Note: this review contains spoilers
“What are you looking at?” Frank Underwood sneers at us, the viewers, at the end of “Chapter 32”, the sixth episode in House of Cards third season. He is the President of the United States, and slowly, his empire of power is unraveling all around him.
While viewers have marveled at Francis’ gradual rise from Majority Whip to the Commander in Chief, our interest doesn’t so much lie in what Frank accomplishes so much as how he gets there, maneuvering and taking punches and somehow still coming out on top. House of Cards‘ Third Season doesn’t waste much time setting things up, jumping six months into the Underwood administration where his own stock and popularity are at all-time lows, with even Stephen Colbert grilling Underwood and bringing out a venom we have rarely seen in him since his real-life interview with Julian Assange back in 2010.
A majority of the first episode is actually seen from the perspective of Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Frank’s former Chief of Staff whose obsession with former sex worker Rachel (Rachel Broshnahan) lead to him being left for dead at the close of Season Two. His gradual recovery becomes a focal point for the first half of the season, and his own life interweaves in interesting ways, his dedication to the Underwood’s being one of the show’s most relentless driving actions even as the storyline involving his former hacker buddy Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) remains the season’s weakest aspect.
Let’s not sugarcoat things though: despite the focal point, this season isn’t about Frank Underwood doing his best to consolidate his power. This season is all about Claire trying to find her place in the world, and Robin Wright carries off Clarie’s struggle with aplomb. Early on, she guns to be the Ambassador at the U.N., but despite some rather intense whipping of votes in what is arguably one of the best sequences in the entire season, she still comes up short. Frank appoints her anyway, and before long she runs into numerous instances of her being disrespected or marginalized due to her lack of experience. She pulls of some clever backroom deals here and there (and her flawless delivery of the line “Hand me a towel, would you?” practically makes the season), but it doesn’t prove to be enough, and despite her personal popularity being at an all-time high with the public, she tarnishes the Underwood brand politically, her forced resignation from her post being one of the terms that the Putin-esque President of the Russian Federation Viktor Petrov (a remarkable Lars Mikkelsen) demands before moving forward with a conditional agreement with Frank after a mysterious military operation kills Russian soldiers.
Yet one of the largest misconceptions about the show has always been conflating Claire Underwood as a Lady MacBeth stand-in, quietly moving her husband’s agenda forward no matter what the cost, the real power behind the throne, etc. Despite having no secrets between her and Frank and a willingness to participate in three-ways with their security detail, Claire has always been her own woman. As she notes in the season finale, she absolutely hates how she must get Frank’s permission to continue carrying out her own goals, and as the season progresses, a strain is placed on their marriage as she realizes she is actual Frank’s equal, not his second-in-command.
In what may be the season’s must striking moment, Claire finally affords some time to Thomas Yates (Boardwalk Empire‘s Paul Sparks), a renowned writer whom Frank has commissioned to write a book about his life. Yates realizes that Claire is such a large part of Francis Underwood’s story, and during a campaign stop, finally gets to speak to her for a preciously 15 minutes as she donates blood. He admonishes her for literally giving Frank her blood for a photo opp, but as they speak alone, the camera quietly zooms in on her face, and feeling lightheaded, Claire pours over the relationship she’s built with Frank over all these years:
“I was thinking. Jumping. Never had that feeling in a conversation. On a bridge. You look over. Step back. He proposed and I said ‘Seven years. If it’s so good, another seven. Not … every seven years.’ I don’t hate campaigns. What I hate is … how much I need him. I didn’t jump. I didn’t step back.”
As divine as Wright’s performance is, special note must also be given to Elizabeth Marvel, who plays Heather Dunbar, the special prosecutor who helps bring down President Walker in Season Two and decides to set her sights on the presidency in Season Three, proving to be strong-willed and cunning in a way that sometimes rivals Frank at his most devious. While Doug Stamper offers his services and Congresswoman Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) is perpetually cautious about her intentions, Dunbar proves to be the perfect moral counterbalance to Frank’s glib political theatricality, their rivalry coming to a head during a televised debate which leaves poor Jackie in the fray.
Francis has more than his share of enemies this time out, which makes the results of the surprisingly-understated season finale sting all the more. While Season Three doesn’t have any of the same shock moments that we’ve been treated to in the past (i.e. Frank doesn’t kill anyone), it makes up for that in what is one of the most compelling seasons yet.
Yet even Doug Stamper would find issues with the Underwood’s third outing in our Netflix queue. Despite being such a strong, notable component in Season One, Frank’s “direct address” moments to the audience in Season Three feel like an afterthought, being done out of pure obligation more than anything else, as they provide little insight. If creator Beau Willimon and company want to make the bit work, they have to stick with it, not pepper it in so casually.
The utterly abrupt removal of Republican Senator Hector Mendoza (Benito Martinez) from the season feels shoehorned, fiery reporter Kate Baldwin (Gone Girl‘s Kim Dickens) feels like a great new adversary for Frank before she completely gives up a solid lead in the form of a major FCC violation she witnessed first-hand on Air Force One, and Stamper’s brother, Rachel’s religious friend, and Chief of Staff Remy Danton’s arcs all feel undercooked. While nothing here is as brazen as the complete removal of reporter Lucas Goodwin from Season Two, the storylines sometimes aren’t as tight as the show’s cinematography and score, two of its impeccable elements.
Ultimately, House of Cards Season Three is a great continuation of a show that remains deliciously dramatic even with a few glaring flaws. Despite the shrewd political skullduggery that goes on, the seasons’ best moments, much less its entire spirit, can be summed up by its very last moment, with Frank standing in the White House, sternly muttering one word: “Claire.”