Frankly my dear, FU.
Remember season four of The Sopranos? The one with some interesting moments but, ultimately, a season that could have been condensed into far fewer episodes and either brought forward or pushed back? House of Cards season three is a lot like that. Having done my very best to avoid previews and concurrent social media chatter related to what I assumed was set to be the show’s final season, I actually became suspicious when after a week, just as I was finishing, I still hadn’t seen or received any genuine “OMG HOC WTF?!?!” statuses or messages. This made it abundantly clear prior to the home stretch that this wasn’t the final season, which of course proved to be the case with, by the time I reached it, a fairly predictable, sort of nothing ending.
Now I’m not saying that television requires lots of flash bang moments to be considered engaging or of high quality – far from it – but Claire and Francis, the two most selfish individuals in recorded history, splitting up under pressure at a crucial moment in both their political careers? Well fuck me, didn’t see that one coming (see my review of e01). The problem I have with this approach is that such a “reveal” didn’t really need to be set up over an entire season. It’s certainly not much of a memorable finale. It comes across quite plainly as the producers thinking, “Hmmmmmmmmm, well we were probably supposed to finish up this season, but it’s going pretty well right? We could get one more full season out of it right? Yeah lets do that”, followed by all of them agreeing instantly and putting the writers to work with orders to stretch out the original plans by a minimum of one hundred percent. Even a seemingly drawn out Sopranos/Breaking Bad split final season-type scenario would have been preferable, amounting essentially to a season and a half worth of material. Again, it’s not a final twelve episodes I take issue with, rather the fact that this particular season, i.e. the build up, was two-three times as long as it needed to be or should have been.
The saving grace content-wise is the surprisingly excellent, albeit leisurely, filler-laden character development of the key secondary characters, namely Doug Stamper, Gavin, and newcomer Tom Yates, played by Paul Sparks. Having recently finished HBO’s quite frankly marvellous Boardwalk Empire, it was refreshing to see mainstay Sparks (Mickey Doyle) back playing a very different role here. He leads said secondary triumvirate with a dark but subtle, emotionally conflicted performance on par with that of Michael Kelly, playing Doug. Both roles are very well written and consistently feature within the standout moments of the season, dragging the merry-go-round Underwoods along with them whenever they’re in the same room or in direct contact. Tom in particular shares some wonderful scenes with Frank, Spacey thriving on the obvious but convincing underlying sexual tension between them. Whilst Doug’s overwhelming quest to prove his loyalty, battle his demons, and suppress his emotions are depicted best when he’s isolated, both physically and mentally, away from the main players, his brief encounters with Frank too are far more engaging than the majority of the President’s scenes elsewhere. Gavin is a rung below in comparison, but like Doug he is far more interesting this time around, demonstrating his truly fucked up dedication to saving his own skin, peppered here and there with enough signs of humanity to induce empathy for his plight, something that the viewer wasn’t all that inclined to feel in season two.
Despite the wonderful advancements demonstrated with the above, the success of these characters is hampered somewhat by the aforementioned issue plaguing the season as a whole. Each arc, whilst welcome and highly merited, is unnecessarily drawn out to an extent. This applies more to Doug and Gavin, whose pursuit of the illusive Rachel extends over too long a time period (remember, the season jumps forward in large chunks fairly often – see below) and starts to become general filler before it’s hauled back from the brink by the real finale of e13, Doug’s kidnapping and murder of the girl with the unwanted power to destroy everything. This is one of those scenes I wish there were more of. As he drives away, leaving Rachel stranded but alive in New Mexico desert, it appears as though Doug’s circle of moral, empathetic mortality is complete. And then your nose proceeds to move slightly closer to the screen as your heart simultaneously sinks. The subsequent quick cut to Rachel’s burial is a haunting reminder of the lengths Doug is prepared to go to in order to both protect his reputation and drive home his loyalty to the President. His cat-and-mouse, smoke-and-mirror attitude with Heather Dunbar is underhand yes, but it’s the way of politics on the Hill. This is coldblooded horror at its finest. Thomas fairs better despite being rigorously attached to Frank and Claire’s timeline, as he is actually the true quality relief needed in a season full of filler in amongst the two main characters and their respective arcs. It’s difficult not to warm to his smarmy, enigmatic, but altogether honest charm, as Frank, the breaker of any and all men’s resistance, finally cracks even Tom’s ultra-laid back nature, finally riling and getting a rise from him.
Earlier I mentioned two aspects of the season that irritatingly contradict each other and hinder the overall ability of the plot to truly develop in a consistently engaging fashion. The first is the frequent time skips, which occur without warning and range from weeks to months. Now when I originally thought this was the final season this didn’t bother me too much at first, as such a technique is necessary for plot purposes in such cases, either prior to the season’s start point or as it progresses, such as Boardwalk Empire or Breaking Bad respectively. The second, contradictory factor, is that despite these random jumps forward in time, the main story arc, featuring Frank, Claire, and those they’re in direct association/conflict with throughout (Dunbar, Jackie Sharpe, Remy Danton, Putin) is a slow moving affair to the point of tedium at times, with few of the truly engaging development witnessed above.
There are some interesting moments sure, but whilst season two saw real progress with the Underwoods as characters and focused almost solely on them whilst maintaining consistent, edge-of-the-seat tension and intrigue around their actions and reactions, this time their seemingly gradual descent from the top suffers from copious amounts of forgettable filler material that doesn’t really amount to anything in the long run. The Russian side plot with Putin and Pussy Riot is almost comically cringeworthy at times. Alluding to current events is encouraged in a political drama for the online generation, but there really is no need to reflect or mock real life that much, especially when there’s no relevant conclusion. In the end Frank and Claire are just steaming on with the campaign trail and yes, although the Russia arc does help to finally make up Claire’s mind, again it’s developed and set up over a wearisome amount of time. The one nice part of Putin’s involvement is the writer’s decision to step back from a blind, one dimensional “villain”, and actually have the character show not only a human side in his own personal views, but also speak what appears to be accurately about the nature of Russian politics – a balanced, upfront, honest touch in the analysis of tyrannical political corruption to juxtapose the study of Washington’s own backdoor dealings.
Ultimately Frank and Claire’s rise to power was far more interesting than this version of how they deal with staying atop the summit. Frank’s audience-baiting (the grave, Jesus etc) comes across as petty – which suits his conniving, Iago like nature – but I assume such moments were also intended to have shock value, which to be honest, in my opinion, wasn’t really the case. Frank isn’t bigoted, backward or a coward – he is just a c-unit, but human all the same. However this is of course something we already knew when he murdered two people in cold blood during season one and two.
Frank’s relationship with Claire is also frustrating as one moment they show genuine love for one another, the next minute they’re all over the place, blinded by love but conflicted in their responses. Whereas in the first two seasons both characters came across as raw and full of potential – unknown quantities if you will – this time we already know all about them and are instead subjected to run of the mill conflicts of interest that show one to be as selfish and power hungry as the other, their alliance eroding with each passing decision to either back or abandon the other. This was evidently always going to be the case and could have been done more efficiently, with a more effective payoff than what we got come curtain down. Again it’s Tom Yates who brings out the best of the two characters, both directly when he meets with them, and indirectly when, through him, they reveal fleeting aspects of their past, both simple and convoluted, genuine and fabricated. On the whole the concept of the Underwoods is far more appealing than the Underwoods themselves this time around, which although fresh to an extent, also grows into the definition of filler due to the bloated nature of how it’s done. Claire herself also doesn’t draw you in as much as she did previously, with Robin Wright cold and striking as always, but almost permanently now looking down at everyone with that squinty look her character favours. Although she shows plenty of signs of nobility to counterbalance her own lust for recognition and power, they’re too intertwined and rehashed for you to care as much as you once did.
It would be unfair to label House of Cards season three as an endurance test. Rather it’s a stopgap between Frank’s rise and demise – which I assume season four will finally portray – a bridge too far if you will. It was evident from the start that the series wasn’t really designed to be one for longevity. It’s a slick but always gradually developing tale; with few standout episodes as such (as is the way with the recent Netflix phenomenon of binge watching) and never what I would call boring per se, but season three certainly gambled with (and will likely lose to) forgotten season syndrome – a shame for a show which could have been a real and welcome rarity in what could have be described as a ballsy, balanced, but brutally short (by modern standards) television epic. The intricacies of the build up work a lot better than the predictable sum of their parts. The finale was visible a mile off, but the developments proceeding it worked well. Unfortunately this is because in reality the whole thing was nothing short of a set up for what now is likely to be the final season. As I mentioned before, this approach is fine when done well, but with the inevitable year long wait for another full season now facing us, its frustrating for an audience when it’s blatantly obvious that the story and certain characters (in this case, the leads), haven’t benefited or progressed in what could be called, in terms of television dynamics, a tangible fashion.
The cast and minute-to-minute strength of the series will always make it entertaining to binge on at the very least, and of course season three still has its noteworthy positives and lovely moments. Doug’s little look when Frank announces he’s not running, Freddy waiting in line for AmWorks, Tom and journalist Kate Baldwin reading/narrating their interpretations of Frank as both a person and a president respectively, Meetchum eavesdropping on Thomas and Frank, Remy’s police encounter and subsequent moment with Jackie before quitting the administration, the blood giving scene, and Doug rolling down the window a crack whilst transporting Rachel to her doom. There’s some nice symbolism with the Tibetan monks too, as they demonstrate the ease with which something so beautiful, but equally intricate and delicate, can be destroyed in a fraction of the time it took to create. Overall however the season is a let down compared to what came before it and in terms of in-depth quality, audience expectation and final payoff. I have no doubt it can be restored to its rightful place as one of television’s recent classics, but even if it does this will also be Soprano’s season four, the “meh” member of the House of Cards family.