This review contains slight spoilers for the third season of “House of Cards”.
“House of Cards” has been one of the most intriguing pieces of television in recent times, because the story has been well paced, the acting has been brilliant, and the situations that the characters have found themselves in have constantly evolved. This is Netflix’s prize asset, along with the hugely popular “Orange Is The New Black”, so there’s been a lot of anticipation surrounding this season. Furthermore, because it’s on a subscription platform and not on Sky the show runners have the advantage of telling their story in the way that they really want to, rather than dragging things on to make more cash.
However, despite the fact that season three has everything going for it, it’s as shaky as Frank’s (Kevin Spacey) marriage, and as confused as the people that vote for him. The series up to this point has chronicled Frank Underwood’s rise to power in the United States political system, culminating in his occupation of the Oval office. This season picks up some time after the events of season two, as Frank is struggling to maintain the support of both the American public and his staff. We watch as he tries to keep it all together, introducing the America Works programme (which aims to scale down entitlements and create new job opportunities) in order to rejuvenate his career and cement his position as president. You might think that this sounds about right, because what makes the show great is the insight it gives into the dirty side of politics and that world is seen in abundance in this season.
Nonetheless, what has made “House of Cards” popular is the fact that it exudes intelligence in both its writing and its performances. In previous seasons Frank has schemed his way to the top and crushed those who have opposed him along the way, but in season three there’s none of that. As Frank himself puts it, the presidency has given him ‘the illusion of power’. Frank can’t be the man he was meant to be, the presidency doesn’t fit his personality, because all eyes are squarely on him and he can’t get away with the things he used to. He can’t occupy himself with everyone else’s business in order to push them down into the dirt, because he’s already knee deep in his own filth. He’s good at picking pockets, but he’s not so good at selling the merchandise.
By the end of the season the show is in the run-up to the next election, and we watch as Frank faces numerous difficulties whilst attempting to make his candidacy credible. He manages to sway public opinion enough to get back to the position you might’ve expected him to be in to begin with; he’s neck and neck with the opposition and things are as tense and tight as they’ve always been on “House of Cards”, as the title would suggest. The problem is that because of this nothing really changes in the season, the landscape is exactly as it was at the end of the second season, apart from the fact that Frank has overcome some of the negativity regarding his presidency. The elections are never really there as a possibility in the season, you know that the story isn’t going to get to that point and that if that’s the main goal you’ll have to wait for season four, so you never actually care what’s going on.
There are plenty of subplots to sink your teeth into in this season, as Claire (Robin Wright) and Frank’s marriage becomes less and less loving, Claire becomes an ambassador for the UN, and America faces more than one issue from an aggressive Russian Prime Minister. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these stories, but everything is just so generic and predictable that for me season three is almost a non-starter. The season stalled before it backed out of the driveway because there was nowhere to go for Underwood, his life could only get worse if the show was to come to a satisfying end. Right now the writers refuse to press towards that necessitated conclusion and they’re biding their time before the show loses popularity, making things extremely dull in the meantime.
This season felt more like a set-up for the next edition than a fully formed season of television. There’s been a natural progression on this show; in season one Frank rose to Vice Presidency and in season two he rose to the Presidency – we’ve seen the rise so all we needed to see in season three was the almighty fall. I wanted an ending, that’s all I wanted, and before watching this season I simply couldn’t escape the feeling that Frank had to die. I felt that this should be it for “House of Cards” and that things were set up for everything to end in a blaze of glory.
However, that was not so. This show is ending, but rather than hurtling towards a powerful and compelling conclusion it’s dying a slow and laboured death. The only character that has a genuine character arc in the season is Stamper (Michael Kelly), and his is one that makes the entirety of his story in season two irrelevant. Everything is back to the way it was for Doug, and that’s very dissatisfying from my point of view, particularly because I didn’t like him in the first place.
The quality of storytelling has held “House of Cards” together thus far and made it the success story that it is, as we’ve been given wonderful and shocking moments such as when (SPOILER ALERT) Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) met her grizzly end. This level of quality doesn’t return in season three. The characters are so inconsistent, for example, Claire often acts as though she could be as vicious as Frank, yet she can’t stomach one man’s suicide when she sees it for herself. I don’t buy her character development in this season, not in the slightest, and every moment she spent occupying my screen was one of tedium and monotony.
There were so many moments in which Frank’s abrasive and unorthodox nature was reinforced to an audience that didn’t need the reminder. For example, in episode one Frank decides to urinate on his father’s grave out of sheer spite and hatred. That’s all well and good, I can definitely believe that he’d do that, but why do I need to see it? I could understand if this was the start of a new season on Sky, because people could be hopping on the bandwagon due to recommendations, requiring an introduction to the character. But this is a Netflix original, there’s no need to introduce your character’s personality to the audience again because nobody should be starting from season three! Season one is right there at the touch of a button and if you commit to watching it then you’ll be caught up in a week or two. I hated the fact that we had to see Frank being Frank again, we’ve seen it all before and it feels like an insult to my intelligence when I know that a writer is using a scene as a device to show off a character trait that I am already well aware of.
This should’ve been the final season of “House of Cards”, the writers had the perfect rise and fall formula in the palm of their hands, but instead they chose to drag the story out for a reason that I simply cannot comprehend. This show is ready to be taken out back and put out of its misery, but those holding the gun simply cannot bring themselves to pull the trigger. Instead of capitalising on the political intrigue and compelling characters that this show has done so well with in the past, “House of Cards” season three focuses on the soap-opera like melodrama between a president and the woman keeping him sane, and as a result it loses any real power. Frank’s marriage and his career are hanging on a knife edge by the end of this season, but the promise of a pay-off next year isn’t enough for me to say that this season was worth watching. As the season meanders towards its conclusion you will plead desperately for something to happen, for a ground-breaking event to exceed your expectations and turn a very average season of television into something wonderful, but by the end you’ll still be waiting, disappointed and bored.