I’ve watched three seasons of House of Cards now, and I’m still not sure if it’s as good as it thinks it is. The acclaimed and thoroughly addictive political drama’s third season landed at Netflix this month, and it’s still rolling along on the energy of its posh production values, snarling scripts, and the scheming exchanges of its characters. But is it really saying anything? Is there a satisfying final agenda in the cards? For me, the jury is still out as to whether this one can cap off its antiheroic arc with a satisfying climax (a la The Shield), or trickle away into repetitive franchise insignificance (a la Dexter).
The unlikely, ruthless journey of Francis J. Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) begins its third season in the White House. The couple’s unconventional climb has finally landed Frank in the Oval Office, but they’re not done yet: now it’s time to build a legacy. To this end, Frank launches a radical new jobs program called America Works, a demonic, neoconservative version of the New Deal that polarizes his allies and enemies even moreso than usual. Additionally, he pushes for a risky Middle East peace plan, using Claire – controversially appointed as a U.N. Ambassador – to leverage the playing field. Both schemes are uphill battles, complicating his chances for the ultimate thrust of abbreviated first term: re-election.
The story is watchable enough, and often riveting, but season three is beset by a nagging early question: what now? The first two seasons capitalized on the promise of a radical, secret endgame; the Underwoods seemed hellbent on achieving power for a particular reason. Having achieved the ultimate heights of power, one might expect that reason to reveal itself, but it’s hard to imagine that a jobs program and a peacekeeping mission in the Jordan Valley were the end-all, be-all of the Underwoods’ ambition. Are they deferring this reveal until an inevitable second term? Or is there even a reveal in the offing? At this point I will be disappointed if there isn’t one, but I have a hard time imagining what it could be.
If the political surface stories didn’t entirely sing this season, they at least cast new light on the Underwoods’ relationship. Frank and Claire attaining power has a much different flavor than Frank and Claire wielding it, and the season arc does significantly alter the dynamic between the two, which ultimately leads to some powerful fireworks. The catalyst for this change is a new character, Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), a writer Francis hires to write a book about his program. Yates’ thoughtful presence gets under the skin of the President and the First Lady both, peeling away the political surface just enough to see the rough, rough edges underneath.
That said, the Underwoods were kind of the hole in the middle of the season for me. More interesting was the arc of Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Frank’s right-hand man, who has to build himself back up, both physically and professionally, from a near-death experience. Stamper’s dark journey plays out quietly and confidently, an involved twist of long-term planning to rehabilitate himself from professional exile. And it achieves the series’ trademark trick of getting you behind the actions of a total, ruthless prick…making him sympathetic enough to care about, and then pulling the rug out to remind you of your misguided allegiance.
In the end, is this what House of Cards is really about: the misguided allegiances of our largely futile political reality? Perhaps it is, but I keep coming away from this series wanting something more. I’m not sure what, exactly, but at this point I’m kind of hoping the series goes full Inglorious Basterds on us, with some outrageous final act that sheds new light on all the stylized build-up. The Underwoods deliberately provoke World War III, maybe? Just kidding…sort of. In the meantime, I’ll continue to follow this diverting saga on the strength of its magnetic surfaces – that, and the fact that it’s at least good enough to prompt questions as to what exactly it’s up to. So far that intrigue has been enough; I just hope it’s all going somewhere.