The following review contains major spoilers; you have been warned.
When Frank Underwood rapped his ring on the President’s desk at the end of House of Cards Season 2, I knew I would be waiting for Season 3 with bated breath. The anecdote I always tell when I recommend HoC to people is that I accidentally watched a season-and-a-half of the series because it’s just so damn good (someone had actually recommended “House of Lies” to me; I obviously misheard). So does Season 3 hold up to the hype? I’d have to say: Meh, sometimes. I enjoyed Season 3, but it’s definitely the weakest season so far.
Despite the problems I had with it, Season 2 has some undeniably great content. Some new characters (or old characters with new storylines) intersect with the main cast in surprising and fun ways. Stephen Colbert makes an appearance as himself. Jimmi Simpson returns as hacker Gavin Orsay, reluctant ally and foil of stalker and attempted-murderer Doug Stamper. Paul Sparks joins the cast as Thomas “Tom” Yates, a renowned author tasked with writing a book on the ever-controversial “America Works” (AmWorks) project, but who also has a few skeletons in the closet of his own. And Lars Mikkelsen enters as a formidable foe to Frank Underwood: Russian President Viktor Petrov (an obvious caricature of Vladimir Putin) with an insurmountable pride and a mastery of the passive-aggressive remark.
If anyone thought the main cast too easily came out on top in Seasons 1 and 2, Season 3 will be a refreshing change. This ever-dynamic web of complex and opposing motivations, desperation, questionable morality, and constant setbacks ushers in a welcomed sense of urgency to Frank Underwood’s rough rise to the Presidency. The Underwoods are opposed at every turn: Claire is rejected as the UN Ambassador and then challenged constantly when she does get the position; Frank’s AmWorks program struggles for funding and bristles some fur when he finds an…unconventional source of resources; Frank’s lead in the Presidential race falters when he is betrayed by Jackie Sharp, an ex-ally whose toes he steps on one too many times; and Viktor Petrov, who participates in everything from forcefully kissing Claire at a public party to allegedly bombing his own people in order to get the strategic upper hand on Frank.
The most satisfying conflict—and one that arguably provides the most believable and intense suspense and drama—is between the Underwoods themselves. The President and First Lady’s seamless support of one another begins to crumble, exposing weaknesses that were underdeveloped in seasons 1 and 2. Questions of power, gender, sacrifice, resilience, and love challenge the couple at every turn, ultimately resulting in the climactic season finale where Claire tells Frank that she is leaving him. (To which I say: Can you blame her?)
Another strength of the season is its fearless attention to real-world issues. The introduction of President Petrov allows for an honest look at gay rights and activism in Russia, freedom of speech, and military conflict (including drone attacks). The show even welcomes the TV debut of Pussy Riot, the all-female Russian activist group, who enter and exit with a flourish in episode 3. The season also addresses national unemployment issues, male/female wage disparities, and the hypocrisy in Walmart’s low-paying, high-profit corporate standards. I applaud the writers for their brazenness.
Now let’s get to the cons. How about the awkward start to the season? The first few episodes expose the reader to a series of slow-paced, uncomfortable scenarios that range from Frank Underwood pissing on his father’s grave stone; to the sob story of attempted-murder (and, by the season’s end, actual murderer) Doug Stamper’s recovery from the beating his female victim inflicted upon him in order to escape; to an uncomfortable sex scene between Claire and Frank where Frank is literally pouting and crying on the floor; to Claire negotiating with President Petrov’s (male) employee and associate while she is on the toilet; and the try-hard writing of episode 4, featuring a Christ statue nearly falling and crushing Frank while he pretends to pray. I don’t even want to talk about how I felt when Frank picks up an ear from the debris, only to look at the camera and say “Well, I’ve got God’s ear now.” These examples are just some of many where the attempt to shock the audience takes precedence over good writing.
Speaking of shock, Doug Stamper, as I mentioned above, kills the ex-sex worker he has been stalking. That’s right, the President’s own Chief of Staff manages to sneak away unnoticed to harass, stalk, abduct and eventually kill a woman. Then he gets right back to his job like it was no big deal. Not only is this whole storyline fairly disturbing, but it’s entirely unrealistic. I understand that House of Cards is not necessarily meant to be “realistic”, but after the shocking murder of Zoe Barnes (by Frank Underwood himself) I was hoping that the show would a) stop brutally killing women on-screen and b) realize that getting away with one murder was absurd and a second is just getting silly.
Frank Underwood has always been ruthless. It’s why he makes such a great villain in Season 3. But in Season 3 he has basically become a parody of himself. He’s lost his human touch (except, maybe, in the small glimpses we see of him through Thomas’s writing—which, we learn, is mostly lies and manipulation anyway). It’s too much. He antagonizes his wife, his staff, his opponents, his dead father, his “friends”, the Russian President, God, members of the press, congressmen and -women who disagree with him—the list really goes on forever. It feels a bit gimmicky to have him become “mad with power” before he has even officially been elected. The writers have pushed him so far into the deep end that he is drowning, just like the fake story he tells Tom for his book. A redundant tyrant does not an interesting character make. The best part about Frank has always been the “will-he, won’t-he” struggle when it comes to tough actions and decisions. In Season 3, we just know that he will.
And what about the Jordan Valley conflict? Dense, convoluted, and uninteresting, the fight to bring peacekeeping troops to the Jordan Valley disregards many truths about Israel and the UN that I won’t go into here because others have already done a much better job than I ever could. I watched HoC Season 3 through twice in order to write this review and I still can’t tell you what the hell was going on with Frank and the Jordan Valley “crisis”. The Jordan Valley plot shifts quickly from boring background noise to an unintelligible firestorm. Maybe the writers were counting on the viewer to be confused and politically uninformed, but even someone pseudo-interested in world politics can smell a bad story when it is this bad. The rapid-fire political developments in this international crisis are as unbelievable as the thought of easy peace in the Middle East via UN actions.
House of Cards has always been over the top, but Season 3 takes it to a whole new level. The writing that grabbed so many viewers in the first two seasons has become lazy. This season’s attempt to shock and surprise the audience overshadows any attempt at maintaining interesting character development or believable storylines. The show has so much potential but Season 4 will need to tone down the Hollywood gimmicks and remember that this is supposed to be a show about people and politics.
Pros/ Claire Underwood’s character development and plotline
Attention to real world issues (particularly unemployment)
Cons/ Frank Underwood has become static
The absurd Jordan Valley storyline
Gimmicky writing and plot twists
Doug Stamper (he’s a big con, in general)