Season 3 of House of Cards is now out on Netflix and I finished watching it just the other day. Now that I’ve had a couple days to reflect upon it, I find myself underwhelmed by the entire season.
Spoiler-ish Material (Nothing Specific) for House of Cards Season 3 Ahoy!
So I was a big fan of House of Cards seasons 1 & 2. Frank Underwood’s deviousness and his scheming was fascinating and the toxic nature of his character was enthralling. It was watching a spider weave its web, explain to us directly how it was going to drain the life from some flies, and then suck the juices out of all the little flies that were unwittingly his victims, while other flies wondered what was happening to everyone. He was a conniving, slimy, uncaring creature, and watching him claw his way into power was excellent television. And then he got the power that he so craved. He got the authority, the highest position in the land, the leader of the mightiest nation on Earth! And he turned into a politician.
Of course he’s always been a politician, but before season 3 the show was much more about his climb to power, his plotting against his enemies, the manipulation of the story and the pawns around him. He was the ultimate puppet-master (even though, when you really think about some of his plans, they were pretty ill-advised. But anyways), and he could move the pieces around the board without the pieces even knowing they were being pushed about. It was really interesting, from the very start when he snapped that dog’s neck to the moment when he slammed his ring into the presidential desk.
But becoming the president changed the way that Frank operated, as it had to. He could no longer have clandestine meetings or manipulate the press into leaking what he wanted leaked. Almost everything he did had to be above board, as everyone was now watching his every move. While this is more realistic, considering he is now the president, it makes for much less interesting storytelling.
Suddenly, it was no longer about crushing and humiliating his opponents and grabbing power. No, instead it was about passing legislation and winning elections. While shows like The West Wing have proven that this can be interesting, it really is only interesting when you’re actually rooting for the person trying to accomplish those goals, when they’re good people. But I’m only in Frank Underwood’s corner when he’s being the snake in the grass. I’m only cheering Frank on when he’s being as despicable as can be. I only want Frank Underwood to succeed if it means that he is going to be monstrous while he’s doing it. That is when House of Cards is great viewing. However, he has to operate above board now, so all that’s pretty much out the window.
The problem is that I don’t care about the legislation that he’s pushing so hard for this season. I probably wouldn’t agree with in real life, so if it doesn’t go through in the show, what do I care? I might care if Frank were a good person, someone who we could root for, a champion of righteousness and morality, but he’s not. He’s a despicable human being who’s done horrible things, and if him winning means boring television, then I kinda want him to lose. I don’t care about him going to Iowa and giving speeches, campaigning to try and win points against his opponent. I want to see him cripple his opponent through some evil scheme he thought up while they stare slack-jawed at him, incredulous at the depths he is willing to sink to. As it is, I really would have backed Dunbar to win. I was actually rooting for her, instead.
The only time that I really felt like I was legitimately on Frank’s side was in his dealings with Petrov, who was a highlight in the season. The only way to get on board with a slimy snake is to have an even slimier snake for him to face down. The other seasons you were entranced by Frank’s scheming, but watching him be out-schemed was fun, too. It was also fascinating how the show blended real-world happenings with Pussy Riot and the Russian anti-gay laws into the plot. I hope that in future seasons they bring back Petrov as a major character again. That plot was a high point in a kind of mediocre season.
I had an inkling that this season was going to be different when the first episode spent a good amount of time focusing on Doug Stamper. Doug has always been a good character on the show, being Frank’s go-to man for pretty much everything, but especially the shadier side of his dealings. He was creepy, but being the go-to guy for Frank’s seedier dealings, he needed to be creepy. He definitely worked best as a side character, though. Doug was the one holding Rachel hostage, and I was pretty much cheering when she got the drop on him at the end of season 2, so I wasn’t thrilled about spending so much time on his recovery and his problems with his family and alcohol. I mean, check in on him from time to time, whatever, but it doesn’t need to take up much screen time. Though maybe the writers have big plans for him in season 4, so possibly it will all be worth it eventually. Not holding my breath, though.
But back to Frank. I have no problem with a show focused on the bad guy. Again, I enjoyed seasons 1 & 2, and I was a huge fan of Breaking Bad. But if you’re going to have a character who’s undeniably a bad guy, you’ve got to make the show interesting for other reasons than wanting to see him succeed. Season 3 of House of Cards had Frank on the defensive the entire time rather than his usual scheming self, which is fine, but it’s got to be more compelling than what they did. In Breaking Bad, Walt was on the defensive almost the entire run of the show, and it was fascinating television. Couldn’t tear my eyes away. Being on the defense can be the most interesting and exciting thing there is! House of Cards season 3 just wasn’t that.
Then they throw in some marital trouble between Frank and Claire, and I’m supposed to care? They’re both horrible people who co-conspired to grab as much power as they could, damn the consequences and whoever they hurt along the way, and I’m supposed to sympathize with them having problems communicating? Or with Claire’s desire to be a strong, independent woman? She knew what she was getting herself into, and I hate to say it but I was definitely on Frank’s side when he dressed her down the way he did. They were a team, an evil one, but a team. Now, if they weren’t both horrible people I would consider that an abhorrent way to speak to your wife, obviously, but as they’re both dickheads, I was on his side.
I know that I was very down on season 3 of House of Cards in this article, but really, while watching it, I enjoyed the season. I actually did, honestly. Upon further reflection after the fact, however, I definitely did have problems with it. And most of those problems stemmed from enjoying the first 2 seasons so much. This season simply fell below the mark when it comes to the show. It set a high bar for itself in seasons 1 & 2, and season 3 was simply sub-par. That being said, I still like the show and will be returning for season 4 when it comes out. I hope that he gets into a full-blown war with Petrov, now THAT would be interesting television.