Broadly speaking, the point of divergence between the BBC version of House Of Cards and its American descendant came very early on. It had to. The essential template, in which an entertainingly unscrupulous politician is insulted by his superior and decides to exact revenge, will only get you so far, especially in political systems as different as the British and the US ones. That difference, coupled with the vagaries of two televisual-cultural systems meant that it effectively took Francis Underwood twenty-six episodes to do what Francis Urquhart did in six.
The analogy is imperfect, I admit, but it’s all academic now anyway. As soon as Frank rapped his knuckles on the desk in the Oval Office, he entered uncharted territory. Where he goes next is anyone’s guess, except to note that, once you’ve reached the top, there is only one way to go.
Or perhaps there isn’t. Having been conditioned to seeing House Of Cards’ narrative being presented as a journey, or the shifting of Underwood’s position from Whip to President, we can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that this would be the show’s sole narrative structure. With that journey complete, a certain restructuring has to take place and the show can slip into a different gear. Like its protagonist’s rise, this development takes a little while to complete, perhaps even thirteen entire episodes. In this view, it feels as though this third season represents the show in transition, a period for it to adapt to the new situation and prepare for the next phase in Underwood’s demonic career.
It’s not a decline. Well, not exactly. Fears of such are immediately dispelled on seeing the opening episode of the third season and remembering just how much fun there is to be had in watching the Underwood administration go about its business. Frank’s selfish ambition remains, as do the pet projects, both domestic and international, that he uses as vehicles for his own desires, but there is a stronger sense that he actually does have a country to run in addition to having colleagues and underlings to manipulate.
Put simply, there’s a lot more of Frank actually doing his job this time round. Sure, the Amworks program is designed to give ballast to his presidential record and his involvement in the Jordan Valley offers an opportunity to posture as a global statesman, but they both have an external impact that had been absent when Underwood held less exalted positions.
This adjustment in the presentation of Underwood’s job is accompanied by a slight change in tone that offers further signals of the direction that the show may now be taking. The asides to camera are much reduced in number and are less expository than they were in earlier seasons. When they appear, they are used for him to gloat or to let off steam (the ‘what are you looking at?’ from episode six was particularly fun), rather than to explain the secret details of whatever plan he’s forming.
The result is that it makes the viewer less of an accomplice and more of a confidant. As a consequence, President Underwood comes across as far less evil than Congressman Underwood or even Vice President Underwood ever did. This too is largely a function of position. He’s still happy to lie and cheat when required, but no more than we imagine that any politician does. Furthermore, as president, he has far less privacy from which to pull his strings. There is nowhere for him to hide.
The sense of transition is deepened by the decision to make the winning of the Iowa caucus the key political challenge of the season. It means that Underwood’s domestic political enemies are, once again, his fellow Democrats. The relative absence of Republicans weakens the possibilities for direct political conflict (their attacks on his state-funded jobs guarantee scheme would have been something to behold and they would not have minced their words when it came to his appointment of Claire as Ambassador to the UN) and suggests that the big battle, the presidential election itself, is being held off for next season. If so, and I cannot see a way of avoiding it, other than to drag the series through every painstaking primary, then the show will have to shift gear yet again.
House Of Cards has never been particularly radical (except, at the time of its launch, in the mode of delivery) and is certainly not now. It is essentially a well-crafted soap opera in which issues such as unemployment and practical alliances in the Middle East mingle with the ebb and flow of ordinary human relationships. There’s an obvious hierarchy of dramatic importance and the global-political issues are secondary to the private ones. Consequently, questions of the US-Russian relationship in the Jordan Valley become directly and explicitly personal, with very little concern for the other geopolitical issues that would constrain Underwood and his Russian counterpart Viktor Petrov.
When other powers, Israel, Palestine, Zimbabwe, are mentioned, they are simply inconvenient concerns, mere pawns to be shifted about the board to make way for Frank, Claire and Viktor. Decisions are made and ultimatums issued for reasons of astonishing pettiness that risk alienating the viewer’s belief in the drama. That Petrov might harbour resentment towards Claire is understandable; having Frank openly consider rearranging the European missile shield like it was merely his turn in a game of Risk stretches the point somewhat. Whether or not he would have actually gone through with it is irrelevant, that he could do so with such credibility is what counts.
This looseness with the realities of political life has caused some critics to doubt that House Of Cards has anything profound to say, even about power itself. I have some sympathy with this view; the show doesn’t offer any deep insights (except, perhaps on marriage) and the concerns that it does illuminate, such as the limits of power and the operational aspects of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, have been examined before in the dramas that Cards wears as obvious influences. The West Wing, an obvious, if shallow, parallel, was famously didactic, whether teaching viewers just what a filibuster was or outlining the occasionally surprising power relationships within the White House. Cards isn’t going to teach you anything and even if it could, far too much of it is improbable in any case.
However, none of that really matters, especially when the results are this entertaining. Watching Mr. and Mrs. Underwood connive their way through their surroundings is a richly satisfying as its ever been, and there’s nothing wrong with allowing political manoeuvering to be treated as a species of entertainment. If you’re the type of viewer that can suspend disbelief long enough to binge your way through thirteen hours in a single weekend, as the show is designed to be enjoyed, you’ll likely be travelling too fast to care much about the likelihood of a sitting president making sensitive telephone calls on an iPhone, rather than on a secure line.
Indeed, part of the fun comes from seeing aspects of the real world informing the fictional one in light ways. The addition of The Killing’s Lars Mikkelsen as Petrov is a particular delight, giving us a highly fictionalised (and slightly less robotic) version of Vladimir Putin, a great character in his own right but also a reminder that even the office of President of the United States does not confer unlimited power and that the upper reaches of diplomatic circles rely on negotiation, persuasion and ruthless Machiavellian trickery to even get anything done, never mind anything securing anything as clear as a victory.
Further modish concerns are explored in the Doug Stamper/Gavin Orsay/Rachel Posner storyline that toys with security service surveillance and the manipulation of information technology. The cleverest part of this is the paradoxical presentation of mass surveillance being both a routine job and an extraordinary power. The morality of it is never questioned, it is offered simply what governments (and people with the right access) do. It’s just a shame that the entire plotline, in its implausibility and remoteness from the central arc feels so tacked-on and ultimately pointless. Good as it is to have Doug back on board, we found ourselves spending a fair portion of each episode following a trail that didn’t really go anywhere, had no real consequence on the main plot and which was finally dispatched off-screen as an afterthought.
The outcome of the Iowa caucus was treated in much the same manner, cementing the long-gestating suspicion that House Of Cards, and this season in particular, is more interested in the Underwoods’ marriage than their politics. It’s a fine topic for drama (The Americans offers another example of how it can be done well) and the exploration of it is Cards’ signal strength.
In reviewing last year’s season, I noted that Claire Underwood should properly be considered the show’s co-lead and this is even more true now. Having supported Frank in his ascent, she finds herself as much the center of attention as him, in some cases more so. Nevertheless, it chafes her that she is primarily known for, and draws power from, her relationship with her husband rather than her own talents and abilities as a person in her own right. It is partly an exploration of the impact of gender, a topic further probed through Claire’s careful relationship with Catherine Durant, a capable and effective Secretary of State who nonetheless risks being sidelined by the woman who has a closer claim on the president.
The earlier episodes of the season essay Claire’s anxiety at being seen to betray the trust of Durant or exploit the authority of her husband, until she realizes that she has little choice. Her position is contrasted with those of Jackie Sharp and Heather Dunbar, women who have every right to seek the Democratic nomination but who are reduced to battling one another over spurious claims of sexism and, in Dunbar’s case, seeking to exploit the private life of Claire in a bid to defeat Frank. It’s an unedifying spectacle but it proves that Cards can be angry and meaningful when it wants to be.
Nevertheless, the argument is made most directly through the position of Claire who, until the very last moment, is utterly dependent on Frank. That is literally the case in her appointment as ambassador to the UN, a position that is only hers while he (and Viktor Petrov) permit it to be. The difference in their status is played with ironically. While Claire looks ever more sleek, professional and impressively turned-out, her husband’s adoption of knitwear and reading glasses gives him a curious grandfatherly aspect. He even looks thicker-set, a man in the comfort of late middle-age, adjusting the notches on his belt as he edges towards retirement. If he is more casually attired, it’s because he can afford to be. As he so brutally reminds her in their climactic argument, her sole real role is his First Lady, a public relations asset who he has the right to deploy in any manner, and with whatever hair color he and his focus groups see fit.
Their ultimate break was the denouement of a story arc that again proved this to be a transitionary season. The writing has been on the wall for a while: the couple sleep in separate rooms and are frequently presented at opposing edges of the screen with a huge space yawning between them. Further divisions are generated by the accoutrements of office, the presidential desk standing between them or the various official hangers-on preventing them from enjoying any sustained period of time together. The times that they do share are usually spent working on the problems of office rather than on their personal relationship. It seems that whatever legend they have chosen to build about themselves, this was ever the case.
These are increasingly people without a hinterland, absent of any other interest than politics. The conversations with Tom Yates, a form of therapy for people who’d never seek it under that label, demonstrate this most clearly. The subject of Yates’ book starts as a panegyric on Amworks but swiftly evolves into an assessment of Frank before taking in Claire too. Their testimonies are offered separately, befitting their growing estrangement and, in any case, it’s all largely bullshit anyway, as Frank admits.
A hinterland? Scratch that. These are people who no longer even have truth and probably never have. A gilded palace built on quicksand and filled with borrowed furniture, it’s a sham marriage with no other purpose but power. If it can no longer supply that, well maybe there really is only one way to go.