Government inaction: ‘House of Cards’ season three is a beautiful disappointment

hoc_key_013_h.jpgBy JIM SABATASO

 [A version of this review appears in the March 19, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

Caveat lector: This review contains spoilers for “House of Cards” season three.

Beneath its prestige drama veneer — those gorgeously composed shots and stately sets, the beautiful wardrobe, the general solid performances, its operatic score — House of Cards is a cold, empty show that ultimately doesn’t have very much to say.

That may be a harsh indictment, but that doesn’t make it a bad show even if I’m not particularly enamored by it. It’s just not what it pretends to be. The much buzzed, much binged Netflix drama, which just returned with a third season, is the brainchild of Beau Willimon, a Washington insider turned producer who has a solid pedigree in both worlds.

The problem is Willimon spends so much time trying to prove its importance that it forgets to actually do the work. For all its moody cinematography and (executive producer) David Fincher sheen, it’s just a campy soap opera whose sum falls far short of its pretty, pretty parts.

Compare House of Cards to Scandal, another political drama with a flare for absurd storylines and extra-Constitutional intrigue. Scandal may be an utterly ridiculous show, but it also knows exactly what it is: silly, scintillating, and shocking. Scandal is popcorn: campy, melodramatic, junk food in a stylish wrapper. It’s not prestige — it doesn’t ever profess to be — and it’s all the better is for it.

House of Cards, meanwhile, is similarly over the top, but in its attempt for dramatic street cred, it refuses to have any fun. Even Breaking Bad, a much darker (and better) series knew how to effectively deploy humor to give the drama room to breathe. But House of Cards exists within a willfully dour universe where people always are their worst selves, showing humanity is a sign of weakness, and the bad guys always win.

After three seasons, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is still the villain of his own story. In an age of television that prizes the anti-hero, he remains thoroughly unlikable among an unlikable bunch. Spacey, of course, does a fine job, remaining thoroughly entertaining even as he chews through the scenery. But at the end of the day, it all feels hollow.

My biggest problem with Frank is that he has no equal. Sure, he’s had setbacks — this season sees him on the ropes more than any other — but he always wins. The outcome is now so inevitable that the show doesn’t even bother to do the work anymore, like when it essentially elides any explanation of his Iowa Straw Poll victory, quickly settling on an outcome that it had previously put into serious question. The move diffuses all the tension from the storyline. Why should we care if we know Frank’s always going to win?

That’s why House of Cards needs to be binged. Given too much time between episodes, you’re likely to notice the flaws: the slow pacing, the poor character development, the dead-end plots. During my binge of season three, episodes bled together without notice. When I stepped back to consider a particular episode on its own, I realized how little actually transpired plot-wise. I get that this is one long story told in incremental parts. However, as TV those increments should be able to stand on their own. Sure, some episodes stood out as well-structured hours of storytelling, but they were the exception to an otherwise dull slog of a season.

Part of season three’s problem is its shift from political drama to relationship drama. Frank and Claire’s complicated marriage becomes the focus, and it’s a move that pulls the rest of the series down under the weight of these two contemptible people.

As Claire, Robin Wright remains the highlight of the series. Seriously, she is a stunning presence onscreen, and turns in a consistently strong performance throughout even when the material often gives her littler to work with.

Having helped Frank take the White House, Claire now finds herself dissatisfied with her role as merely the First Lady. She finally comes to terms with the realization that the sacrifices she’s made in her and Frank’s quest for power don’t necessarily serve her personal goals. She’s also realizing the inequity of her partnership with Frank, whose misogynistic tendencies surface both here and in his dealings with potential running mate Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker). While Frank can Claire’s marriage has always been an arrangement of mutual benefit rather than true love, this season digs into just how tenuous that arrangement is.

Claire’s dissatisfaction is a bit naïve and out of character; as Frank points out, there is only one seat in the Oval Office. Likewise, her attempts as a political player in her own right as a UN ambassador are disastrous. Having Claire confront her failures as well as put her in a position where she begins to question her ruthlessness is a good move. It’s enjoyable to see someone on this show recognize the consequences of their actions.

When done right, the Frank-Claire dynamic is fascinating to watch. In previous seasons, we have seen how powerful these two are as a team — two supportive, single-minded sharks leaving a bloody wake. While Frank may have no true equal, Claire comes the closest. Even early in season three, we seen how she continues to be his rock upon which he stands.

However, as the season progresses, we begin to see cracks in the foundation. Claire is a blind spot and a potential destabilizing force. And as their relationship deteriorates, it becomes clear that Claire may be the show’s true antagonist the show. This new adversarial dynamic promises some interesting storytelling opportunities heading into season four given the Willimon and company employ a modicum of restraint.

Unfortunately, restraint and subtly are not things this show has ever done well. Look no further than the heavy-handed religious symbolism running throughout this season. These clumsy attempts at subtext are so laughably blatant we might as well call it supertext.

The season opens with Frank literally pissing on his father’s grave. Later, we see him spit on a statue of Jesus, which immediately comes crashing down landing with a heavy thud only surpassed by the weight of the metaphor it fell in service of. In one of the show’s more beautiful but no less unsubtle attempts at symbolism, one episode intercuts scenes of the Underwood’s marriage vow renewal with the construction and destruction of a mandala because impermanence. We even get a hurricane named Faith, which is talked about at length, but in the end never arrives. Thud.

I’ve yet to mention any of the show’s secondary characters. That’s because they are all boring. The only one of note is Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), the former Underwood chief of staff who was left for dead at the end of season two. But even Doug, who heretofore has been an interesting character, is relegated to a largely superfluous B-story that fails to deliver.

Much of Doug’s arc this season follows his rehabilitation, relapse into alcoholism, and obsession with Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan). Rachel, as you may recall, was the prostitute who discovered that Frank and Doug were responsible for Rep. Peter Russo’s death back in season one. Since then she has been a loose end that Doug became too personally invested in to cut for good.

By the middle of the season, it looks like Doug is making progress. He’s reconnected with his brother, sobered up, and seemingly moved on from both Rachel and Frank. He’s even working for a competing candidate in the primaries. If the story had stayed on this trajectory, it might have worked, but late in the game we learn that it’s been all a play to get back inside Frank’s inner circle.

Once back in Frank’s good graces, Doug sets out to solve the Rachel Problem once and for all. Here’s the thing about the Rachel Problem: it’s not a problem. She was a junkie prostitute with zero credibility who Doug has been routinely traumatizing for the duration of the series. This woman was never going to talk, and if she did, no one would believe her.

By season’s end, we get to watch Doug agonize over Rachel’s fate. It’s a rare moment of humanity in a show that tends to view common human decency as treacle. Doug’s mercy for Rachel has always been at odds with his loyalty to Frank. Of course, Frank wins out, and Doug’s character suffers for it.

For all my gripes, House of Cards isn’t a terrible show. The performances and direction continue to be strong even if the writing doesn’t always keep pace. That shortcoming is especially apparent this season, which lacked the twists, death, and sexiness that made the previous ones so compelling to watch. Lacking those elements, all that’s left is dull and pretty. For a show about political intrigue, that’s not very intriguing.

Loose ends:

  • Frank’s biographer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) is a terrible writer and an awful character. I really hope we don’t see him again.
  • Does anyone care about Gavin the hacker (Jimmi Simpson)? Also, I call BS on his assertion that he’s a good conman because conning is just hacking IRL.
  • More proof that good journalism does not exist in the House of Cards universe: one White House correspondent is booted for being too good at her job; her replacement is too busy being a Yates fangirl to do any real work. Seriously, this show’s ham-fisted attempt to show just how powerless the media is in the face of the Underwood machine does not work. It just comes off as cynical.
  • Claire channeling LBJ in that bathroom scene is probably my favorite moment of the season. In the wrong hands, it could have been read as too crass, but Wright (of course) makes it classy as hell.
  • I rather enjoyed the Russian President Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen). It was a pretty obvious riff on Vladimir Putin, but it mostly worked thanks in large part to Mikkelsen’s macho swagger. The scene of him and Frank dressed in battle fatigues in the bunker was a nice juxtaposition and a rare moment of showing Frank in the weaker position.
  • Props to Remy (Mahershala Ali) for getting out of the game. You always were better than these monsters.