“House of Cards” (2013-present), a Netflix original drama that chronicles the political dealings of Congressman Frank Underwood in a fictionalized White House, began its third season on Feb. 27. In many cases, these 13 new episodes offer more of the original formula that made the show so popular upon its initial release. The complicated, manipulative protagonist, the political backstabbing and the constant struggle for power are what make this program worthy of a Netflix binge. The third season of “House of Cards” corrects many of the shortcomings of the previous two seasons, but introduces some of its own issues.
The season opens with former White House whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as President of the United States. Underwood has manipulated his way to the Oval Office, having orchestrated the resignation of his predecessor President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill). The subsequent episodes illustrate the disloyalty and betrayal steadily growing in Underwood’s party as he attempts to cut entitlement funds in favor of an initiative called “America Works.” The consequences of these budget cuts as FEMA copes with a natural disaster tank Underwood’s approval ratings, which continue to decline for many months. Meanwhile, he has to deal with his slowly recovering chief of staff Douglas Stamper (Michael Kelly), who was beaten badly with a brick and left for dead by Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) at the end of the second season. Stamper’s dramatic and slightly ridiculous return is, like everything else in this show, complicated for Frank, and their relationship changes dramatically.
While “House of Cards” is an extremely well-executed program, the plot lines of previous seasons have often lacked credibility. All of season one and much of season two use revenge as a primary motivation for Underwood’s plot for political ascension, which, at a point, becomes irrelevant. Frank’s motivations — except the standard, villainous hunger for power — become cloudy. He then becomes a character like Voldemort, or the Joker: someone simply hungering for power and longing to destroy his enemies. In many ways, his hatefulness undermines his complexity in the first two seasons. His infallibility contributes to this lack of nuance as well — no foe can take down Frank Underwood, so it becomes an increasingly boring venture to see them try.
This problem is remedied somewhat in the new season, which explores the disintegration of Frank’s relationship with his wife, Claire (Robin Wright). Both are political sharks, brutal and vicious even to their allies; they are in as much of a partnership-in-crime as they are in a marriage. Trust issues and the stress from the trials of their jobs plague their relationship. Wright and Spacey, who have always delivered stellar performances, truly shine in their new, complex roles. We finally see glimpses of Spacey’s character losing his mojo, both in his relationships and in his political strategies. The “America Works” program he proposes — cutting federal entitlements like Social Security in the name of creating more jobs — is destined to be wildly unpopular from the start, and his motivations for creating it are, at least initially, unclear. Seeing this powerful character falter is extraordinarily satisfying for those who don’t like him, yet still incredibly engaging television for those who do.
“House of Cards” remains highly stylized, with interesting dialogue and cinematography. The regular breaking of the fourth wall in Underwood’s asides to the audience has slowly improved over the course of three seasons. This element is significantly less over-the-top now; in one aside, Frank’s explanation that he has to do certain things as president in order to appear human rings uncomfortably true in relation to modern politics. Much of his behavior, however, remains arrogant to the point of ridiculousness — after delivering a speech about humanity, he urinates on his father’s grave. Since he no longer seems to have earned this arrogance, this behavior actually serves to paint an interesting portrait of a character that has been respected, feared and vilified throughout most of his existence. This is the overarching theme of the third season of “House of Cards” — bringing the first two seasons down to earth, while retaining the elements that made them so popular in the first place.