a little human when you’re the president.” The line highlights the maddening contradictions of our democracy, in which we refuse to elect presidents who don’t betray their frailty and fallibility, then use those very qualities to crucify them once they settle into the job. But it’s also an acknowledgment of the show’s limitations and a preview of its plan to sneak around them.
Much has been made of Frank’s near-omnipotence in the first two seasons, which according to conventional wisdom, marred the storytelling by sparing Frank any battles with substantial adversaries. That complaint is certainly valid—Frank’s pursuit for the Oval Office often resembles an adventure arcade game with no bosses—but the larger issue is the inherent hollowness of Frank’s quest. The show begins with Frank setting out on the war path after since-impeached President Garrett Walker fails to honor his pledge to appoint Frank to Secretary Of State. Frank’s bombardment of his enemies is so intense and devastating, the event that catalyzed it gets lost in the shuffle. But that initial slight shapes the perception of Frank’s journey at a subliminal level. Frank’s quest feels hollow not because he lacks well-armed foes, but because it’s rooted in Frank getting screwed out of a job, a flimsy peg on which to hang a two-season campaign of vengeance even when the job is Secretary Of State.
What made House Of Cards worth buying into is Frank’s war council, not Frank’s war. In the pilot, when Frank reveals the indignity to his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), she doesn’t salve his bruised ego. She chides him for not informing her sooner and for allowing his adversaries to gain the upper hand. Claire doesn’t quell Frank’s anger; she stokes it further, urging him to harness his rage and use it to focus on vanquishing his enemies. That’s the precise moment when House Of Cards springs to life, when it hones in on Frank and Claire’s marriage, which hinges on their ability to sharpen each other’s blades. Frank’s schemes only become worthy when Claire invests in them, so it’s no surprise the show meanders in seasons one and two, as Frank and Claire are assigned mostly independent storylines that prevent further glimpses into their complex, calculated union.
Now that Frank is President and Claire is First Lady, the jockeying for position has ended, allowing House Of Cards to embrace its messiness and blossom into a more mature, more thoughtful show about the escalating power struggle between the Underwoods. With no one left to eliminate, Frank and Claire have less outlets for their fury, and like any animal in a constraining cage, the Underwoods become increasingly aggressive and begin to nip at each other upon realizing the White House is a gilded prison. Once united in their mission to reach the top of the mountain, they now have to grapple with who they had to become to get there, setting up a fierce battle between the king and his kingmaker. Spacey and Wright have never had better material to work with, and while their performances are always impressive, season three’s tight focus on the Underwoods feeds them a steady diet of incisive duets that elevates them both. Frank and Claire’s arguments leave blisters, but it’s almost more unsettling when they acquiesce to each other’s demands in futile attempts to mimic the give-and-take of the normal husband and wife they’ve never been.
While the season delves into the Underwoods’ fracturing marriage, Claire isn’t the nemesis Frank has been waiting two seasons for. Naturally, Frank is his own worst enemy, especially after years of unqualified success and inerrant manipulation have pushed his hubris to unprecedented levels. Frank appears fully aware of how easy he’s had it lately, and he courts conflict in all his interactions. He barks demands at newly appointed Chief Of Staff Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) and House Minority Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), practically daring them to dissent so he’ll have a fire to put out. He invites scrutiny by appointing Claire as ambassador to the United Nations despite her lack of credentials, and launches his signature legislation, a massive jobs bill funded with entitlement reform measures that infuriate his fellow Democrats. Given how far he goes to foment discord, no one can say Frank’s inability to find good sparring partners is for a lack of trying.
Frank finally gets a decent playmate in Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), with the strained diplomatic relationship between the nations among season three’s sampler platter of meaty ideas. Also up for discussion is the damage Frank did to the executive branch as a result of hanging a campaign finance corruption scandal around Walker’s neck. Frank is a master strategist, but he failed to consider that he’d have to harvest crops on the same earth he scorched. Those threads dominate the first third of the season, the run of episodes most likely to put off viewers exasperated by House Of Cards’ shallow beauty. The second half of the season is where the show hits its stride, honing in on the Underwoods’ marital strife amid a primary election as riveting and theatrical as the genuine article.
House Of Cards isn’t perfect and is infected with its own hubris, as its writers attempt to juggle balls that don’t belong in the air. One of season two’s dullest storylines plays too prominent a role in season three, and while the show has more real estate to occupy now that it’s rid of the administration Frank was working to topple, its time-management choices are curious considering the always-welcome Kim Dickens is relegated to the periphery. Despite its missteps, House Of Cards’ third season is by far its leanest, most focused, and most absorbing. With any luck, Washington isn’t nearly as venomous and sharp-elbowed as House Of Cards, but if only the actual government could as nimbly reshuffle its deck.