Spoilers for House of Cards season three are ahead…
When we last left Frank Underwood, he just set foot in Oval Office for the first time as the leader of the free world. His smug look into the camera signaled the end of a remarkable run in which he crushed any adversary in his way during his rise from House Whip to President of the United States. The opening shot of season three, released February 27 on Netflix, seems to imply that we’ll be getting more of the same. The President of the United States pisses on his own father’s grave as actor Kevin Spacey breaks the fourth wall with another one of those entertaining monologues that the series is known for. So far, so good.
But what we soon learn is that Underwood has spent the first months of his presidency watching his approval rating plummet. Season three’s first episodes imply that President Underwood appears to be a bit lost now that he’s finally at the top. Sadly, the same could be said for House of Cards as a show. Watching Frank manipulate his enemies made for some fast-paced, riveting TV over the first two seasons, but now that he has no immediate target to take down, the show does at times feel like it’s moving at a snail’s pace compared to what viewers are used to.
To be fair, House of Cards season three has its moments and does eventually find its legs as the episodes progress. But the change in focus from a non-stop political thriller to one that focuses much more on the relationship between Frank and his First Lady Claire ends up feeling like a bit of a letdown that falls short of expectations.
Well, that was unexpected. Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) survived the blow to the head he took from Rachel in season two’s finale. But he’s now just as adrift as the Underwood Presidency that he watches on his hospital room TV. Stamper’s entire life was built around Rachel and Frank Underwood and now he’s lost one and feels useless to the other. The syringe of whiskey to end the episode seems to imply it’s going to be a very dark season for Mr. Stamper.
We get some brief glimpses of Frank and Claire to break up the long look at Stamper’s recovery, and it’s made clear that Frank isn’t the only one unhappy with the way things have been going. Claire is feeling restless, and wants more than simply smiling at Frank’s side as First Lady. Frank wants to make sure Claire is up to the task of making tough decisions, so he forces her to watch him order a drone strike where innocents will likely die. Hey, at least the murder was officially sanctioned by the government this time.
With the reintroduction of Stamper complete, this episode finally brings this season’s main focus into view. Frank and Claire both take some lumps, with Claire’s U.N. nomination falling apart while Frank must tell the American public he doesn’t plan to run for reelection so that he can try and get his America Works job program off the ground. While it’s not specifically stated, it does seem that Frank is perhaps not all that upset that Claire won’t be getting the U.N. job, and that she perhaps picks up on this, just a bit. Frank and Claire have always worked as a team, so it’s pretty clear what the underlying plot of this season is going to be. Claire manages to get Frank to agree to a recess appointment, and then promptly vomits afterwards, likely because she can’t stomach having to ask Frank for help.
Russian President Vladmir Putin, I mean, “Victor Petrov,” makes his first appearance in an official state visit to the White House and manages to get under Frank’s skin by putting the moves on Claire. This episode is the first clear example of Frank no longer being the smartest man or woman in the room this season. The Presidency has handcuffed him to an extent, as he must now choose his words carefully as he negotiates with another world leader. Meanwhile, Doug reaches out to his old hacker “friend” Gavin and begins to search for Rachel. But is it to protect his former lover or take revenge on his attempted murderer?
My favorite scene of the entire season was the final one in this chapter, as Frank makes a trip to a local church. Frank spits on a giant crucifix of Jesus, only to be startled as the entire thing falls down on him in response. This might alarm a lesser man, but Underwood simply picks up a piece of the statue, and remarks that “I’ve got God’s ear now,” as he walks away with the ear piece.
Sadly, other than that, the rest of the episode was a bit of a drag. We jump back and forth between Claire at the U.N. (she was appointed to the post in recess by Frank) where she attempts to put Russia in its place, Gavin meeting up with Rachel’s ex Lisa to get some intel and Frank trying and failing to prevent Heather Dunbar from running for President. Yet another person managing to get the jump on everyone’s favorite anti-hero.
This episode is so ludicrous that the real FEMA felt obligated to respond to its shenanigans on Twitter. Frank comes up with a plan to take billions of dollars in money that is earmarked for disaster relief and instead funnels it toward his jobs program. This is the first time this season we see the Frank we are used to. Basking in the glow of knowing he just outmaneuvered his enemies. It’d be a fine return to form, except for the fact that this particular gambit seems so outside the box that’s it’s just a laughable premise.
Two new key arrivals here, and they’re both writers. Kate Baldwin joins the White House Press Corps after Ayla is kicked out for pushing too hard. The plan backfires on Underwood’s press secretary when Baldwin turns out to be an even bigger bulldog. And Frank hires an author he discovered through a video game review to possibly write up a book on his jobs program.
The Underwoods go to Russia and find that Petrov is a welcoming host, except for that American prisoner he has locked up. In a story that is ripped from real-world headlines, a gay man named Michael Corrigan is arrested for protesting Russia’s anti-gay laws and is thrown in a cell. Claire goes in with him while Frank talks Jordan Valley with Petrov.
In order to obtain release, Corrigan must sign a statement admitting that he was wrong, which is something he’s just not willing to do. Claire pushes him on this issue, but to no avail. This episode will likely be viewed as season three’s big “shocking moment,” as Corrigan decides he would rather hang himself with Claire’s scarf while the First Lady sleeps in the cell than sign the statement and turn his back on his values. Claire takes out her anguish on Petrov at a press conference, which undoes all of Frank’s negotiations and re-opens old wounds between Underwood and his wife. I suppose it’s worth noting that while the death was a bit shocking, you could easily see Corrigan telegraphing his decision with his statements ahead of time. The first death of Season 3 may give some viewers a jolt, but it doesn’t come close to the gut punch of watching Frank push Zoey in front of a subway train.
This is also probably a good time to mention that none of the plot lines in season three so far really have to do with life and death. Part of the reason the first two seasons were so riveting was because Frank was dealing with the aftermath of the murders of Zoey Barnes and Congressman Peter Russo. Rachel is still a wild card, I suppose, but the only real stakes seem to be whether or not Frank will win re-election and if his relationship with Claire will survive. Sorry, but those aren’t the high stakes I think a lot of fans are accustomed to.
Not to pile on, but if I had to pick one episode that really soured me on season three, this would be the one. We have officially deep dived into soap opera relationship drama. Most of the episode focuses on the Underwoods fixing the rift between them in the month following Claire’s melt down in Russia. And yet, Claire still “flinches” when Frank puts his hand on her. Looks like their problems will not be an easy fix.
This is probably a good time to pivot back to Stamper and mention that he’s still hung up as ever on Rachel. He manages to have a fling with his therapist, but it’s clear where his heart still resides. Even if he is presumably planning on killing her. But yeah, not to belabor the point, but this is not what I signed up for. Frank has had only one big power play all season, (the FEMA funding switcheroo) and now this episode just makes me feel like I’m watching a daytime talk show where people go to fix their marital problems.
Frank once again watches his opponents do a victory dance, because just like your local meteorologist, he can’t predict the weather. He is forced to kill his jobs program when a hurricane bears down on the East Coast so that FEMA can be properly funded and prepared for the storm. The program would have died regardless, but in a particularly cruel twist, the hurricane turned towards the sea at the last moment, meaning the government didn’t actually need the emergency funding. He is also caught flat footed when Jackie, who he has been using to help him manipulate Dunbar in the race for 2016, turns on him and suspends her campaign side by side with the woman she’s supposed to be undermining.
The episode’s saving grace comes when Frank finally decides to start punching back by announcing that he will run for President in 2016 after all.
Oh, the feelings. So many feelings. Doug has feelings for Rachel when he discovers that she is most likely dead. Remy (remember him?) still has feelings for Jackie, who is now married because it will help her better take on Dunbar while she waits for Frank to assert himself.
Doug’s breakdown in particular is hard to watch, as the formerly ruthless man falls apart and literally throws himself onto Frank’s lap. He has a great line though, about not wanting to end up like Peter Russo. The surface meaning is that he doesn’t want to be an alcoholic, but you could also say that he doesn’t want to end up dead now that he’s become useless to Frank.
Frank’s confidence is Claire is again shaken after it’s discovered that the Russians may have been manipulating her at the U.N. in order to get Frank to make a poor decision that led to the death of an American soldier.
Frank goes to the Jordan Valley to meet with Petrov in person in an attempt to clean up the mess Claire is largely responsible for causing. Petrov knows Frank is on the ropes and goes for the kill. He demands that Claire be removed from her U.N. post if he is going to make any kind of deal with Frank. I half expected Frank to take Petrov out on the spot, and if this had been the Frank from Seasons 1 or 2, that may very well have been the case. But Season 3 Frank is a shell of his former self, and agrees to the terms. Ugh.
Meanwhile, things are looking up for Stamper, who gets a visit from his brother, and his brother’s wife and kids. Is Doug Stamper turning into a genuinely good human being? Probably not, but we shall see.
Tom, the writer Frank hired for that book about America Works, turns out to be bisexual and may try and use this to his advantage to learn more about Frank. (Anyone who saw the scene with Meechum or the one at Frank’s old college in previous seasons knew that a “gay” scene was only a matter of time.)
Things finally start picking up back in the U.S., with primary season ahead of the Iowa Caucus fully underway. Frank enters a debate with Heather and Jackie and things turn ugly when Frank throws Jackie under the bus. Jackie had mostly done just about everything Frank had asked of her in exchange for a spot on the ticket as V.P., and this is how he repays her. Frank Underwood has always been one of those anti-hero characters that you love to hate, but can’t help cheering for anyway, but things have clearly taken a turn. Frank comes across as just straight up unlikeable here, and it’s pretty clear that the writers are setting up what we can expect from Frank during these last few episodes. It’s weird. Even when Frank was murdering people, I still kind of wanted him to win. But watching him stab one of his strongest allies in the back just to score a cheap political point has me kind of hoping he gets his comeuppance. The move causes Remy to feel the same, and he officially abandons his post as Frank’s Chief of Staff.
Claire continues to reflect on her marriage, and shares some bizarre information with Tom about a 7-year marital check in as she’s fainting in the middle of donating blood.
Heather Dunbar is going for the kill. She reaches out to Stamper, who previously let it be known back when he was going through all that soul searching that he still has the journal that confirms that Claire had an abortion. Dunbar attempts to use this information to blackmail Frank into dropping out of the race, but it backfires when Stamper reveals the entire gambit with the journal has been a ploy to get back into Frank’s good graces. It works, and Stamper becomes Frank’s new Chief of Staff, much to Claire’s chargin. In fact, it’s pretty obvious where this whole thing with Frank and Claire is going, which means the final episode isn’t even going to have a surprise.
I love it when I’m wrong. Surprise! Rachel is alive and well, working two jobs, and making plans to start a new life with a new (fake) identity. Unfortunately for her, Doug Stamper finally reverts to his old form and goes for the kill. He kidnaps Rachel, almost takes her out, allows himself to be talked out of it, (I guess that was the point of showing he had a “good” side earlier this season), before he changes his mind again and… runs her over in broad daylight? I think? The Stamper/Rachel storyline was one of the better ones from this season, but the rather abrupt ending actually made me laugh. Unless there’s some miraculous recovery like Doug had after last season’s finale, I’m pretty sure Rachel isn’t climbing out of that grave. Which is sad, because now who is left to go after Frank for his various misdeeds? Everyone is either in jail, dead or in hiding.
The other powerful scene in the finale was the one you knew was coming. Frank and Claire finally have it out, and Frank treats his wife the same way he’s treated Jackie, Zoey, Peter and all of his other victims. Claire has the guts to stand up to him, and Frank loses it, telling his supposed equal that she would be nothing without him. To the surprise of no one, Claire walks out on Frank, just as primary season is about to hit full swing. Which is fitting, as it’s one final scene where someone else gets to put the most powerful man in the free world in his place.
The BBC’s House of Cards, which the Netflix show is based on, was essentially a trilogy, and while we won’t spoil the ending, let’s just say that all three mini-seasons were superb and it went out in fitting form. But with the American version being so important to Netflix’s new identity as a supplier of original content, it’s now clear that the writers intend to milk their cash cow for as long as they can. What they’ve come up with in Season 3 isn’t necessarily bad, but the martial strife storyline is a clear departure from the momentum of the first two seasons. It’s blatantly obvious that Netflix was searching for ways to extend the story, and if this carries on in additional seasons, we suspect the patience of critics and fans will grow thin. For President Frank Underwood, the honeymoon is over, and he can expect his story to be scrutinized in greater detail in season four and beyond.