Disclaimer: SPOILERS ABOUND. (Though, if you haven’t watched the entirety of season three already, I’m not sure what you’ve been doing.)
I love Kevin Spacey.
That’s not the spoiler.
But, like—I love him. If Kevin Spacey were to walk into a bar and ask me to go home with him at the risk of losing everything I’ve ever worked for, I’d do it. When I first began watching him as Frank Underwood in House of Cards, I was transfixed. Underwood is vile and cruel and I have loved every second of him. Two seasons later, I’m just as ride or die.
With all that said, I wasn’t looking at Frank Underwood so much during this season of House of Cards. No, this season is all about Robin Wright—Frank’s wife, Claire Underwood.
Wright has been a formidable force since day one. She plays Claire’s almost frozen exterior masterfully, letting the ice crack here and there to reveal flashes of hesitation and insecurity, and the occasional gleam of genuine warmth.
When we first meet Claire in season one, she’s positively Machiavellian. Although clearly Frank’s right-hand woman, Claire doesn’t always kowtow. We see moments where she directs deviousness and duplicity toward him, especially when she feels like she’s not getting her cut in all this. Because she has to—Claire clearly has the raw end of the deal, considering how ambitious she is. Always the first lady, never the President.
Though she appears cool and calculating on the surface, Claire’s impulsivity often derails Frank’s carefully laid plans, with more than a few damage-control moments in seasons one and two. Season three Claire is even less on board, as she begins to realize that perhaps Frank’s do-whatever-it-takes approach to maintaining a grip on Washington isn’t quite the same dream she’s had. As she grapples with a pesky and ever-growing sense of guilt for past sins, the void between the couple widens. In a particularly stirring episode, a morally exhausted Claire lays it all out.
“We’re murderers, Francis,” she says, flatly.
“No we’re not. We’re survivors,” Frank replies.
Whether in the Oval Office or in the Presidential bedroom, Claire and Francis just aren’t clicking—and season three makes a comeback with those veeerrrry uncomfortable sex scenes. Brief but unsettling, the few moments of intimacy between Frank and Claire highlight the troubling dynamics between the couple. The connection between the Underwoods could never really be described as tender, though there was certainly some affection there; this season, they’re so far removed from one another they may as well be on different planets.
This season, the writers threw in Thomas Yates, a writer who Frank hires to write a book about his controversial program “America Works.” Very obviously a plot device to reveal more about Frank and Claire, Thomas himself is fairly uninteresting and often behaves in a way that doesn’t seem realistic, but his determination to root out what makes the Underwoods tick is reflective of what the audience also wants to know. Do these people love each other? Have they ever? Can they ever?
Claire Underwood aside (though I hesitate to even write such a statement), season three marks a bit of a fall from grace for everyone—it’s hard to stay on top in the District. Frank barely keeps his head above water in this season, and is constantly being double-crossed by people who are tired of being manipulated and bullied. All that he’s worked for is under constant attack, and though we want to trust that he’s always got something up his sleeve, there are many moments during the season where that doesn’t seem to be the guarantee it once was. Frank’s allies and enemies (who often interchangeable, depending on the hour) all seem a little less assured this season—a little shakier.
Meanwhile, Frank’s former number two Doug continues down a path of I-don’t-know-what. His demons have come to roost, and they don’t appear to be leaving any time soon. The danger of his alcoholism is one thing, but Doug’s addictive tendencies splash over into other spheres of his life. Doug’s usual airtight scheming is constantly interrupted by his obsession with Rachel. It’s sort of understandable considering the way they left things in season two, but Doug’s preoccupation with her has been creepily developing for a long time now. As a friend of mine so eloquently put it: “He is going to tie this girl up in his closet?”
I’ve never found Doug to be particularly compelling, mostly because I think his character has been thrown secondary plot-line after secondary plot-line. His fixation with Rachel is weak; it reads as though the writers needed to give this guy a very obvious Achilles heel, and went with the laziest route possible. If I have to keep watching him, I’m hopeful that something more interesting is planned for Doug in future seasons. And that we can just get rid of Gavin Orsay entirely, who I can’t not see as a McPoyle twin, and who has one of the most boring subplots in the history of ever. I want better for Doug, and I think the writers can deliver it.
Though Doug doesn’t spend much time in Federal Triangle this season, House of Cards is still all about the politics. The frenzied dynamic between the Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue is as present and as fast-paced as ever—this season demands your full attention every bit as much as the last two did. Admittedly, I was worried after the first couple of episodes; Russia had seemed to replace China/Raymond Tusk as the Big Bad of the season, and I braced myself for another season of boring backroom deals that felt unnecessary and extraneous. Luckily that wasn’t the case. Season three handles the tête-à-têtes between Russian President Viktor Petrov and Frank deftly, and bounces evenly between the dealings in Moscow and Frank’s own struggles to get Washington behind him.
It’s no easy feat to keep momentum the way House of Cards has. The show has faltered a bit throughout its three-season run, but for the most part it has remained taut and tense overall. Especially impressive, too, has been its excavation into characters so simultaneously disturbing and sympathetic you begin to question your own aspirations of morality. Season three left us on a particularly distressing note—a shift from previously ambivalently calm season finales—and it’s very difficult to imagine where the show will go from here. For the Underwoods, though, this is to be expected. As Frank tells Zoe in the first season, “Treading water is the same as drowning for people like you and me.”
Good luck. I’ll be watching.