Move over Walter White, Frank Underwood is the one who knocks now. Last season’s finale of House of Cards left fans with a cracker of a final shot with Underwood in pride of place in the Oval Office and expectations were at an all time high for the show’s return to Netflix in February. But now the Underwoods have reached the pinnacle of their Presidential aspirations, where was there left to go? Well, what goes up, must come down.
This season was less about backroom dealings and power grabs, instead focussing in on the characters. Taking the spotlight then, is the central relationship between Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) which proved to be the season’s highlight. But that relationship, which has previously been so steadfast, was slowly eroded as Claire found herself forced into the First Lady pigeonhole. Claire and Frank have always proclaimed themselves equals in everything, but as Frank struggled to maintain his newfound power, it was Claire who was made to pay the price – first by losing her position in the UN, then relegated to the role of supportive wife.
Spacey and Wright make an excellent pairing, her stoicism balancing out his aggressive growl, but it’s Claire who is the real powerhouse. In anyone else’s hands, it’d be very easy to turn Claire into a simple ice-queen, but Wright somehow manages to imbue her with a sense of humanity and pathos. Claire’s closing statement of, “I’m leaving you” is an absolute air-punch of a moment, not just because she’s managed to take Frank so by surprise, but because we know she doesn’t need him like he needs her. And it’s a hell of a way to end the season.
But the biggest surprise came in the first episode, where we discovered that not even a rock to the head can stop Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). His agonising road to recovery, via a fall off the wagon, was an interesting counterpoint to the political plotlines, but his unrelenting search for Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) proved to be the series’ biggest mis-step. It’s one thing to believe that a Chief of Staff could illicitly use a hacker to track down a missing prostitute, quite another that he could just take off across country, buy your basic murder supplies from a hardware store and then bury her in the desert. Not only is it hard to believe that Doug is so utterly psychopathic, it’s just not plausible.
As with the previous two seasons, the plot struggles to maintain momentum across the thirteen-episode run, with the middle few sometimes feeling a bit like filler. Frank’s key opponent, Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) and her gradual descent into dirty politics was an interesting storyline which didn’t really go anywhere – she finally threatened to reveal the truth about Claire’s abortion, something which at the start of her campaign she swore she would never do, yet this watershed moment when she sold her morals down the river (a key theme in the show’s depiction of the pursuit of power) was just thrown away.
The season would perhaps be the weakest of the three if not for some great supporting characters. Lars Mikkelsen’s (Sherlock) Putin-esque Russian President, Petrov, was both suave and shark-eyed, proving to be quite a match for Frank on the political landscape and Paul Spark’s quiet novelist was an interesting foil, if not quite allowing us any true new insight into Frank’s character. But it was always going to be a tough task to follow on from season two’s finale, and the last few episodes proved that Frank is at his best when he’s having to fight for what he wants.
Despite a meandering middle, House of Cards‘ return was engaging, even if it may have at times pulled its punches. But it’s the show’s central relationship and the changing dynamic between the Underwoods which is its saving grace and made for great television. The signs may say “Underwood for 2016”, but they don’t specify which Underwood. Place your bets now.