“Legacy is their only child.”
After a week of wading through Samsung product placementsand elaborate visual metaphors, I have emerged from my viewing of season three of House of Cards.
Season three of House of Cards is the clumsiest edition that we’ve seen to date, and whilst I don’t hate the direction the season takes, its irregularity in quality is somewhat disconcerting. Some plot points were great- President Petrov cared so little about Frank Underwood’s feelings it was hilarious, and only made his later acts of dominance (particularly forcefully kissing Claire) even more chilling by comparison.
An understated moment in Chapter 30 where Frank is questioned about his opinions on LGBTQIA rights is uncharacteristically delicate for House of Cards, as only we can recognise the pain and fury in Frank’s eyes knowing his history as we do. Most importantly, the birth of AmWorks’ slogan, “You are entitled to nothing”, feels like a beautiful summation of Frank’s ethos since the show’s beginning.
Frank tried playing by the rules, as much as you ever can in Washington, and Walker screwed him over for it. Since then, he’s been building his own future, and the boldness of his plans require casualties. The surprise re-entrance of Freddy’s character in the AmWorks tent undermines everything that Frank Underwood and his politics represents, acting as a reminder that the man extolling the virtues of AmWorks is the reason why Freddy is unemployed in the first place.
Yet for every one of these great televisual moments, there’s another clumsy metaphor or line to match them, and the show occasionally borders on the absurd. Personally, the lack of realism in this show has never really bothered me. I mean, the Democratic whip murders a congressman in the first season, what degree of authenticity are people truly expecting? Soap opera antics were always part of House of Cards, and it owns to that.
However, there are certain moments where even I can’t quite accept what happened in the writer’s room- even within the ludicrously overwrought atmosphere of this fictional Washington, who the fuck thought inviting Pussy Riot to a dinner with the Russian president was a good idea? Yet conversely, the times where I expected, nay, wanted ridiculous events (no-one had sex with Meechum this season and it’s a god damn tragedy), House of Cards failed to deliver. It says a lot that my favourite moment of season three was the unexpected cameo of Cashew the (admittedly adorable) guinea pig.
To an extent, the show is betraying some of its principal assets. Most prominently, Frank no longer has President Walker as an enemy, who gave the character his raison d’être. Frank Underwood without a power ladder to climb is toothless, disarmed, declawed, and so even some of the most visceral moments of the season (spitting on a statue of Christ, for example) lack subtlety.
Think of the show’s opening sequence, in which Frank Underwood monologues to camera and strangles a wounded dog- that was shocking. Urinating on his father’s grave, however, feels like a contrived attempt at recapturing the same scare factor. That’s not to say that there aren’t some terrifying moments for Frank this season- his physical domination of Claire in the final episode highlights the considerable acting talent of Kevin Spacey when given good material to work with. But on the whole, the brutal, ruthless Frank Underwood the world loves to loathe seems absent from the show.
As a consequence of this, our focus shifts to the supporting players of House of Cards. One of the things that Season Three did well was creating a focus on women in politics. Having the three principal female characters- Heather Dunbar, Jackie Sharp and Claire Underwood- as more serious political players than Frank was a bold move which paid off well. Frank’s campaign is almost entirely dependent on Claire’s popularity, and he’s the only person who doesn’t seem to know that.
Throughout the Democratic campaign in Iowa, you could be forgiven for confusing which Underwood was vying for a nomination, with Claire standing in front of a crowd of supporters chanting for her more than her husband. The gradual transformations of Claire, Sharp and Dunbar played out beautifully. Dunbar in particular was a great surprise to me as a viewer- the slow erosion of her integrity culminates in Frank’s exquisitely painful reminder that she has become “one of the men, in their smoky backrooms,” casting aspersions on what women have to do to succeed in Washington.
But whilst I’m in favour of how Beau Willimon’s show is exploring the lives of successful women, I’m less proud of its treatment of Rachel Posner. Doug’s pursuit of Rachel was undoubtedly the weakest element of season three. As much as I enjoy Michael Kelly’s performance, if Doug had died in season two, the Rachel story could have been laid to rest. It would even have been marginally better if she truly had died mid-season, in an unrelated crime, instead of being unexpectedly resurrected only to be killed off again.
It was the cruellest possible way of writing her out of the series, and perpetuates the worrying trope of violence against women, particularly sex workers, being used to demonstrate a male character’s epic man-pain. I didn’t need Rachel to die to figure out that Doug is sad, OK? After the fifteenth moody closeup of Stamper’s chin I just about had it, don’t bash me over the head with the fucking point.
All we really gained from the Rachel story was the knowledge that Doug remains loyal to politics above all else, which was done much more subtly elsewhere in the series. The “politics is an addiction” trope is a tad overdone, but House of Cards makes its argument well enough that I’m able to enjoy it. Doug Stamper’s addictive personality leaves him incapable of abandoning his job in Washington, despite being faced with evidence of his brother’s infinitely happier family in Chapter 36.
Jackie Sharp also exhibits this, to a less extreme degree- though not actively destroying herself through substance abuse as Stamper does, it’s clear that without her career she’d be hugely unhappy, even if it means marrying a man she doesn’t love. In the end, Remy Danton is the only character in the season who’s able to truly escape the ophidian machinations of the American political elite. I say, good luck to him.
Whilst we’re talking about the good points in season three, major praise is warranted for Claire’s evolution. Robin Wright delivered some of the best moments of the season- her complete emasculation of the Russian ambassador by calmly urinating whilst talking to him was more dramatic than most of Frank’s monologues this year.
Her arc wasn’t perfect- there are certain moments, particularly towards the end of the season, where too many parallels are drawn between her and Frank. I’m not sure making her ape some of Frank’s hallmarks- the rowing machine and Frank’s signature desk tap, for example- was the best way of illustrating that she is heading towards a life beyond Frank. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Claire Underwood is the heart of the show’s appeal, and so the collapse of the Underwood marriage was the best element of House of Cards to date.
Throughout the show’s history, we’ve been taught to mythologise the Underwoods as the unstoppable juggernauts of American politics, and that they’re stronger together than apart. What season three did so well was not only turn Frank and Claire against each other more overtly than ever before, but deconstruct the notion that they had been on an equal footing in the first place.
Yes, Frank clearly loves his wife more than anything else in the world, but he also patronises her and demands sacrifices from her that he doesn’t return anywhere near as emphatically. Chapter 34 spends much of its time highlighting how easy it is to create a powerful mythos about a figure like Frank Underwood, and the same applies to the pseudo-strength of the Underwood marriage. Beneath the lies, Claire is not treated as an equal by her husband, and it takes Tom Yates and his writing for her to understand this. The realisation that Frank may need Claire but she may not need him is truly a game-changer- and let the line “I should have never made you President” go down in history as one of TV’s greatest comebacks, please.
It would be wrong to call season three bad- it’s a lot more accurate to describe it as lacklustre. It’s ironic that a season so centred around the Underwoods’ legacy threatens to undermine the show’s. I hope House of Cards gets a fourth season, but no more. Now Claire intends to leave Frank, the show can centre around the end of Frank Underwood’s career, as its title demands must happen. If House of Cards is to maintain its prestige as the revolutionary new format for television, it must destroy Frank Underwood. So here’s a lesson to both Frank and Beau Willimon- the bigger they are, the harder they fall.