Season three of House of Cards debuted on Netflix over the weekend, and we immediately enter a strange new world for Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood. He’s now the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the free world, and ironically, he seems to have less power than he has at any other point during the series. Underwood has reached the top — the pinnacle of politics — and all that’s left at this point is holding on for dear life while everyone else tries to drag him down.
Down is exactly where he is when season three begins. After the impeachment of President Walker — orchestrated by Underwood — the President is suffering from pitiful approval ratings, and with 18 months to go until the 2016 Presidential election, his party’s leadership has already decided to abandon their incumbent.
Season three is about Frank Underwood attempting to empower his presidency and gain the 2016 Democratic nomination, and with Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) sidelined from a near fatal injury and the rest of his staff alienated by both Underwood’s behavior and his ruthlessness, he only seems to have one ally left: His wife, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). Season three, however, tests the bonds of the partnership — as it turns out, it’s not as equal and Claire had once believed. With Frank as President, she finds herself in a position of having to appeal to her husband to further her own career. It doesn’t sit well with Claire, and much of season three is as focused on the shifting power dynamics between Frank and Claire as it is between Frank and his Democratic challengers for 2016 primary.
Without giving anything away about season three, I will say it is considerably better than season two of House of Cards, which was completely overshadowed by a shocking death in the opening episode. Season three is, at times, nevertheless frustrating because it also leaves behind many of the power plays that made the opening season so much fun to watch. Here, Underwood is weaker and, at times, a more likable, sympathetic character, which ironically works against the series. We love to hate Frank Underwood, the bully, and here he is too often Frank Underwood, the underdog.
But like a caged rat, the teeth do eventually come out, and when they do, he’s as deliciously loathsome as he’s ever been, especially where his relationship with Claire is concerned. That’s a bridge that Frank can’t afford to burn, and to see the conflict shift from politics to marriage makes the tension more personal, and at times, far more uncomfortable.
Still, there series does have a disconcerting habit of writing itself into corners only to resolve issues by skipping ahead in the timeline. Doug Stamper’s storyline is also frequently frustrating, if only because an arc that could’ve been condensed into two episodes drags on for the entire season, which far too often keeps Doug sidelined from the main action.
Nevertheless, House of Cards is more tightly written here than in season two, which was something of a slog between episodes two and 10. It manages to regain the addictive, binge-watching quality of season one, which makes it a very difficult show to dole out incrementally. It works best in chunks of four or five episodes, and before you know it, you find yourself at the end, riddled with frustrating WTF-itis and craving for season four.