Third Season of "House of Cards" Captivates While Playing it Safe
Issue   |   Tue, 03/03/2015 - 22:59
salon.com
Frank Underwood, played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey, represents the main character of the hit Netflix series.

“House of Cards” released its third season on Feb. 27. This long-anticipated season was unveiled on Netflix, with each episode available to steam instantly. “House of Cards” produced two seasons in this fashion. Each season before the third has already taken home awards at the Emmys and Golden Globes. Since then, “House of Cards” has solidified itself as a television powerhouse, lauded by critics and viewers alike. This article does contain major spoilers from seasons 1 and 2, as well as minor spoilers from season 3.

Frank and Claire Underwood, portrayed by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright respectively, are the riveting, power-hungry couple who will stop at nothing to become the President and First Lady of the United States. Over the course of the first two seasons, they accomplished just that. Season 2 concludes with Frank Underwood hungrily staring at the historic desk inside the Oval Office, cutting to black as he knocks on it. Now that Frank has done everything, even committing an act of murder, to achieve his dream, what is new for him? What else can the Underwoods do now?

Season 3, unlike the previous two, focuses on the Underwoods’ quest to keep the power they have just gained. After all, Frank Underwood was not elected to the presidency; thus, he has to scheme up ways to make sure he will be elected in 2016. Frank does not lose his original charm as he makes quips directly to the camera and secretly plots with his wife. While it follows a formula that has already been successful for “House of Cards,” season 3 presents new problems that are grander and harder to control. Political control is not as easy for Frank as it was before.

Frank Underwood continues his elaborate political plans, but the situation is different. He no longer has his faithful Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), and Claire Underwood wishes to spread her wings in the political sphere as the U.N. ambassador. Every episode seems to be a new problem for the Underwoods: the Democratic Party demanding Frank Underwood not to run for reelection, the Russian president creating a near crisis in the Jordan Valley and the emotional tolls the presidency takes on both Frank and Claire.

Rather than focusing on the Frank’s political prowess, season 3 uses the episodes to push him to his limit. Frank is constantly playing catch-up rather than staying ahead. The stress of the presidency is clear as his comments to the camera cease all together and a few slivers of humanity slip through his actions. For example, he chooses not to politically destroy a Supreme Court justice who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Even Claire reveals her own unhappiness in her marriage with Frank, describing it as a flirtation with suicide. Neither one is immune to the stress and hardship of the presidency, and their own political finesse slips as they no longer seem to be the power couple that was shown in the past. It is this very slippage that eventually causes their own downfall. “House of Cards” has become the modern day Shakespearean tragedy. While the first two seasons focused on the rise to power, it is evident that season 3 depicts the eventual fall of Frank Underwood. How much will he lose in his own quest to keep the presidency?

This season has taken the tale of Frank Underwood to a new frontier. It is a storyline that is unexpected, but somehow it works. Kevin Spacey masterfully balances the political ambition and the emotional burdens of Frank Underwood, adding more levels to an already complex character. While “House of Cards” experiments with some risky plot points, from a near-war with Russia to a New Deal-esque policy, the writing and acting somehow make each situation seem conceivable in today’s political world. Of course, there are the plot lines that do not work, from Doug Stamper’s fall into alcoholism to Frank hiring a biographer for propaganda reasons. However, it is the fact that there is experimentation in the show that makes it different from other cable broadcast series.

“House of Cards” season 3 is not nearly as groundbreaking or riveting as its predecessors; however, it experiments and toys with ideas that push the Underwoods to their limits. Rather than focusing on appeasing the audiences and gain ratings, “House of Cards” is uncompromising in its quest to create fully developed characters whose struggles reflect the political climate of today. Perhaps it is the unique delivery method of online streaming that allows “House of Cards” to take some risks that other TV shows don’t taken. But, for a series that has already asserted its dominance in the television world, season 3 seems to take the lazy way out rather than breaking more barriers in the same way as seasons 1 and 2.

In the end, though, season 3 is unlikely to harm “House of Cards” in terms of viewership or critical acclaim. Season 3 is just a safe continuation of the “House of Cards” dynasty, properly developing and destroying the characters in this world without too much surprise.

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