Ignoring the 10-episode leak early last month, Netflix dumped the entirety of the third season of what is becoming their flagship creation House of Cards. Picking up directly after the confusingly happy/sad conclusion to the second season, we catch up with the Underwoods in the White House. Over the course of 13 episodes, though, the dramatic value of their success is proving problematic.
First off, there are spoilers for the first two seasons of the show contained in this review. Second, there are spoilers for the third season as well because you can’t very well talk critically about the end of it without talking about the beginning and everything else in between. Third, the first episode opens exactly how you’d want it to: Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood looking into the camera and being a supreme hardass.
Unfortunately, after that, it…slows. It doesn’t meander, necessarily, because it focuses very intently on one particular aspect of the show that has gone unmined thus far, which is to say we find out Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper, Underwood’s fixer man, is still alive and has undergone physical rehab.
It’s an interesting subject to broach. For the past two seasons, all we’ve seen of Stamper is the fact he just makes problems go away. Despite his alcoholism and debilitating sense of professional loyalty at the expense of personal growth, he is (mostly) impervious to fault. Even his stumbles across the previous 26 episodes were quickly remedied through interesting and engaging complications.
Stamper, in fact, consumes roughly half of the entire third season, exploring what happens to a man who identifies himself by his job loses his drive. More than that, he loses the faculty to regain his place with an obvious physical handicap as well as a newly minted mental anguish. That, in itself, is a gripping concept to probe.
By the end, though, there fails to be any significance to this deviance from the Underwood narrative track. When the curtain falls on the third season, Stamper is back to where he was when we first met him. That complication is thrown out the window, which might very well be a commentary on innate individual nature but comes across as disappointing. We want that half of that season to mean something.
It’s kind of the problem with all of the third season. The dramatic impetus throughout is somewhat lacking, although for a variety of reasons. There’s no singular aspect or folly that drags the entire show down, but when you add it up, you have a stack of issues that certainly makes it a lesser season.
For instance, Frank and Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood have finally made it to the White House. They are the most powerful couple in the world. Their collective sociopathy has been vindicated. But now what? There are absolutely complications presented throughout, but none of it is as inherently interesting as their mad scramble to the top.
Moreover, the obstacles that crop up have a tendency to border on the insane. For the longest time, we clung on to this runaway train because it was a series of mad moves in a world of mad people. But now that we have perspective on the presidential proscenium, Frank’s decisions to basically rob FEMA or his encounters with a Bond-ian villain dressed up as the Russian president (played coolly and maniacally by Lars Mikkelsen) are much harder to swallow. The layers brought on by video game critic Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), however, is rather compelling.
It’s a very strange framework presented in this season. It’s very much an effect of the Netflix binge format (I’ll have more to say on that in another piece), but given all the things that happen in this season, they feel justified as a batch of 13 episodes. On the other hand, the overall arc of intertwining plots and eventual cliffhanger feel like something that could have been easily been compacted into two or three episodes and greatly benefited from the truncation.
Such criticism, though, overshadows the greatest assets of the series, which are the actors. Spacey is still as deliciously dark as he’s ever been, effortlessly switching between the charming and affable President of the United States and the ruthless, bloodied, and insatiably hungry madman we’ve come to be terrifyingly enchanted with.
Then there’s Wright as Claire, an equally complex character, but presented in an infinitely more subtle light. Whereas Spacey’s is overwhelming and overbearing in his relentless pursuit, Wright’s subtlety and elegance betray her commensurate desires of not just getting it all but taking it all.
Part of their values as actors in presenting these delectable characters is their lines, and that can be most greatly attributed to show creator and head writer Beau Willimon. Consider this chilling line: “Do you know what I like about people? They stack so well.” Or this most perfectly assertive one: “The President is like a lone tree in an empty field. He leans whichever way the wind is blowing.”
Those are from Willimon, and you can almost tell without reading the credits when he is credited as the writer in any given episode. There is simply a more pervasive simple confidence and potency to his words that create and destroy characters in swift turns with an incredible economy of words.
And this is still a beautiful show (Wright even directed a few episodes), albeit with some overly on-the-nose visual metaphors. But the beauty and immediate engagement of saucy lines delivered by powerful actors can only do so much to patch up the cracks and holes of a troubled narrative. It’s still engaging but the physicality—the steely, crushing grip of past seasons—has faded. Worth watching, but do temper your expectations.
+ Topnotch acting all around
+ Compelling writing
+ Visually still a treat
– Mad dash feeling has evaporated
– Dramatic value has similarly diminished
Final Score: 7 out of 10