Synopsis: As a lame-duck president, Frank Underwood is forced to face significant challenges.
Season three of House of Cards opens with a presidential motorcade zooming through the sleepy town of Gaffney, South Carolina. President Underwood steps out to pay his respects to his dead father in a rare act of sentimentality. He quickly reassures his audience, however, that he hasn’t forfeited the villainous charisma we’re all guilty of relishing. “Oh, I wouldn’t be doing these things if I had a choice, but I have to do these things now. Makes me seem more human, and you have to be a little more human when you’re the president.” As he’s saying all of this, he unzips his fly and pisses on his father’s grave.
Frank’s soliloquy sets the themes and the rules of the new season in motion, which owns up to all of the critiques of the previous seasons accused of being overstuffed with plot, bereft of character development and an all-too idealistic Congress that seemed to run butter-smooth under Frank’s bullet-proof machinations. It quelled any and all of my worries of “story-fatigue.”
The third season gracefully steps back from Frank’s villainous schemes, and offers an entirely fresh, humanized perspective of Frank (and Claire) Underwood. And in all honesty, House of Cards has transformed into an entirely new show – and for the better.
So what kind of president is Frank Underwood? One who is ruthlessly swimming against a treacherous current, denying the possibility – and the option – of drowning. And you’d best believe that metaphor crops up in a later episode from the pen of Frank’s beautiful novelist/biographer/video game reviewer/ex-prostitute.
Having ascended to the Oval Office without the favor that comes from campaigning and, of course, votes, Frank begins his presidency as a lame-duck president with abysmal approval ratings. In a bleak, Ashcan-styled portrait of the presidency, he can no longer get things done as quickly as he could in his last gig as majority whip; in fact, he barely gets one legislative program off the ground by the season’s end: American Works, which purports to put 10 million Americans to work with money from cleaving off entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, veterans’ pensions, government retirement plans and food stamps.)
His rallying slogan for it is even more unbelievable and ironic: “You are entitled to nothing.” It’s an extreme idea that garners bipartisan disapproval. No matter how Frank may growl and roar and intimidate his “subordinates” (in performances that resurrect his portrayal of Richard III) the leadership refuse to work for him.
Frank also meets his superior (not equal) in Viktor Petrov, this universe’s iteration of Vladimir Putin played deliciously by Lars Mikkelsen. When Petrov arrives in the Oval Office, in response to reported U.S. drone attacks in the Jordan Valley, Frank is utterly transparent under Petrov’s viperous gaze. And I’ll admit that I got schadenfreude seeing Frank squirm and submit. Petrov knows Frank intends to run for re-election in spite of his declaration to the contrary (and, to no one’s surprise, he does,) and he cuts Frank with the facts of his political mortality.
Perhaps most harmful of all Petrov’s antics, at a congressional dinner he starts to groom another adversary in Claire: “So, this is what he does. He leaves the seduction to you. Isn’t there a word for that in English? … Pimping. He’s pimping you out.” And we clearly see the impact of his words on Claire through Robin Wright’s skillful way of letting bubbles of frustration and vulnerability burst silently and uncomfortably through that immaculate ice-like surface. Where surface and appearance served as an easy tool before, it becomes the very mechanism that holds the Underwoods in a chokehold.
After an uninspiring second season, Claire Underwood’s growth easily made the show worth its privileged reputation as the best “television” has to offer once again. The mask Claire wears as first lady finally starts to feel cripplingly heavy, especially when surrounded by the rest of the series’ powerful women Jackie Sharpe and Heather Dunbar, who both accomplish so much on their own terms as politicians and mothers. Claire starts the season questing for power of her own: the office of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She loses the vote for the nomination (news that breaks as she’s selecting the official egg for Easter at the White House, a domestic task. She picks a disturbingly black egg.) So, she asks her husband to grant her a recess appointment – a fact that makes her stomach turn by the season’s end.
Her moment of diplomatic triumph wins overwhelming favor from the LGBT community: she publicly denounces Petrov over Russia’s laws persecuting homosexuals. But soon after, she is forced to sacrifice her office to support Frank’s re-election campaign. She is once again forced to perform as first lady. The mask eventually cracks at Frank’s feet after he unleashes a tirade of barely disguised misogyny; she will perform with him, and he doesn’t “care if [she] vomits on her own time.” But at the end of the season, Claire declares that she’s leaving him in a scene that is powerfully Ibsen-esque. But instead of the sound of the door slamming, we get a final plea from Frank: “Claire.”
I’m predicting a next season of even richer Claire development, perhaps in the way we see Doug Stamper (played in an exceptional performance from Michael Kelly this season) fight his simultaneous addictions to alcohol, Rachel Posner and Frank. And he does end up burying two of them.