Through its first two seasons, Netflix’s House of Cards has been a ludicrously entertaining—or entertainingly ludicrous, if you say potatoh—political thriller about a corrupt and craven man’s breakneck pursuit of power. The third season, which arrived in its entirety on Netflix this past Friday, began in the expected spirit: Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), now president, talking directly to the camera in a Southern accent more larded than fatback, literally pissing on his father’s grave. Here was what House of Cards audiences have come to know and binge-watch—a camp-fest barely disguising itself in highbrow TV drama duds. But Frank’s opening act of rebellious urination is, in fact, a misleading feint: In its third season, House of Cards pulls back from the outlandish to make itself over as a comparatively plodding relationship drama.
The British series upon which House of Cards is based ran for three seasons. House of Cards, a show truly in touch with the spirit of American excess, will run for longer. And so the third season encounters a problem that Frank Underwood is himself familiar with: a loss of momentum. Frank has finally secured himself the presidency, but as the show begins he is something of a lame duck, his approval ratings in the basement, no pull with the legislative branch, dinged by his own party. In the past, Frank would have gotten himself out of a lousy position with strong arm-tactics, high-level plotting, and flat out illegality, but his law-breaking is now constrained and contained by the reputability of his new office. To hold on to the presidency, he does not resort to throwing any fetching young reporters in front of moving trains—instead, sadly for us, he gets down to politicking.
The new season has its moments of quintessential House of Cards–ness, instants that are so brazenly heavy-handed that they cease to be wonderful or awful and instead are both at once, like melted ice cream, sloppy and spoiled but still delicious. Such moments include the unflappable Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) screwing a sobbing Frank’s pain away; an extended metaphor equating marriage to sand mandalas—so long to create, so easy to wipe away; Frank spitting in a Jesus statue’s face; Claire’s best LBJ impersonation; a Democratic president gutting every entitlement program that exists; and a video game reviewer/former hustler/plagiarizing novelist writing purple prose about the Underwoods’ marriage, among others. But generally speaking, the new season juxtaposes relatively dull political machinations with ponderous explorations of Frank’s intimate relationships with everyone from the Russian president, to his former aide-de-camp Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), to his memoirist Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), and to, most especially, his wife.
The early episodes of the new season involve Frank’s plans to hold onto the presidency through a series of unilateral actions that would likely alienate almost the entire American public, but, magically, serve him well: Has a political show ever cared less about the plausibility of its politics? Frank torches the New Deal to launch a newfangled jobs program called America Works (as my colleague Jamelle Bouie noted on Twitter, it would make a lot more sense for Frank to fund America Works by raising taxes than by destroying entitlements); recess appoints Claire to be U.N. ambassador; and negotiates with the Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), a delightfully transparent version of Putin, down to the feline eyes, about a peace mission in the Jordan Valley. All the while, the show is painstakingly tracking the tragic Stamper, Frank’s loyal former chief of staff, as he returns from the dead and progresses through rehabilitation, alcoholism, and guilt, all more plausible than Frank’s plundering of FEMA, but even less fun.
Slowly—or not so slowly: We’re binge-watching this thing, after all—the political plots take a back seat to the season’s major storyline, the disintegration of the relationship between our Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth. As Frank schemes about everyone and everything, he has failed to notice that the biggest threat to his future success is sleeping in her very own bedroom, down the hall from his.
Claire, like almost all political wives on TV these days—Scandal’s Mellie Grant, The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick—is no longer content to remain the power behind the presidency. Concerned that Francis will lose the election, she demands to be made U.N. ambassador as a kind of back-up plan for the couple’s perpetual influence. When she is ultimately forced out of that job—her hair goes into mourning—and takes back on the role for which she is adored, first lady, she begins to see her marriage in a new light. Perhaps they are not equals after all.
One might have assumed that Claire had already accommodated herself to this reality—has she met Frank?—but both she and Frank are fantasists when it comes to their relationship, always imagining it to be more solid and glittering than a partnership between power-hungry snakes-in-the-grass ever could be. Claire’s realization that Frank puts his own success first, obvious as it sounds, undoes her faith in their marriage. (Doug emerges as a kind of counter-point to Claire. He’s a figure more than slightly misused by Frank who is, nonetheless, unfailingly loyal, even if it’s almost to the point of psychosis. Doug doesn’t mind being the man behind the man: Claire begins to bridle when she realizes that being the woman behind the man is all she is.)
As the season progresses, women—not just Claire—prove to be Frank’s Achilles heel. His rival for the Democratic nomination is the righteous Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel). His attempts to beat her involve using his lackey, Rep. Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), to accuse Dunbar of sexism, a strategy that backfires not only with Jackie, but also with Claire. While Frank’s dealings with the men in his life—Doug, Petrov, Tom—involve patience, sweet talk, and kid gloves, he treats women to temper tantrums and bullying, unwilling to put forth the effortful finesse it would take to handle them. Next season, when the show stops wasting time and delivers us a presidential election, Frank may be surprised to discover just how the women in his life handle him.
Watch: Every Shot on House of Cards Looks the Same