Warning: This review will contain spoilers for season 3 of House of Cards. So if you haven’t finished it yet, perhaps bookmark this and return to it once you have.
The Netflix delivered show, House of Cards has returned and boasts a strong season for its characters and its actors but it is also a season that comes with some struggling story lines that don’t necessarily always pay off and at times completely lose themselves. Still though, this new season does deliver the level of quality that fans have come to expect from previous seasons and its varying assortment of cast members certainly aid that level of quality and keep things somewhat on track, even when parts of the show begin to get away from itself.
Returning to excite and frighten the audience are the superb Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, who of course play President of the United States Frank Underwood and The First Lady Claire Underwood. Both Spacey and Wright are absolutely on their A game this season, continuing their faultless performances and keeping you captivated by their every move and decision. You really can’t go wrong with either one of them.
The same can maybe not be said for their characters, which have a rough time of it this season. Frank Underwood is now where he’s always wanted to be, he is now the President of the United States, the most powerful position in America. Yet what is interesting is that even with him being in the most powerful seat in America, Frank has never seemed weaker, the deplorable tactics that he has used in previous seasons to get him where he is, seem to be coming back to bite him in the Presidential rear end. Frank is left with very few allies or bridges to burn and because of this we see Frank struggle to succeed at anything. Because of this, the unhealthy joy that you would perhaps get from watching him tear an opponent, or sometimes even a friend apart is missing.
Large portions of this new season see Frank unable to do anything of serious consequence, we instead see him standing behind the road blocks that have been put in his way, while we wait for him to be able to do something of worth. This creates an interesting dilemma for me and my overall considerations on the standing of this season. On one part I miss seeing the old Frank Underwood, a ravenous pit-bull who would eviscerate anyone in his way and would inevitably get what or where he wanted. On the other hand though I do love that the writers, directors and actors were bold enough to take him in an entirely new direction, to have him struggle and perhaps bring a little more realism to the character. In some respects it has blown up in their face, the wrongful fun is missing from this season but on the other hand I did love seeing the strong, almost untouchable Frank brought down a few pegs and have to struggle for every scrap of success.
Just like Frank and his problems, Claire Underwood doesn’t exactly have it as well as she has before, in fact this is probably the most difficult season for the character yet. Claire’s story sees her going from just being the first lady, to eyeing the roll of being a UN Ambassador, failing to gain it but then being given it by Frank anyway, she ultimately loses the position because of some back room political dealings and has to return to just being the first lady and Frank’s right hand women. The main problem with Claire’s story line this season is that it flip-flopped around so much and never properly found a satisfying resting place. I never really had a true semblance of where Claire’s story line was heading and if it was serving the character in the right way.
It probably isn’t until the very last episode that Wright’s character finds her place in this season. Now I do want to point out that there are some brilliant moments in this season with Claire and they were moments that were great to watch, the continuous back and forth battles between Frank and Claire certainly some of the first to come to mind. I just never really felt that everything was coming together in the right way, everything in this season felt a little disjointed, as if everything might be one long set up game for season 4 (but that’s something I’ll probably delve deeper into later on in this piece).
When I look back over this season and the role that Claire played in it, I just feel things weren’t handled as well as they could have been and too much was just elongated set up and not enough was engaging story arcs that came with some exhilarating pay off, which is perhaps the biggest problem overall for season 3.
Despite the individual problems for both Frank and Claire, it is the scenes between the two actors/characters that are some of the most enjoyable to watch. From the very beginning of the season there is a noticeable shift in the dynamic between the two characters. The show highlights this perfectly through what is shows us, their sleeping in separate rooms, the distance between them when they’re sitting right next to each other in the kitchen, this story line was more, show the audience the noticeable divide, don’t tell outright and I appreciated that.
What I also appreciated about this noticeable change for the characters is that the show builds up to the moment when it all finally starts to come crumbling down, once again it tried to be subtle and let you slowly see it happen over time and when it finally does happen it is heart breaking and jaw dropping all at the same time. Whether it was Frank and Claire having a screaming match on Air Force One or it was Frank vitriolic verbal beat down of Claire in the Oval Office, season 3 certainly delivered on those intense House of Cards moments that fans have come to know.
I’m really excited to see how this will play out in Season 4 and I think it could create some of the most interesting moments for the characters yet but what I’m also worried about and it is something that is very noticeable in this season, was that by not having Frank and Claire be this immovable wall of political fury, it meant that some of what made the first two season such a joy to watch, was missing in this season. Seeing the two of them work together to gleefully tear down an opponent was some of the most brilliant moments of season 1 and 2 and this season was sorely lacking moments like that. Now I do understand that the show has to evolve the characters beyond who they are and things need to change and surprise audiences but it did certainly hurt the feel of the show and it is something that I think is turning a lot of fans off to this season, this will certainly be a wait and see type of situation when it comes to season 4.
Another big part of season 3 was the redemption story for everyone’s favourite Doug Stamper played by Michael Kelly. This was a story line that like most of the others, struggled to find its footing. I found it really surprising that the writers of the show decided to dedicate so much time in the beginning of Episode 1 to Doug’s recovery; I mean it just kept going. Now I didn’t mind it so much, in fact I was really on board with the Doug story line and how it seemed to be majorly shaking up the character and giving him something new to do, the problem is that the consistency of his story didn’t last.
Doug’s story quickly became another flip-flopping affair where it never really made sense where it was leading or what purpose it was serving, and soon I was left a little confused. Is this a redemption story for Doug, will he cure his demons of addiction or is this all about him trying to get back into the political bubble, filled with back room dealings and the manipulation of others. Though both were interesting, the show never seemed to know which one it wanted to focus on, sometimes it would completely forget one for a few episodes, for it to then randomly pop back up out of the blue.
What is probably the thing that did the biggest disservice to Doug as a character and his story line was the resolution with Rachael or I guess Cassie now. This was something that I was the most eager to see when it came to Doug’s journey and I’m sure a lot of other people were desperate to see it too. How would Doug deal with seeing her again? Would Rachael get the closure that the character deserved? In the end it was an awkward and drawn out experience that glossed over some of the most integral parts of their uncomfortable reunion while giving us scenes filled with nothing of real substance (but she really needed to pee though). Once again the payoff was not worth the wait.
So now we move onto the main antagonist of season 3, which was of course Russian President Viktor Petrov played by the chilling and unflinching Lars Mikkelsen (fun fact the brother of Mads Mikkelsen who plays the even more unsettling Dr Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s Hannibal). Petrov was probably the most formidable opponent that Frank has ever encountered. Both of these men are the heads of two of the most powerful countries in the world and neither is willing nor wanting to submit to the others at times outrageous demands. Watching these two go back and forth, having battles with words, their wit and the safety of one another’s allies was a treat to watch. Petrov in particular was an unstable, paranoid leader who constantly placed difficult obstacles in Frank’s path towards a peaceful resolution and to see Frank have to deal with these issues was certainly exciting to watch.
My only real issue with the Russian story line was that the show wasn’t as brave with the content that it decided to touch upon. More specifically, the show chose to put some focus on the controversial topic of how homosexuals are treated in in Russia but the problem with this was that the show didn’t really have anything important to say about such a socially relevant topic, it instead tip toed around it by having all the Russian characters be conveniently in support for gay rights (secretly though) and not really get into the heart of what is happening in the country. Had the show been a little more bold in this story line and perhaps approached it from a way that would truly shine a light on the injustice that homosexuals face in Russia, instead of using it as a vehicle for Frank and Claire’s continually growing separation, I think it would have been something much more emotionally potent to the show and something that caused the lasting nature of that particular story line to stick in people’s minds.
Not wanting to ramble on for too long on every story line that was going on this season, I’m going to condense my thoughts on them and some of the other aspects of the show down into a more stream lined couple of paragraphs.
The first thing I want to touch on is Frank’s other main opponent for season 3, Heather Dunbar, played by the excellent Elizabeth Marvel. I really enjoyed this character, she was an easy individual to get on board with, what she stood for, what her motivations were and the story with her ties in nicely with what is happening in America right now, with the whole Hilary Clinton maybe running for the Democratic candidacy. Dunbar is someone who I’m really excited to see what becomes of her in the next season. She begins this one wanting to run a clean campaign, someone who wants to shake up the old ways of American politics but near the end of this season we start to see her beginning to waver, she begins to fall into using tactics that aren’t necessarily moral (exploiting Claire’s secret about having an abortion for example). I really think we’re going to get some meaty material form this character in the future and she has already proved that she’s willing to go toe to toe with Frank, and though she hasn’t beaten him yet, she seems like the person who might just be able to topple his crumbling oligarchy.
Two characters that certainly got to step up this season and let themselves be heard a little clearer were Remy Danton, played by Mahershala Ali and Jackie Sharp, played by Molly Parker. The story for these two was interesting to watch play out because we weren’t necessarily given much of it but it was still pretty enjoyable the times that we were. In particular was there descent from camp Underwood. Both of these were long plays in terms of the season but they were ones you could see coming because once again Frank is almost incapable of not burning the bridges of the people closest or most pertinent to forwarding his goals. The verbal shutdown he did on Jackie and then the blatant disrespect for Remy meant that there was no way the two wouldn’t jump ship. The show did unfortunately not give them a suitable conclusion in this season and left it quite open ended but I suppose that leads into the writer’s obsession with setting up so much for season 4.
Which I guess leads on to my main issue about the whole feel of season 3. House of Cards Season 3 felt like a place holder to an extent, so much more of it was there to set up season 4 and while yes this season had some incredible moments some of which I’ve touched upon throughout this piece, the main problem for all of it was that so much of it didn’t come with the same set up and subsequent knock out, it was more like, set up (sort of) and then wait a year to see if the big punches take out their intended target (so get excited in the meantime). The decision to have seasons 3 and 4 play so importantly into one another’s outcomes ultimately harmed the flow and final execution of season 3. It’s a real shame because both the first and second seasons were such heavy hitters, both had story lines and character motivations that bled into one another but they never felt like they did it at the disservice of the other, the opposite really, they helped elevate one another.
I think when people ultimately look back on House of Cards; this season will probably be regarded as one of the weakest. Now having said that, House of Cards is still a show that stands high and mighty above the majority of other shows out there. The level of acting, the content it touches upon, so much of House of Cards screams quality and season 3 is in no way unwatchable or egregiously bad, it’s just not of the same standards as its predecessors.
There were some things that I perhaps didn’t touch upon in the review. The Middle East Crisis, the return of Freddy and the underwhelming way in which his character was handed etc. I just don’t want to dwell on every single aspect of the season, more give a broad overlook of everything and I think from what you’ve read so far you can get a suitable sense of how I felt about this season overall and perhaps you agree or disagree with some of those points but that’s perhaps the most interesting thing about this season of House of Cards, is that it seems to be the most divisive one yet for fans. There are some to absolutely hate it and there are some who thought it was okay, I land in the camp of it being okay.
I would still recommend fans of House of Cards to watch this season of the show, it does do some new and interesting things with its characters and this season still comes packaged with the brilliance of Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and his now famous looks to camera. So yes, definitely watch this season but perhaps be prepared to be slightly let down by it.