(CAUTION. This review contains spoilers. You probably assumed that that was true when you clicked the link; but, just to be totally, 100% above board with you: this is a review of the third season of House of Cards, and so there are going to be spoilers in it. If you haven’t seen season three yet, and you want to find everything out on your own, kindly close the window and finish the show and return to this page then. High five!)
House of Cards is one of the most talked-about shows on television because it takes gleeful pride in its sinister ambitions. It’s All About Frank (henceforth AAF): Frank is passed over for Secretary of State in the pilot. This makes Frank mad. Frank decides to take revenge on an entire presidential administration. Frank’s wife Claire is also mad, because she is just as power-hungry as he is, and also much prettier. She totally supports his decision to go secretly nuclear. Then, Frank destroys lives, kills several people, manipulates everyone he comes in contact with, and, thanks to an increasingly ludicrous series of tricks, becomes President of the United States without ever running for the office.
(Or for Vice President. To date, only Gerald Ford has ever done this. And Ford, 100% of observers agree, is 100% unlike Frank Underwood.)
That sums up the first two seasons of House of Cards. AAF. Everything revolves around and returns to Frank. Frank gets his way, eventually. Every temporary setback is overcome; every rival is vanquished. That’s what the show is about. It’s never been a realistic show, and, truth be told, it’s not really a very good show. It’s too absurd to be taken as seriously as the hour-long dramas by which we judge our televisual art. We feel bad for Tony Soprano, vile murderer though he may be, because he’s shot through with humanity (remember Pie-O-My?) and because he does struggle against his worst impulses. Even if he gives into those impulses more often than he conquers them. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men: all critically-lauded shows about anti-heroes (or without traditional heroes), but with a moral center, and a clear sense of direction.
House of Cards doesn’t have a moral center; it’s unscrupulous, which is why we love it. And it has, to this point, had as clear a sense of direction as can be. Frank wants to be President. He wants the big seat. AAF. So HoC isn’t a good show, but it has been a really fun one. It’s like a trackless roller coaster in a weird dream: At some point, you just have to throw up your hands and say “Oh, the hell with it. Take me away!” It would be pointless to mention all of the political inconsistencies and unrealities of the first two seasons, and even more pointless to complain about them. The show doesn’t care about reality; why should its audience? “Shows teach you how to watch them,” as Vox ably points out.
So it’s both disappointing and shocking to report that the third season of House of Cards is by far the weakest and most disappointing of the three-season run. And here’s why.
House of Cards now wants to be a real-world, hard-hitting drama.
The very first scene of the third season features Frank pissing on his father’s grave and talking about how he’s going to carve out a legacy for himself and long after he’s dead people will line up to pay their respects. It’s an amusing enough image, but legacies aren’t self-fulfilling prophecies. They have to be crafted. From the couch, we say to the television, “OK. Grand! How are you going to do that?” And therein rests the problem. We’re three seasons in, and the only thing we really know about Frank Underwood is he wants all of the power. AAF. But there’s no more power left to accrue. Frank is President. He never had an ambitious legislative agenda while in the House; he didn’t do anything except spar with Walker and Tusk (and Jackie and Birch and Remy &c &c) as Vice President. We know zero of the intentions that Frank Underwood has for his presidency.
This is to say nothing of how little we know about what Claire really wants, or how they reconcile the inevitable problems that arise when those wants cut each other off (about which more later). The first of season three’s problems, then, is one of basic narrative strategy: By this point, Frank has to want something more, something precise, or there’s no reason for him to have a story.
The real-world political stuff the show proposes makes no sense.
Well, but that’s only the first scene. He’s got to get that quick grave piss out of the way; there’s plenty of time for specifics later. Fast forward thirteen episodes, and we know of exactly one thing that Frank wants to do: He has a totally bonkers jobs package called America Works, whereby the US will trim $500,000,000,000 (that’s billion) from entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare and use them to fund a series of programs meant to employ each and every one of those ten million people. Aside from the fact that full employment is functionally impossible, though, and that $500 billion for ten million jobs equals an inefficient $50,000 cost for every job created, there are these notions to consider:
1) Frank is a lame-duck president. No one wants him to run for re-election; his approval numbers are lower than Walker’s upon resignation (that’s below 8%, a figure never reached by any US President since the advent of polling); the Democratic leadership in Congress comes to him and asks him not to run.
2) Frank proposes America Works in a prime-time speech during which he unveils what will later become the central slogan of his re-election campaign: “You are entitled to nothing.” The political pitfalls of a slogan that would scare the poop out of the entire electorate should be self-evident.
Frank Underwood is a deeply uncharismatic man.
I honestly can’t decide if this is the fault of poor acting on Kevin Spacey’s part or weak writing on Beau Willimon’s part or both. But Frank is not at all charming. He is a sleazy, oozy, unpleasant guy. There’s a reason we never saw him campaign for re-election in either of the first two seasons, and it’s that Frank does his best work behind closed doors, where he can intimidate and outright lie. Those are the things that Frank Underwood likes to do. The one time we saw him go back to Gaffney, what happened? Frank sandwiched a hackneyed, tough-to-stomach church speech in between a coolly political closed-door meeting with the local old boys club and a stare-down with his annoying, out-to-get-him neighbor. “If you hand Darth Vader a basket of puppies,” Patton Oswalt once observed, “he would look like an idiot.” Puppies aren’t Frank’s wheelhouse either.
LBJ, the man to whom Frank is most often compared, was at least folksy: he had that personal magnetism we hear about so often in presidents, the ability to make you feel like you are the only person in the room, the only person who matters. But Frank’s inflection is always menacing, whether he’s delivering a television address or yukking it up at a town hall or cracking terrible jokes at a State Dinner with Russian President Petrov. There is just no goddamn way he could sell anything to the American people, let alone a jobs program based on uncertainty and fear.
The entire supporting cast has storylines that could be resolved in a single episode. (AKA: The Spoiler Section.)
Claire wants to be UN Ambassador, even though she’s completely unqualified for it, and blows up at a senator during her confirmation hearing for a really minor slip of the tongue that any seasoned politician would laugh off in six seconds. Then, she proves to be a bad ambassador, and Frank fires her. Then she says she is unfulfilled, and she and Frank have an Oval Office fight where she acts like a child and he acts like a psychopath; then, she leaves him. (So, we already know that Season Four will be subtitled “The Quest for Claire.”)
Doug is alive; he needs to get back into Frank’s good graces; he has Gavin the Hacker find Rachel in New Mexico, and then he goes to kill her, before deciding not to, before deciding to.
Gavin exists solely to find Rachel for Doug; he takes four episodes to get a tiny, inconsequential bit of speculation about Rachel from Rachel’s Christian lesbian lover Lisa (lying to her about having HIV in the process; somewhere, Frank is cheering at the maneuver), then uses it to pinpoint Rachel’s exact location, and then takes his newly unlocked passport and flies away from the show.
Rachel exists to be killed. That’s it! She serves no other narrative purpose.
Jackie and Remy do a couple of things each, too. Mostly they wish they were still together and making babies. Given how little the writers have for them, you will also find yourself wishing that they were still together and making babies.
There’s also a Special Prosecutor named Heather Dunbar who is interesting for half a minute because she sees exactly how terrible Frank is and calls him on his BS. She runs for President as a proper F-U to Frank Underwood, but the quaintness and interest end right there. In the real world, she would have no chance at winning, since she is a Special Prosecutor with zero political experience and basically zero name recognition. In the House of Cards world, she has zero chance at winning because she has scruples. She is the Elizabeth Warren of the show. AAF, yall.
In related news: There’s a new reporter, and she wants to get at the Truth! About Frank Underwood! She meets the Writer! Whom Frank hires to write a campaign biography he is somehow convinced will make people like him, or something. (Because of the enormous sales figures of all campaign biographies.) Those two hook up. They are both pretty, in that blandly disaffected House of Cards way. They will get at the Truth, together! But they don’t.
Also, Seth hangs out.
Ultimately, House of Cards isn’t fun, anymore.
What used to be a bonkers thrill ride driven completely by plot has decided to debut a sleek, new, character-driven model. But these are all two-dimensional characters; there’s no heft to them. The result is what would happen if Dan Brown decided to become an acolyte of David Foster Wallace. There’s a simpler, crueler way to chart this, though. Know how many people Frank kills, this season? Zero. Know how many times he does his double knock when getting up from a desk? Zero! Bagel. (Claire does it, once.) Know how many of his asides to the camera have punchlines? Zero. The single funniest line in the entire season–and the only genuinely funny moment–comes in Episode Four, when the ailing Supreme Court justice Frank is trying to get to retire says to him, in all seriousness, “Do you have some ulterior motive, here?” And that is a moment of unintentional humor, since there can’t possibly be anyone left in the House of Cards world who doesn’t know that Frank Underwood exists solely for and is made up solely of ulterior motives.
There’s just no malice left in the show…but there’s no joy in it, either. It is above all an exercise in endurance. If you want realism, you can’t help but roll your eyes; if you want Machiavellian scheming, you’ll have to settle for a little bit of policy and nothing cleverer than hard stares. Seasons One and Two really were huge, heaping plates of ribs. And we, just like Frank at the end of the pilot, found ourselves hungry for what wasn’t good for us, but was oh so satisfying. Season Three isn’t ribs; it isn’t nachos; it isn’t even junk food. It’s the all-but-empty bottle of milk in the old “Got milk?” commercial, full of expectation and sadness.
What do you, the viewers at home, think? Did you enjoy this season of House of Cards? Dislike it? Need more time to re-watch it? Are you just holding out for the next season of Orange is the New Black?
(Photo credits: WENN)