“You rationalize the obscene into the palatable.”
— Heather Dunbar
“I’d rather imagine who you might be than who you actually are.”
— Tom Yates
When last we left Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the frenetic second season of House of Cards, he had bested all challenges and ensconced himself in the Oval Office. It was a thunderclap of a climax, his school ring rapping on the desk like a gunshot, the echo calling to mind the long line of rivals he had run over on the way there like human speedbumps. You almost expected the story to end there. But as every striver for the throne from Macbeth back to the Roman emperors discovered, staying in power is as much or more of a struggle than getting there in the first place.
For Season 3, the elements are lined up for a bruising 13-rounder. Underwood is hit with falling popularity and has to scrounge for a mandate. He’s without his trusted ally, the dead-eyed fixer Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) having survived that rock to the head from last season (a cheap cliffhanger reveal) but with brain trauma. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) doesn’t want to be just the average First Lady, so Francis is angling to get her named U.N. Ambassador, brushing aside mere quibbles like her complete lack of diplomatic experience and her rather atrocious French.
Further, the Putin-esque Russian President Viktor Petrov (a magnetic but misplaced Lars Mikkelsen) is blocking Francis’ push for a Middle East peace plan. Also, Francis’ big job program, America Works, is stymied in Congress; Assistant House Minority Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) is proving a less than reliable ally; and Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), the solicitor general he wants to plug up a looming Supreme Court retirement, would prefer to run against him in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
Of course, none of the above goes down in pretty fashion. The showrunners have always reveled in amplifying the jagged edges of these vicious but smiling operatives as they cruise the corridors of power, their only real differences being their aptitude for the knife fight and the degree of their self-delusion. But by moving to the larger stage of national and geopolitics, this season somehow loses its snap. There’s only so much time the characters can spend on Air Force One arguing over phony issues and crises (shoehorning Pussy Riot into the Petrov storyline was done in particularly clumsy fashion) before verging into West Wing earnestness.
Season 3 also loses sight of what made its central dynamic so enthralling. Sidelining Doug from the action for most of the season but still keeping him present is a double-edged sword. Throwing the role of a brain trauma victim slowly recovering his sense of self and trying to figure out how much of his old inhuman self he wants to retain is a true gift when given to somebody like Kelly. The quiet, tense solitude and sharp shocks of odd (two words: whiskey syringe) of his scenes are unlikely to be equaled anywhere else on television.
But leaving Doug without his master Francis, and then wrapping up his part in the season with a particularly unimaginative return to form at the end of it all, doesn’t advance the purposes of the show. Claire feels similarly sidelined, as she flits from one poorly thought-out plan to the next. Previously she was Francis’ equal, just operating in a different sphere. Now on the world stage, she’s instantly outclassed, and it shows. Highlighting the poverty of her character’s writing is the appearance of Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), a novelist with a voyeuristic streak who Francis hires in a fit of foolishness to write a book about America Works, but who ends up as a kind of couples’ therapist.
At first, Francis seems to be enjoying the pomp and circumstance of his new position. The show has kept its luxuriantly crepuscular gloom. It’s all so terribly and portentously tasteful, isn’t it? Like an Ethan Allen showroom as shot by David Lynch. But the dagger-like badinage has seeped away. Francis still allows himself a few of those straight-to-the-camera asides early on: “You have to be a little human when you’re president.” But bit by bit those scenery chewing antics fall away. Instead of watching Francis plot and scheme all day and night, we see him poring over binders and speeches and policy papers. As Will Ferrell’s Dubya had it: “Presidenting is hard.” If being majority whip for the House of Representatives left him with so much more time on his hands, maybe the show actually has a handle on why Congress never gets anything done.
The challenge to accomplish something isn’t, of course, the sort of thing that Francis will take lying down. The season has him running up against one legislative or political roadblock after another only to knock each of them aside with a last-minute wily maneuver. House of Cards has never pretended to be a fictional kind of C-SPAN, or even as realistic as the surprisingly on-the-nose Veep. But still, Francis’ ability to even briefly get away with quasi-fascist moves like using the Stafford Act (which allows the president to declare emergencies) to raid the FEMA budget for his America Works program (unemployment is an emergency, after all) barely passes the straight face test. The more ludicrous the show’s real-world inventions, the harder it becomes to swallow its baroque interpersonal dramas.
Spacey’s Francis was always something of a cornpone Richard III, without the hump or as deep a sadistic streak. But we knew about his villainy for the most part because he always told us about it directly in the asides. In this season, the show stops having Francis talk straight to us about his evil plotting (he uses those asides now mostly to kvetch). Instead, he does things like urinate on his father’s gravestone or spit on a crucifix to illustrate his evil intentions. If the show is going to keep Francis bending toward the tyrannical, it’ll have to do better than that.