WARNING: CONTAINS MORE SPOILERS THAN YOU CAN SHAKE A STICK AT
Over the last two seasons, Frank Underwood and his iron lady, Claire, have climbed the political ladder in Washington D.C. one rung at a time, ruthlessly chopping down anyone who got in their way. They’re a team; the Bonnie and Clyde of American politics, not afraid to get their hands dirty to get what they want. Of course, the ride hasn’t been easy, but when we left the couple at the end of series two, they had somehow achieved the impossible, and Frank held the oval office. But as the couple will learn; being at the top means there’s a long way to fall.
Season three starts us off in a place we never thought we’d find ourselves – Frank is no longer completely in control. Despite the opening scene depicting Frank urinating on his father’s grave, things soon take a turn: Frank’s approval ratings have plummeted, he is struggling to even get a bill passed in congress and Claire is unhappy with her position and is failing to achieve the votes she needs to become a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. From standing so tall to literally being curled in a ball sobbing his eyes out, it’s shocking to see the powerful figure of Frank Underwood knocked down to this quivering wreck. It’s not just Frank however; Claire’s usual expressionless demeanour has gone, at least for the first few episodes, replaced with scenes of her losing her head, or retching into sinks. It’s as if the statuesque Underwoods are like chipped sculptures, not longer perfect. The transition from giant to mere mortal is astonishing and props to both Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright for giving such deep and powerful performances.
But even after this less than perfect start, you’d be wrong if you thought that the old Frank was gone. Instead he must play the game he’s been playing for the last two series and use every opportunity to his advantage, even if he’s confronted by problems at every turn. Whether it’s Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) deciding she’d rather run for President than take the job Frank arranged for her or losing all the money for his work scheme AM Work by putting it towards protecting the country from a hurricane that never arrives, Frank’s reaction is to become more and more brutal as the series goes on, even if: “you have to be a little bit human to be President”. Although there’s barely anything human left of Frank; most notably in the scene where he spits in the face of a statue of Jesus whilst declaring: “you’re selling love? Well I’m not buying”. Fantastic writing right there.
Obviously this has repercussions on Frank himself. One by one the people who he has been using for his own means turn against him. Heather Dunbar, who becomes an interesting ‘antagonist’, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) and Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali, who I felt could have done more with the character) all abandon Frank as he becomes more and more aggressive. Eventually he hits his peak, and in a shock ending, Claire walks out on Frank after he brutally threatens her the night before . Shocks like that are frequent throughout the entire series, and one thing I really enjoy about this show is the subtlety with which they’re revealed. With shows such as Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, big reveals come with all the bells and whistles, but in House of Cards even the biggest surprises can be revealed with merely a few words. Perhaps it’s just the genre of the show, but it’s something I really enjoyed the entire series.
One of the big reveals right at the start of the series comes with the survival of Doug Stamper (played by the excellent Michael Kelly). Indeed, a lot of the first episode is dedicated to the recuperation of Stamper, and how he copes with his assault at the hands of Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan, who only appears for one episode). For a character who had only really appeared on our screens as a ‘man who gets things done’, Stamper is fleshed out a lot more throughout the series. His storyline shows him deal with his conflicted emotions for Rachel, his relapse back into alcoholism, abandoning Frank and Claire completely and actually having extended communication with his family. From knowing next to nothing about this character to being plummeted into his life like this, it’s a big change and it really fleshes out the character. One of his final moments in the series, out in the desert with Rachel is really one of the most shocking, and almost disturbing moments in the series. Some people may complain that Stamper’s scenes lack in interest, but to be honest I could quite happily watch an entire episode based on him.
What’s interesting about this series is there seems to be no clear moral compass, not just with Frank, but with most of the characters. Of course Frank and Claire are as manipulative and possessive as ever but you can’t help but sympathise with them, for the majority of the series at least. Though there is something imposing about the tyrant Underwood’s voice echoing over speakers in Washington. Then there’s Heather Dunbar, who quickly becomes Frank’s main competition for the title of President of the United States; While her motives are good, one can’t help but view her as the ‘bad guy’ in this series, most likely because we are always let in to the mind of Frank. But not even Dunbar holds a candle to the new character of Viktor Petrov, the Russian President, played by Lars Mikkelsen. It’s clear from the off that Petrov is the only character who can really cut to the core of Frank and Mikkelsen does a great job of portraying a thoroughly dislikeable slimeball. His motives change at every turn and it’s never really clear what his game is. He even makes Frank look like a saint in comparison.
In terms of other characters, there’s more than enough to satisfy the viewer in terms of diversity. Reg E. Carthy briefly returns as everyone’s favourite rib connoisseur Freddy, Jayne Atkinson makes a delightful appearance as Catherine Duran and Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) is expanded upon in this new series, and it’s really good to see this character come into his own, however Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) is toned down a lot from the second season; no threesomes with the Underwoods this series I’m afraid. Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) also returns to our screens, but knocked down a peg from his previous appearance as a genius computer hacker, to more a snivelling wreck at times. It’s quite satisfying. Then there’s the new addition of Paul Sparks as Thomas Yates, the mysterious author who Frank hires to work with him, who turns out to be more of a threat than previously thought.
In terms of storyline House of Cards really likes to cram it in. If it’s not an episode about Russia it’s an episode about the election or about AM Work. Each part of the storyline encounters a new issue or problem for the characters to somehow work their way out of. There’s a slight dip in quality of the stories at around the half way mark, but finishes with a bang. Due to Frank now being President, the nature of the story takes a slightly different direction than before, with stories now revolving around Gay rights, diplomatic relations, war and unemployment. Without a doubt the show has taken some inspiration from more ‘real life’ problems: It was quite clear than the killing of a prominent terrorist was inspired by the death of Bin Laden. Pussy Riot made an appearance in an episode dealing with Russia (which felt slightly too much like propaganda) and don’t look me in the eye and tell me Viktor Petrov wasn’t a rip off of Vladimir Putin. But the main story comes from the developing relationship between Frank and Claire; this series really does showcase how their marriage changes during Frank presidential tenure, and it really is a rollercoaster than runs nonstop throughout the entire series.
On the whole I really enjoyed House of Cards season three. This series takes the show to another level, and pushes the boundaries of Frank and Claire’s relationship when the world is on their shoulders. There are some stellar performances from Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Paul Sparks, Michael Kelly, Molly Parker, Lars Mikkelsen and Elizabeth Marvel, all of which are framed perfectly by the show’s fantastic cinematography and set to a brilliant score. But what this series really shows us is what happens when a man achieves near absolute power; what that does to him, and what that does to the people around him. When that’s channelled through Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, it’s frightening. Where the show will go in series four is anyone’s guess, but hopefully it’ll stay as riveting and interesting as it has the last three series.
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