House of Cards season three shared a lot of characteristics with that of its main character, President Frank Underwood. Both show and man had climbed steadily and quickly, cutting off the air supply of enemies and competitors; placing itself at the top of the pile and in an enviable position of power.
With art imitating life so freely, it stands to reason that season three and the POTUS both appeared to unravel as quickly and publicly as one another. Like the vast majority of political careers, it’s the ambition that does for you in the end.
Where HoC III failed to deliver was in matching its ambitions. Where we had spent two full seasons watching Frank go from aggrieved Chief Whip to President, racking up friends and rivals along the way, the stage was set for some real madness. Would Underwood become a war President and seek destruction and oblivion? Would he turn the screws back home? Just how far would he go to achieve what he wants?
Therein lies the first problem. The stage was set for global-sized conflicts and issues. The first half of the season was plagued by the presence of President Putin… sorry, Petrov; a fearsome, unpredictable and ultimately frightened man. His face-to-face showdowns with Underwood bristled with the potential for violence and deep enmity. His tussles with Claire, the paranoia and their nation’s political and military trademark, maskirovka, being deployed meant that viewers wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Underwood is ready to plunge the world into the grip of a nuclear winter.
Then there was the Pres’ fight to push peace-keeping troops in the Jordan Valley. The Middle East, usually such a quiet and happy part of the world, would be pushed and pulled around as all manner of interests and cross words reared up.
Instead of world destruction, we got terse ambassadorial exchanges in dark corridors and dozens of phone calls peppered with vague instructions to get things moving and finalized. The deaths of nine Russian soldiers in the region later on in the season looked to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Instead we got lengthier, dialogue-driven scenes with two people in a small space. To have seen even a glimpse of street protests, soldiers mobilizing, anything to indicate the wider world was at risk and thus granting the viewer further emotional involvement was totally absent.
Laura Baldwin, a new character and a tough, experienced and respected White House journalist, writes a lengthy op-ed describing Underwood as “a tyrant” who holds the USA in a clawed grip. The audience would have no idea if that is true or not. We are never told of Underwood’s popularity. His policies (more on that later) are enacted but never seem to help or hinder anybody. There’s a country of 320 million people whose lives ultimately depend on the President. Frank Underwood may as well be ruling his greenhouse with an iron fist for all we know.
With the tinderbox abroad, we needed some domestic policies to get our teeth into. Underwood’s admirable but actually really confusion America Works programme took up the spotlight back home. The side-plot of Frank illegally shuttling funds from FEMA to his programme seemed to be important for some reason. The last thing you’d want after stealing disaster fund money is for a hurrica… oh yeah, that happens too. The whole Eastern seaboard looks ready to get wiped out until the wild weather turns around at the last-minute and averts a crisis. What?!
Elsewhere, Doug keeps on talking about Rachel and finally kills her in what is actually one of the season’s standout moments. Remy downgrades from suave and intelligent lobbyist to somebody who simply hangs around to touch Jackie’s face every three or four episodes. Seth still looks like a hedgehog with bad intentions. With HoC being so internalized and focusing on the minutiae of US political life, a lot of time ends up being invested in characters who have outstayed their welcome. Freddy’s back too. Remember him? The rib guy? Yeah, I don’t know why either.
I would write about the whole Frank and Claire ‘thing’, but unless you want another 20,000 words on top of this then I’m sorry to have to be the one to disappoint you. Suffice to say their struggles are long and complicated. But throwing away the season climax on Claire declaring that she was leaving Francis was a little too much, given all that had gone before. It’s wasted potential. Rumor has it the main storyline for season four could involve Claire running for the nomination and/or presidency against Frank. PLEASE DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN.
The introduction of Heather Dunbar, a firey Democratic nominee with an axe to grind and corruption to smash set the cat amongst the pigeons and she could be a welcome staple in season four. The reality of it is though, the show needs to end. Soon.
We’re not stupid enough to not know that money is a major factor in TV shows continuing far past their sell-by date. Sometimes though, you have to show a little mercy and dignity. As Frank would tell you, it befits the office of President after all.