Solid drama, killer acting, and a cliffhanger ending
Author: Taylor MacPherson
The third season of Beau Willimon’s House of Cards shows us what it truly means to exist at the top of the food chain.
The appeal of House of Cards lies in its political voyeurism, showing us the side of politicians that we know to exist, but which must necessarily remain hidden from us, lest we lose all faith in the system. Frank Underwood smiles warmly before public and press, deftly sidestepping tough questions, and cracking harmless jokes in his lovable southern drawl. Yet, behind closed doors (where the meat of the series takes place), the warmth is replaced by a calculated viciousness and an utter lack of compassion or mercy for his enemies.
Enemies are a fact of life for Frank Underwood, as they must be for any president. His fierce political rivals for the Democratic Nomination are both female (Molly Parker and Elizabeth Marvel), a fact which serves to make their own predatory natures even more shocking. In a stroke of casting genius, Lars Mikkelsen steals several episodes as the hostile Russian President Viktor Petrov. Sherlock fans will remember Mikkelsen’s unapologetically creepy performance as Charles Magnussen, much of which carries over here; Mikkelsen’s beady eyes and slithery voice could make anyone squirm. Underwood stands up to Petrov with his usual self-assured bravado, but the obvious desire to destroy this monster broils just beneath the surface throughout all of their scenes together. Underwood even has a confrontation with a statue of Jesus in one of the season’s most memorable scenes, and while only one of them walks away unscathed, the victory is left in elegant ambiguity.
The series continues its standing focus on the complex partnership between the President and First Lady, Claire Underwood, played to icy perfection by Robin Wright. Claire’s personal ambitions have not ended in the White House, and the confliction between duties as First Lady and desire to be recognized on her own merit provide much of the series’ tension. Frank seems much more comfortable commanding Navy SEAL black ops from the Situation Room than he does telling his wife “No.” Fans of the non-traditional sexual dynamic between Frank and Claire will not be disappointed in Season 3, and the introduction of Frank’s soft-spoken yet relentless personal biographer (Paul Sparks) has the effect of applying heat to a churning chemical reaction.
The writing in House of Cards remains top-notch, yet there is a distinctive lack of any consistent imagery tying the season together. Water symbolism abounds (two very important moments occur in pristine enamel bathtubs), but provides little real insight or artistry. This season’s focus on Frank Underwood’s former chief-of-staff and confirmed workaholic, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), and long-suffering cybercriminal Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) becomes slightly grating, though this is a result of their uncharismatic characters rather than any lack of acting skill.
Underwood’s sneering asides to the camera also return in Season 3, but not in full force. They become more rare as the season progresses, leaving me wanting more. Speaking of wanting more, Season 3 ended on a definitive cliffhanger, unlike Season 2, which closed leaving a few precious dangling threads. When a series is of sufficient quality that the viewers would continue to watch it regardless, a cliffhanger ending (and this is a big one) seems ham-fisted, even slightly insulting.
My criticisms fall away, however, before the towering performances, clever writing, and exquisite direction of House of Cards. Shots of Frank Underwood in the Oval Office make it seem dim and claustrophobic, a place where doors melt away into walls, and the carpets are thick enough to absorb any amount of blood, sweat, or tears. I was reminded several times of Kane pacing the wide, empty halls of Xanadu, and relived the feeling I used to have when called to the principal’s office. When the camera makes a character as large as Frank Underwood seem small and alone, I can hardly look away, much less criticize. With House of Cards, Netflix has cemented itself as a major competitor to HBO and FX in terms of quality, and I can say for certain that I love this series.