The Problems with ‘House of Cards’ Season 3


I didn’t actually mind having sustained a painful injury this weekend – inflicted when my 2 year old daughter launched herself off my ribs and left some damage – because being left confined to the couch gave me an excuse to burn through all 13 episodes of House of Cards season 3. The first two seasons of the show sits as one of the high watermarks of modern television, and that’s quite an achievement in the modern era. Between the writing, the high production quality and the amazing cast it’s been the best thing to happen to political thrillers in years. For every scene from The West Wing that inspired us there were two in House of Cards that terrified us. And we loved it.

The highly anticipated third season though…it’s got problems that the über-slick first two years didn’t. For this breakdown I’m going to assume that you’ve seen at least up to the end of the second season, wherein anti-hero Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) took up the office of U.S. President.

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If you have read this far, spoiler.

That right there, that’s the first problem. In the pilot episode we saw Underwood getting passed over for a job he had been promised in the new administration, then fixing his sights on those responsible. Vowing to discredit and remove everyone between him and the Oval Office the game was of manipulation, blackmail and murder with Underwood fulfilling his ultimate goal. But now he’s done that there’s no-where left to go. They honestly could’ve called wrap right there.

Having won the day (from a villain’s perspective) Underwood is now in the highest position available to him. He’s reached the top of the proverbial pile, and unless as we push the boundaries of believability and make him Grand Emperor Underwood of Earth there’s nothing else for him to strife towards. Instead he’s been put on the back foot, forced to play King of the Hill and defend his empire. Underwood is a character we like to see on the attack. He’s a vicious, corrupt and single minded force and that’s what made him fascinating. In his own words he’d do the things he had to. Like many anti-heroes he was so charming that we’d find ourselves drawn into his world just to see what he’d do.

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Something sly.

Sadly Underwood in the defence is not as interesting as Underwood on the attack. He’s not climbing his way up the totem, he’s running to stay in the same space. The most interesting episodes concerned the campaign episodes later in the season where he had a clearly defined enemy. Prior to that his big goal was to push through his employment reform. Trying to destroy a world leader proves to be more interesting television than an economic stimulus package.

This is a simpler version of the story, there being plenty of personal conflicts and smaller battles taking place, but for a large part of the series the main thrust of the plot is lacking the clear end goal that made the first two seasons such a great show for binge watching. This is a big narrative issue…but there are some smaller issues as well.

In the first episode Frank Underwood is shown on The Colbert Report being interviewed by political comedian Stephen Colbert. This was pretty amusing little moment, but on reflection it feels kinda surreal. Why is this fictional character being interviewed by a real person? In transcends the fictional setting of the show and ultimately feels gimmicky. It feels more like an MTV Awards comedy skit rather than part of a dark drama series. It contrasts with the fictional representations of real people like important new character Russian President Viktor Petrov (or as I  thought of him, ‘Not-Putin’). At least they didn’t put Petrov on screen with Colbert. Pussy Riot, on the other hand…

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Yes, Pussy Riot.

An early episode sees Not-Putin visit the White House and some of the guests at the official dinner are Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot. The real life members of a band arrested a persecuted by Putin appeared as themselves on a fictional show to sass a fictional character based on Putin. Yes, it was funny and yes, it stuck it to the man but it also carried that surreal tone as seeing Colbert on the show. Then there was a music video at the end of it.

Also, Underwood doesn’t talk to the camera as much as before. Am I imagining this? I’m pretty sure he spends less time soliloquising and that was one of my favourite parts of the show.

Before you hit up the comments to tell me how much I suck, and request that I stop sucking so much, I loved watching this season. It was fantastic and even the weakest season of House of Cards stands head and shoulders above most of TV and cinema and stuff in general. Spacey was amazing, Robin Wright as his diabolical partner gets better and better and the show as a whole is a work of art. It was awesome. But I expect next season to be better. We’re going into an election and we’re going to have a new enemy for Underwood. Plus Claire has walked out on him, we want to see where things are going with that. More of this show please.

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Hell yes.

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