Friday, February 27, 2015

The Inherently Precarious Season Of House Of Cards Does Not Crash The Series Down!

The Good: Good acting, Engaging plot development
The Bad: Little character development
The Basics: House Of Cards Season Three progresses the story of Frank Underwood as President Of The United States as he squares off against Republicans, Democrats and Russia!

One of the real challenges of stories that are centered around characters who desire power is how the story changes when those characters get the power they have always craved. The quest for power versus the struggle to maintain power can be a very difficult transition for a television audience to accept. House Of Cards got to the point where the second season (reviewed here!) ended and the third season was saddled with the burden of reinventing the political drama.

House Of Cards Season 3 opens with Francis Underwood as President Of The United States, having connived his way from the Vice Presidency to the Presidency from being Majority Whip in Congress and, originally, desiring nothing more than to be Secretary Of State under the newly-elected President Walker. The third season opens with a good sense of mood, but a very low “wow” factor and it builds to being what one hopes and expects from House Of Cards: a taut political thriller filled with interesting characters, intense reversals and political machinations that take a second viewing to truly appreciate!

Six months into the Underwood Administration, Frank Underwood’s presidency has stagnated: unemployment is on the rise, trouble is brewing in the Middle East and Republicans are already lining up a strong challenger for the 2016 election cycle. Doug Stamper slowly recovers and tries to get back to work, while Claire pushes to have Frank nominate her for U.N. Ambassador. After Claire is defeated in a Senate vote for the Ambassadorship, Frank gives her a recess appointment. Her mettle is soon tested as Russia becomes a stumbling block to Mid East peace. After a somewhat troubling visit from the Russian President, Claire and Secretary Of State Durant find themselves trying to work around Russia on the international theater.

Domestically, Frank struggles to sell his jobs program: America Works. As a tactical move, when Womack betrays him to the rest of the Democratic Leadership, Frank announces he will not seek re-election and wants to govern instead. His gamble takes a turn for the worse when he learns that Heather Dunbar is being groomed to run in 2016. When his attempt to redirect her to the Supreme Court fails, Frank is put on the ropes. When Claire speaks out in Russia against the laws that led an imprisoned U.S. citizen to suicide there, Frank once again feels attacked at home.

To get America Works actualized, Underwood uses FEMA and the District Of Columbia to have joblessness declared a disaster. The plan works with surprising success . . . until a hurricane bears down on the Eastern seaboard and FEMA needs the money. Frank has to make the difficult choice to be prepared for the hurricane and defund his most successful program or risk real lives if a disaster strikes. The situation with Russia reaches a breaking point when violence in the Mideast erupts in the Jordan Valley and Petrov leverages Frank’s love for Claire against potential peace with Russia!

Part of the excitement of House Of Cards Season Three that was most exciting going into the season was that I had no idea where it would end. I always said it would be neat to see Frank Underwood try to campaign and the third season of House Of Cards has a handful of scenes that illustrates just how charismatic he could be on the campaign trail. But, from almost the end of the first episode of the first season (reviewed here!), I knew where the season would end. Similarly, the second season had an obvious trajectory. The third season was the closest to a blank slate it could be and it manages to go in interesting ways because the characters move them, even if they do not grow and develop significantly for the most part.

In the third season, the essential characters in House Of Cards are:

Francis Underwood – Now President Of The United States, he finds himself struggling to maintain relevance opposite a hostile Congress and low approval ratings. His solution is a jobs program, America Works, which looks to cut entitlements and reinvest in jobs. His main adversaries become Heather Dunbar and Russian President Petrov who attempt to outflank him domestically and thwart his ambitions internationally. To fight the public relations battle, he hires a novelist to write about his life. He renews his vows with Claire and has to get involved with running for re-election much earlier than he thought after the hurricane,

Claire Underwood – An activist First Lady, she wants Frank to nominate her to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, so she can start running for office regardless of what happens with Frank’s political career. Given a recess appointment, she works to become Katherine Durant’s friend and ally to further her own political goals. She finds herself negotiating for the release of an American political prisoner against Petrov. She and Francis sleep in separate beds now. After spending time in the jail cell with gay rights activist Michael Corrigan working in Moscow, she is shocked when he kills himself with her scarf. She takes a stand against Petrov and that destroys the peace treaty Frank negotiated with the Russian President. After she and Frank renew their vows, she realizes that someone who knows her is aiding Dunbar. Her effectiveness as ambassador is challenged when Russian troops are killed in the Jordan Valley and the Russian ambassador tells her it was an inside job,

Katherine Durant – Secretary Of State, she has worked hard to arrange a Middle East summit. She has doubts about Claire as UN Ambassador and disagrees with Francis launching a military strike on a Palestinian terrorist so close to the summit. She helps to guide Claire to some early understandings of international diplomacy . . . through beer pong! After that, she pretty much disappears from the narrative,

Donald Blythe – Underwood’s Vice President, he accepted the post for an Alzheimer’s research center in memory of his late wife. He has no real power as Vice President,

Jackie Sharp – She is now estranged from Remy Denton, she wants to be on the ticket as Underwood’s Vice President come re-election. She is kept out of the loop by Womack. To bolster her chances of making her campaign seem viable, she agrees to marry a cardiologist, despite still having some actual affection for Remy. Running a campaign against Dunbar, she and Remy orchestrate the opportunity for her to join the Underwood ticket down the road. She, however, feels undervalued when her sacrifices are not met with any appreciation,

Doug Stamper – After being found in the woods, near death, he goes through months of intensive physical therapy. Determined to get back into the Underwood’s inner circle, he sets his own broken arm when he slips in the tub in order to make it to the White House for his first meeting with Francis there. When Frank keeps him out of the inner circle and Gavin is unable to find Rachel Posner, he decides to ally himself with Heather Dunbar. Stamper begins to feed Dunbar leads on jobs to offer and threats to make that help her get early support from donors. But, when Gavin finally gets him information on Rachel, his entire world falls apart,

Josh – Press Secretary, he pulls the credentials of his ally in the press when she oversteps in a press conference. He checks in on Stamper periodically, per the wishes of Francis. When Remy has a crisis of faith, he attempts to become Chief Of Staff,

Hector Mendoza – The Republican Senate leader is preparing for a 2016 Presidential run. But, when he fails to claim some speech money, he is unceremoniously dropped from the Leadership and replaced with a right winger,

Gavin Orsay – The hacker now works for the FBI, where Stamper is able to monitor the search for Rachel Posner. He wants out of the FBI and to do that, he cozies up to Rachel’s ex, Lisa. After playing on Lisa’s compassion, he gets a lead to search for Rachel. Unable to deal with the weight of all his deceptions, he comes clean to Lisa before fleeing the United States,

Heather Dunbar – Made Solicitor General under Frank, she has the financial backing from her family to be an instant contender. When Frank offers her a position on the Supreme Court, she decides to run for President. She is wary of Stamper approaching her for a job. Quietly hiring Stamper, she builds a solid bedrock of support in the Iowa Caucus for her presidential bid. But as the Iowa Caucus looms and her lead diminishes, she finds herself crossing all the lines she promised she wouldn’t,

and Remy Danton – Frank’s Chief Of Staff, he clearly misses Jackie. He tries to stand by Frank and support him, though it often puts him at odds with Jackie.

In the third season of House Of Cards, some of the characters are minimized or gone altogether: Edward Meechum is a virtual nonentity and Josh and Remy have no major character arcs in the season. Freddy is given a brief cameo which is delightful for fans of the series, but the new reporter character, Kate Baldwin, and the author Thomas Yates are given more substantive roles in the third season. So, regardless of any other issues, House Of Cards continues to evolve and develop in its third season.

Before watching the third season of House Of Cards, the two aspects of the show I was most excited about were seeing how the Underwoods might maintain their control and to learn the fate of Doug Stamper. The season premiere for the third season of House Of Cards spends an agonizing amount of time with Stamper and exploring his recovery. The other big change in the third season of House Of Cards is in the dynamic between Frank and Claire. This season finds them farther apart than ever. That makes the series feel more like others on television (as my wife noted, there are a ton of shows one could watch where a couple does not get along, but House Of Cards, especially in its second season, had the pair working as a real power couple).

The third season of House Of Cards is much harder to get into; the show is gridlocked at the outset and it struggles to find its footing. But when it does, it moves forward in an interesting and compelling way that at the very least encourages viewers to be excited about the possibility of Season Four!

For other television shows and movies that focus on politics, please visit my reviews of:
Game Change
Game Of Thrones - Season 1


For other television reviews, please be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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