Review: House of Cards – Season 3

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

Bleary-eyed and five pounds heavier, I’ve returned from the world of wickedness to the world of people pretending they’re not.

Gut reaction to House of Cards? This is a tale of two Franks. Where’s Frank? The Frank, my Frank; the delicious bastard who made two-years of addictive television out of talking to a camera with impish smugness.

Yet there’s something missing from season three, and it’s difficult to put your finger on it. The first two series was the pursuit of power, but then again the thrill is in the chase: season one will always be the delightfully playful, akin to the late and great Iain Richardson’s Shakespearean take on the character (Spacey shares a mutual interest there, but seldom deploys the talent).

The second season, in retrospect, was a warning of the plateau that was to come: it wasn’t stagnant but was bogged down a little too heavily in the reality of the American legislative process. It was possessed of moments of pure character gold and the manipulation of President Walker was inspired television, even if the resignation was a lightweight Nixon knock-off.

It’s a shame, the closing scene offered so much: right from the moment Underwood is sworn in the orchestra kicks off and it’s a steady march of decisiveness right up to the cool pause of satisfaction in the Oval Office  before *bang-bang* of his ring on the Resolute desk. Everyone smiled.

Reach the third season and the first season’s musing of ‘if he gets power, how delightfully evil he’ll be’ has been replaced with ‘damn those Founding Fathers for curtailing executive skullduggery.’ Maybe it was wishful thinking that two seasons of setting up his coup would mean a spoilt weekend of indulging in the whims of President Underwood’s idea of the greater good in season three. In retrospect, the disappointment was always inevitable.

Underwood is a Democrat and a long serving one at that. Whether or not that allegiance was the vessel into power or whether he married for wealth makes little difference to the Democrats (in fiction) being put in a straitjacket by the perception they’re the party of decency, families, welfare and all the nice stuff. Francis Urquhart, on the other hand, was a genuinely malevolent force wrapped up in the pretence of doing good for his country. There was a deeply satirical thread in the original series that made for good television rather than a good adaptation (more people will remember the show, rather than its novel source material).

The US version’s creator, Beau Willimon, has said the original this House of Cards was made for a British audience in a different political climate to his take Not convincing. The author of the book from which the whole thing is based, Michael Dobbs, is an executive producer, as is the creator of the original British television series version Andrew Davies.The original series portrayed Francis’ as a parody on the back of the Thatcher years: parochial, economic bean counters with a jingoistic love of country but a blue blood class away from the everyday realities of the other people. If you read political articles on this site, you’ll know the perception problem persists.

In the eponymous first series, Urquhart was an aristocratic, impish character whose political manoeuvres made for high brow mischief and entertainment for the audience. The visuals confirmed as much with infrequent sneaking rat close-ups and the sleekit ‘you might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment’ punch line (that’s worked its way into political vernacular as much as the suffix of ‘gate’ to a scandal).

Get to Francis in the second and third series the satire escalates, not diminishes: Francis going toe-to-toe with a loud mouth well-meaning Prince Charles-esque King, bringing back national service, launching a war, banning vagrancy, blaming his own political assignations on the IRA through his cronies and his ongoing weird but revealing affairs. From the political hijinks and up until the final act there is no confusion that this is mirrored caricature of how some of the public saw the Thatcherites. This parallel Britain is satirical and glorious entertainment, even 25 years later.

Frank Underwood, on the other hand, embodied the most American of clichés of a poor southern boy with a slow drawl done good. Williams has made Underwood with more of the Dickensian influence as a self-starter chimes more to the American legacy. Whereas the UK version ironically plays with the notion of who some people think is best to govern the country (with a horrid underbelly of crime), Underwood is never as hateful as Nixon is to the rich or intellectually superior. He seems to be a good man, a good character, with little motive to his action that is all too apparent in the third season. He’s a murderer but has not justified it: the character is likeable, even appearing as part of a skit for the White House Press Correspondents’ Association dinner.

Starting the season pissing on his father’s grave is one of the few Frankisms we’re allowed in the whole season. Is Urquhart more of a bastard? As a puppet master, yes, but it doesn’t translate well when assuming the power of the office he’s coveted. He is power incarnate but squanders it by irritating people, is light on diplomacy with the Russians (played by the wonderful Lars Mikkelsen) and just being, well, boring. There are political issues but a total absence of the machinations that once made wonderful anti-hero TV and instead Frank is incompetent. His forays, particularly with back to work programmes are interesting but pointless. There is something to be said for never getting what you wish for.

Richardson was a cheeky bastard throughout his three series. Spacey’s third act feels like a poor man’s West Wing: he’s a power crazed murderer, but isn’t being bad, and isn’t nearly as unscrupulous as real leaders need to be. Heck, even Urquhart had flashbacks and panic attacks over his murder of Mattie Storin, only to console himself and be consoled by his wife, Elizabeth, that it was for the greater good. Underwood doesn’t give it a second though and has done nothing with the power he killed for.

The main crux of the show has now has shifted to being a character drama. The relationship with Clare is key, and as always the acting between Spacey and Robin Wright is marvellous. Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is revealed to be alive and his recovery, if realistic, is slow, and his obsession with Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) stretched to irrelevancy (her murder seemed inevitable, but what the point seems lost at this stage). Stamper was sidelined for much of the series, perhaps his return to prominence next year will restore some spine to Frank Underwood.

Underwood is grey, Spacey visibly moving slower. This is Underwood at the end of season 7, not at the end of season 3: he’s aged, unjustifiably, and perhaps that is true of the show. My faith remains. The show is being renewed for a fourth season. Will this be remembered as the foundation for a return to Frank? I hope so. It is a telling state of affairs when Jed Bartlet is a more effective fictional political operator than President Underwood. The ideational but pragmatic Bartlet had accomplishments to his name, Frank, by contrast, seems to be making things needlessly difficult for himself having irritated everyone and isolated most with a cantankerous, treacherous and threatening demeanour. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a real life US President that has squandered so much potential with their personality driving their competence.

Is that the end? Is that what we’re heading for now? If so it makes me think the show will end like its precursor, albeit with more detail: Clare, in an effort to protect her husband’s legacy, and in turn herself, and has him assassinated, the cost of power being their marriage and his life.

Things to hope for next year? A return to form and the careful treading between lawmaking (the show should take head from the once acclaimed murder mystery Broadchurch that’s been panned for its legal faux pas in its second series) and Iago entrapments. House of Cards will fast dissipate if characterisation and useless politicking replace the fun and scheming of the magnificent first two series.

I’m waiting for President Underwood, not his lacklustre twin.

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