The highly anticipated third season of Netflix’s House of Cards opens with a baptism.
Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the devious and extravagantly-accented Southern Democrat has, through a series of blackmails and double-crosses, toppled all his foes and reached the White House. Flanked by a gaggle of press, President Underwood stands at the grave of his father, the late Calvin T. Underwood. In Frank’s eyes, his father died an unremarkable death—with only his son at his funeral. He is adamant that history will not repeat itself.
“When they bury me, it won’t be in my backyard,” he says. “And when they come to pay their respects, they’ll have to wait in line.” Then he whips it out and urinates all over the grave.
[Warning: If you haven’t seen the first half of Season 3, stop reading now.]
Season 3 of Beau Willimon’s saucy political drama opens six months into the Underwood presidency, and things are looking grim. Unemployment has skyrocketed while Frank’s approval ratings are in the crapper. Meanwhile, Claire (Robin Wright) is getting restless as first lady and, in true Hillary Clinton fashion, wants more. Oh, and Frank is without the services of his Boy Friday, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), who’s rehabbing after his near-death experience.Has Frank lost his mojo, and will he ever get it back? House of Cards-heads Marlow Stern and Emil Lendof dive into the first half of Season 3.
Marlow: So here we are. Season 3. Now that it’s been available to stream on Netflix for a week, we can (probably) dive into the first half of House of Cards’ new season without spoiler-trolls toilet-papering and/or egging our apartments like that little shit Justin Bieber. People seem to be mixed on the latest edition of House of Cards, with some praising its rich character arcs and others wary of the lack of action. No, this season doesn’t begin with an annoying blogger getting pushed in front of a train, and there isn’t a compelling, young firebrand like Kate Mara’s blogger or Corey Stoll’s druggie-politician, but like Kevin Spacey’s outrageous accent, it grew on me. But things get off to a bit of a slow start. It was interesting in the premiere to see things through Doug Stamper’s perspective for the first time—since he’s really become the most “genuine” and “sympathetic” character on the show. Also, when we’re first introduced to Frank, he’s six months into his presidency and facing intransigence from a GOP-controlled Congress (sound familiar?) as well as terrible jobs numbers. His own party wants him out of the Oval Office, and for the first time, the walls are closing in on him instead of vice-versa.
Emil: We are definitely introduced to a much more weakened Frank Underwood. At the end of last season we get to see him flaunt his bravado and assertiveness in power the moment he gets into office when he shuts down the China situation. At that point most viewers (meaning me) were like Oh, shit. This is it. Frank will whip the country back into shape through sheer will and cunning. But it's actually not the case. Not only does Frank have to deal with a reluctant Congress, a chaotic world, and his equally cunning wife, but he also lost his main man, Doug. Which is why I love how this season begins with the Doug sequence of him being found, and his recovery. It really adds another layer of humanity to one of the more consistently stoic characters. Before, Doug was the unbroken one. When things got rough for Frank, Doug was there to save the day. Now that Frank has all the power in the world (well, almost), he doesn't really need Doug. So we see a lot of challenges pertaining to Doug’s mortality and frailty as a human, his addiction that comes into the fold later on, and the effect it has on other characters (Frank, Dunbar) is also a nice touch.
Marlow: Right. Frank is at the top of the mountain now, but his biggest character flaw is his ego—the warped perception that he ascended to this perch all on his own. He’s fully convinced of this, yet we all know he couldn’t have risen to the highest office in the land without the undying support of his wife and group of fixers. The problem in Season 3 is that he’s alienated everyone in his camp, from Seth and Remy (who’ve been basically neutered with their official cabinet positions) to his closest ally, Doug, to his second-closest ally, Claire. These people feed Frank’s ego and allow him to soar. We saw that in the second episode when the party leadership informs him that they want a different candidate to run for president in 2016, and then all his donors hammer that point home. He’s broken and weeping in his office, and Claire mounts him and—in arguably the unsexiest sex scene of recent memory—brings him back to life. Frank needs people, but he’ll never wrap his head around that. And now that Frank has effectively pushed all of his allies away, he’s on an island and forced to deal with things on his own. Like the Russia conundrum—and Russian President Victor Petrov, who’s clearly Putin.
Emil: The sex scene was shocking—at first. And the fact that it’s so shocking to see this married couple having sex (their first time on camera!) in the first place really tells you how messed up their relationship is. He needs her to succeed, but she doesn’t need him so much. And sure, he appoints her as U.N. ambassador via executive order and she does a lackluster job (mostly due to preexisting political vendettas aimed at Frank), but I don’t think that reflects how much she needs him as much as it shows how weighed down she is by his neediness. And Frank's neediness is another reason why it's so interesting to see his ego take so many beatings this season, from the leadership of his own party turning against him to Petrov kissing his wife on the mouth in front of him—and Frank being forced to smile along with the awkwardness. That moment when Claire decides to alleviate Frank’s stress is one of the only moments in the series when he receives some form of love and support.
Marlow: Petrov is a good rival for Frank because he’s everything Frank is not—this macho, virile badass with military experience. He’s also more cunning than Frank. He knows Claire is Frank's blind spot, so when he kisses her in front of him, he’s emasculating him and putting him on tilt. Frank’s masculinity (or lack thereof) is really put to the test this season, and ultimately it’s Claire—not Frank—who grows a pair and tells Petrov how much of a narrow-minded asshole he is (to his face!) when she speaks out in support of the gay American dissident who hanged himself in his Russian cell to protest their anti-gay laws (while she napped just feet away). Speaking of the Russian arc, we also got to witness Pussy Riot’s Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina act out one of their innermost fantasies in telling off the show’s Putin at a state dinner. Oh, and we got to see Claire play a game of beer pong. Claire loses a lot this season… even a game of beer pong. But I had problems with pretty much every supporting storyline besides Doug’s, and the whole “America Works” initiative—Frank’s $500 billion jobs program to get everyone to work—seemed far-fetched, to say the least.
Emil: The whole America Works initiative is his attempt to make all the suffering he expects to endure worth it by cementing his legacy. And while the initiative does succeed at first, he abuses his presidential power (dipping into FEMA funds) to make it so. This overreaching subsequently makes him an easy target for his enemies—and even once-allies—in future episodes. I think after all the drama, Frank will come to the realization that he had much more power and pull as a whip than as president. And speaking of the henchmen, to see Remy so limited in his position as White House chief of staff was really sad. He went from being a real player in Washington, earning big bucks as a lobbyist for big corporations, to Frank’s bitch. As for Seth, his character’s always seemed too tangential; he’s a lamer version of Doug, and still is. The only moment he had to shine was when he snapped at Telegraph reporter Ayla Sayyad, and it was fleeting and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. All the storylines tied to Seth were, interestingly enough, also some of the weakest this season—from Ayla to her replacement Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) to her relationship with Frank’s novelist, which was super extraneous. Next time around, the writers’ room needs to flesh Seth out a bit more or show him the door.
Marlow: Completely agree with you on Seth. His smarminess was somewhat fascinating in Season 2, but he’s always been Doug sans the killer instinct—and you need that killer instinct in the cutthroat world of House of Cards. But this season of the show is mostly about the unraveling of Frank and Claire’s relationship, which previously seemed unstoppable. Things first begin going south following the Petrov incident, with Frank verbally undressing Claire for standing up to the despot (when he couldn’t), and then that very awkward presidential portrait moment, where he puts his hand on Claire’s shoulder and she flinches.
Emil: That moment with the shoulder is the moment in the season when I think both characters realize that it’s all downhill from there. By that point, Frank and Claire have pretty much exhausted their entire bag of old tricks in playing a completely different game than what they’re used to. It should be interesting to see how they adjust to the coming changes—especially all those skeletons that will are about to creep out of the closet from as far back as Season 1.
Tune in next week for a discussion of the second half of House of Cards’ third season.