(Note: Spoilers for all three “House of Cards” seasons abound.)
Continuing “House of Cards” after Frank Underwood won the White House was a ballsy move. Oh, sure, it makes sense fiscally; if they funneled the money that Netflix has made off this show into Hillary’s coffers, it could practically finance her entire campaign. But from a narrative standpoint, it’s dangerous to continue a show once its main character has reached their central objective. Just ask “Homeland.”
As such, I went into this season very worried. I have a love-hate relationship with “House of Cards,” but I’ve never tired of watching Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright tear into the power-climbing story lines like a plate of Freddy’s ribs. What would the show be like now that they had, well, climbed to power?
The answer: better and worse than it was before.
The bad stuff first. Now that Frank’s president, the show focuses even more heavily on political issues than it did previously. “House Of Cards” is good at many things, but addressing actual policy isn’t one of them. Aiming for both realism and shock value, its politics-based storylines tend to come off like dollar-store versions of “The West Wing.” This season, those storylines are everywhere, and they range from the faintly ridiculous (reforming every single extant entitlement program) to the migraine-inducingly ludicrous (FEMA’s treating poverty like a natural disaster). Showrunner Beau Willimon has clearly read up on today’s political situations, but he is rarely capable of rendering suitable television equivalents.
Frank’s POTUS status encourages all this nonsense. It also, of course, rids of us the deliciously scuzzy, fake-your-way-to-the-top quality that made the first two seasons tick. However, it also allows for a positive adjustment to the show’s other major plotline: the Underwoods’ domestic situation. For me, what was fascinating about the show’s first two seasons, aside from its Westeros-meets-Washington-D.C. scheming, was its portrait of a marriage of political convenience. These people exchanged rings in hopes of helping one another rise to the top, and it was always fascinating to watch their relationship seesaw back and forth from utilitarian coolness to genuine love.
Now, in Season 3, there’s genuine hate. Claire wants to play her part in an Underwood administration, and fights for greater influence; Frank thinks that giving her a say will incur charges of favoritism. Willimon cannily mines this conflict to create a series of dynamite scenes that, when taken together, provide both a compelling portrait of a strange marriage and a killer opportunity for two underrated actors to act, act, act.
Some of these scenes, in particular a verbal blow-out aboard Air Force One, are explosive. But both actors make the most of their subtler moments as well. Indeed, two favorite moments in the season consist of such subtleties; a change of expression on Claire’s face toward the end of episode six, and a change of expression on Frank’s toward the end of episode seven. Both moments are wordless, but, through the windows of the actors’ eyes (and the moody lens of the show’s masterful cinematographers), they show us how a worldview changes””how a person changes.
These are the kind of moments that make the show worth watching. These are the kind of moments that reminds us that Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are doing their best work in decades. And these are the kind of moments that make me think that this show might survive and thrive even after its main character has made it to the Oval Office.