Two days out of the year, House of Cards ruins people’s lives.
That’s both the beauty and the curse of Netflix uploading the entire season of the show all at once: you can sit down and watch it all in one go, but also, you sit down and watch it all in one go. You order food twice in one day, you watch the sun disappear through the window without moving from the same spot on the couch, and the episodes blur together making every House of Cards season seem more like a 13-hour film then a season of TV. Peter Jackson is salivating somewhere just thinking about what being Beau Willimon must be like.
This year my roommate and I got through the entire season in 24 hours. In the past, I would’ve been completely ecstatic about this, a new personal House of Cards best. That’s because every season of this show is like an event: everyone in it together, feeding off of the relentless energy and ruthless pragmatism of Frank as he moves from scheme to scheme, always driving forward with a goal in mind. Binging this show in the past has been unlike anything else because as the day grows old and it seems as though you should be tiring of it, the energy of the show revives you, making you more and more eager to see what’s coming next.
That’s what all of the issues with season 3 really boil down to: it’s a crisis of energy. House of Cards has always been a dark show, but in this season it makes the unpleasant transition from dark to bleak. This is apparent from the first episode, in which the odd choice was made to center around the tragedy of Doug Stamper. In retrospect, it set the tone appropriately for the rest of the episodes, a depressing realization. Doug spends the entire season attempting to rebuild himself after first his body, then his resolve, fail him. In the Oval Office, confessing that he has begun drinking again to Frank, Doug looks him straight in the eye and says, “I’m not Peter Russo.” And he’s right; Doug has always been made in Frank’s image, doing the legwork with the same ruthlessness that Frank embodies, the Pippen to his Jordan. Doug has always been single-minded in his commitment to his job, and to the Underwoods. This season focuses on attempting to break him out of that role, to give him underlying motivations, to make him human. When his brother’s kids and wife visit him while he is attempting to get back on the wagon, every shot of his niece and nephew joyfully crawling all over him, every time he looks longingly at the love his brother and wife share, we’re supposed to feel Doug questioning his life, wondering if he picked the wrong path. The only problem is that I don’t believe it. Peter Russo was what made the first season of House of Cards one of the most promising starts in modern television, and that’s because we all wanted so badly to see him succeed. He was a flawed man, but good at heart, and he loved the things close to him so deeply that when he finally was done in by his relationship with Frank, it was heartbreaking to watch. I feel none of these things for Doug. The writers attempted to cast him in Peter’s role this season, to give us another character to have our hearts break over. But where Russo was genuine, Doug’s storyline feels false, and worse, forced. When he seemingly deviated from his loyalty to Frank, you knew that it was all actually in service to him. When it seems as though he is going to make the morally right decision in the last episode and just keep driving, you know that he is going to turn the car around and take the final murderous step to being fully corrupted, the same way that Frank did in the first season. The writers wanted us to think of him as the mirror image of Peter, allowing his heart to be fully blackened where Peter’s was still pure. But all it made me think was that if House of Cards is now relying on generic and recycled storylines to carry it’s seasons, it might have finally lost it’s touch.
The ironic thing is if you just read this season as a series of plot points, it actually has some of the most interesting material to date on the show. The political conflicts make up some of the best moments on this season, specifically in the foreign policy conflict with Russia. Lars Mikkelsen is one of the season MVPs, portraying the Russian president with such learing confidenece and earnest self-interest that I spent the entire episode where he visits the White House on the edge of my seat, tensing up in anticipation of what he might do. He is a fantastic foil to Frank, and their conversation in the Jordan Valley felt like the conversation between super hero and villain. It’s to the writers’ credit that it is never clear which of them is which. Remy Danton is another bright spot; while I was initially disappointed that we were denied seeing more of him and Frank working together, a dynamic that has intrigued me since the first season, it ended up serving his character arc better. When he walks away from the game on the hill entirely, the joy it brings him is so evident and refreshing, starkly juxtaposing literally everything else that occurs in this season. The fact that Jackie Sharp is pulled away with him, and then back into his arms was just the cherry on top, and I hope there is nothing but happiness in the future for House of Cards’ two most likeable characters (besides of course Freddy Hayes, gardener extraordinaire). Seeing the political layers pulled off of Remy and having that man underneath exposed made me hopeful that the same thing would be done with Frank Underwood, especially once author Thomas Yates was introduced to write a book about his life. Unfortunately, it was more of the same in terms of of Frank’s back story, something the show has always done in broad strokes instead of giving it the detail it deserves. The most exposed we’ve ever seen Frank was in the fantastic first season episode in which he returns to his alma mater military school, The Sentinel, and reminisces with his old friends. When it was implied that one of Frank’s best friends was also his boyfriend, it gave us a glimpse behind Frank’s mask that leaves you hungry for more. Since then, House of Cards has seemed satisfied to lean on Frank’s bi-sexual tendencies as being adequate character development, and it was a shame to see a plot point with such potential like Thomas end in the same way.
That’s the real issue though. Any complaint about other details of the show would be so much less important if Frank Underwood was still handled well. But he’s not. Three seasons into the show, I still have no idea who Frank is, and what I thought I did know has been proven wrong. I always thought Frank and Claire had one of the healthiest relationships on television. Smoking their cigarettes in front of a window, the two plotted and planned a miraculous series of events that benefited them both. They were always nothing but honest and loyal to their goals, and I always thought that even though the basis of their relationship was mutual success, there was real love underneath that. Frank’s brutal demining of Claire in the last episode is difficult to watch, not only because it’s morally disgusting, but also because it takes whatever little complexity Frank had as a character and crushes it. I believed him every time he told Claire that they had accomplished all of this together, and I didn’t think he would want it any other way. I’m glad that Claire left him, she is too powerful and strong to tolerate the way he acted and the relationship clearly no longer holds the same mutual benefits, but having their separation be what an entire season was built on makes no sense to me. Claire was always Frank’s redemption; their love was the bigger reason for doing what he did. Without that, he is nothing more than a power-hungry tyrant, a one-dimensional villain. There are worse things in the world then a television show centered around a character like that. I just always was certain that there had to be more to Frank, and to this show. Now? I’m not so sure.