Culture

The House Loses: Why Season 3 of House of Cards Utterly Disappoints

I turned 36 this week, with thoughts that Netflix and Kevin Spacey conspired to give me a present: House of Cards, Season 3, went live on Friday.

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I just happened to give myself that day off from work. I assure you, it was just pure coincidence. It also had nothing to do with the fact that my fiancé never got into the show, so it was best to binge as much as possible before torturing her.

Unfortunately, it seems that with Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his equally manipulative wife Claire (Robin Wright) at the pinnacle of success, they don’t know what to do. Indeed, that feeling permeates the entire third season, as if its directors and producers were lost even as their show has become a major success.

Again, the season started with promise when we finally got to see Underwood. How can you go wrong when the Machiavellian main character starts off urinating on his father’s grave?

After communing with his dearly departed dad, the show lets us know that Underwood has terrible approval ratings and is fighting both houses in Congress after proposing the elimination of entitlements to pay for America Works (AmWorks), a massive jobs program. Amusingly, no one points out that it’s just a new entitlement program.

Indeed, that reality exposes a great cognitive dissonance on the part of President Underwood when he famously tells the American people that they “are entitled to nothing!” It was rousing rhetoric. It’s the sort of thing we would love to hear from Republican leaders. Hearing it from a fictional Democrat was even more interesting.

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But this domestic policy debate offered a great backdrop to see how the ruthless president would fight some of his old adversaries. Mix that in with the addition of a global adversary, Putin clone Victor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), and you have the makings for some great conflicts.

However, the execution was weak. Indeed, one can say that weakness is the theme of this season and it makes absolutely no sense.

Here you have Francis Underwood, a man who schemed his way into the White House by manipulating the sitting president to appoint him as Vice-President and then forcing that Chief Executive to step down by engineering a battle between the President, an American billionaire and a Chinese princeling. However, in Season 3, he is the constant beggar, coming hat in hand to men he handily manipulated in Congress and getting dismissed.

Perhaps, in dealing with Russian President Petrov, a different power dynamic could be understood. After all, it’s not like Underwood can murder a Russian strong man like a drunken congressman or meddlesome reporter. But again, here is the opportunity for the sort of Great Powers gamesmanship this role was designed for.

Instead, Petrov insults Underwood in the White House – including a sloppy kiss on First Lady Claire Underwood – and dismisses the Israeli peace plan Underwood proposes. Then Underwood flies around the world, following the Russian like a lovestruck teenager in hopes that he can surrender enough American interests around the world to get Russian support.

At one point, Spacey’s portrayal brings to mind our current president when he proclaims that he can end an international crisis if he could but just talk to Petrov one more time. He flies into a war zone to do just that. Again, however, the talk revolves around how Underwood can best dismantle America’s missile defense systems in order to earn some Russian crumbs.

Yet maybe, now that Frank Underwood had brought his wife to the most exclusive piece of real estate in all the land, he would have peace at home with Claire, right?

Nope. The little lady decided she wanted to be ambassador to the UN. Obligingly, Underwood nominates her and she bombs her Senate confirmation hearings. Claire then browbeats her husband — the leader of the free world — into using a recess appointment to get her the job.

So on every front, a character whose wiles and strength made him so interesting that the second season of House of Cards slowed down the internet, is now whipped.

Underwood tries to regain some of his own mojo, in a storyline that appeared prescient in predicting President Barack Obama’s decision to rewrite immigration laws, by declaring joblessness in Washington, D.C., an emergency and raiding FEMA’s disaster coffers to fund his AmWorks program. Yet even then, he blinks when a hurricane threatens the East Coast and Congress refuses to appropriate more funds unless he scraps the program.

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The season’s main subplot, the survival and recovery of political fixer Doug Stamper storyline, who had been left for dead at the end of the second season, devolves into a meandering waste. After Stamper has regained his strength, he is tossed aside by the president. This is a curious mistake, as up until now, Underwood has been canny in his use of human resources.

However, it at least allows for the tantalizing possibility that Stamper will, in his rejection, go to work for his former boss’ enemies. Or maybe he will drink himself into oblivion. Or maybe he will just obsess over the call girl who nearly killed him.

Even this “drama” petered away when Stamper parlays betrayal into becoming the president’s chief of staff, in the final phase of the season. Yet in a show that has often strained credulity with such skill you don’t even notice it, the strain becomes a break when Stamper, the White House chief of staff, vanishes for days just before the Iowa caucus without anyone mentioning it.

The season finale fizzled as it focused more on the angst-ridden whining about the relationship between Frank and Claire instead of the primary fight upon which the entire season had focused. It leaves the door open for a season four. The only question is whether we will want to walk through it.

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Join the discussion on Twitter. The essay above is the fifth in volume 2 of the cultural discussions between the writers of PJ Lifestyle and Liberty Island exploring the history of counter-cultures, the future of conservatism and the role of new, emerging counter-cultures in restoring American exceptionalism.

Volume II

See the first volume of articles from 2014 and January and February 2015 below:

2014 – Starting the Discussion

January 2015 – Volume I

February 2015

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image illustrations via here, here, here