For the Underwoods, and for fans of “House of Cards,” the stakes have never been higher. The third season of the Netflix show pushes character drama to the forefront, while keeping the political intrigue that fans crave.
After spending two seasons building a political empire, President Frank Underwood must now maintain his precarious position. Although Underwood faces threats to his presidency at home and abroad, this season is less Machiavelli and more Shakespeare, as the main characters start fighting with each other as much or more than they fight their enemies.
Kevin Spacey continues to deliver a pitch perfect performance as Underwood. Spacey shows a broader range of emotions this season, including dropping three “f-bombs,” a sure sign that the pressure is affecting the normally composed Underwood. Even then, I expect each swear will give fans chills.
The loose ends left over from the end of the second season are still being pursued, although some are dropped rather abruptly. A platoon of secondary characters are introduced, some returning from previous seasons and some making their first appearances. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time to go around, so many of these characters end up feeling underdeveloped. For example, Remy Danton, a series veteran mostly dithers around, complaining, without offering any solutions until he unceremoniously vanishes.
It’s good, then, that the characters who get the most screen time also do the best job. Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright, does much more this season than she has in the past, but she adapts remarkably well. The fact that viewers don’t know Claire as well as they know her husband makes her interesting because her motivations are often a mystery. She’s looking to be more than just first lady, but is often forced to choose between her own self-interest and the interests of her husband.
The main villain of this season is Russian President Viktor Petrov. The similarities between real-life Russian President Vladimir Putin and Petrov are abundant, right down to their names. While he’s supposed to be Underwood’s foreign equivalent, he mostly comes off as a jerk who irrationally hates civil rights, world peace and Underwood specifically, going so far as to bomb his own soldiers in order to pull his forces out of a voluntary U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Overall, though, most of the scenes dealing with foreign policy remind me of some of my favorite parts of the Aaron Sorkin drama, “The West Wing,” if it were directed by David Fincher. Wedged between multiple factions who all want different things, Underwood is forced to make decisions with little information based on gut feelings and both he and the audience can only watch as they play out on the world stage.
The writing of the show is mostly good, but there are a few scenes that make Underwood feel more like a frustrated thug than a political mastermind. In fact, the opening scene made me concerned for the rest of the season, and watching Underwood spit on a crucifix feels like an unnecessary reminder that Underwood is, well, evil.
Former Underwood chief of staff Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly, is the most surprising standout on the show. Believed dead after having his head bashed in at the end of season two, Stamper is recovering and seeking to reintegrate himself with the Underwoods, desperately trying to prove his worth. He’s the most competent character on the show, though his skills are tempered by the fact that no one is totally sure where his allegiances lie until the very end of the season.
Every scene with Stamper is significant, either to the plot or emotionally, because he’s a broken man who just keeps going through sheer force of will. His own inner strength is demonstrated early on when he breaks his arm falling out of the shower, but rather than call an ambulance, which would mean taking himself out of politics while he recovered, he takes a wooden spoon and fashions a makeshift splint. Kelly is stellar in every scene he’s in, even if Stamper’s arc ends without him changing much.
Despite its’ impurities, the third season of “House of Cards” is entertaining. Although it’s clear that the writers are struggling to fill content before the fourth, presumably concluding, season, there’s still a lot of good stuff to watch in this season. And when the fourth season is announced, I look forward to re-watching season three again.