So now instead of a ruthless and controlled rise to the top of the ladder, Frank and Claire must fight to keep a desperate hold on all they have achieved. Instead of being the unstoppable power couple from Hell they find themselves matching against one another while trying to preserve both their standing and marriage. Be assured, my saying that “things fall apart” is an old plot device does not take away from the excellence and compelling nature of season 3. Like many others I finished the season in a few obsessive days (and thank you, Netflix, for your generosity of releasing every episode in one go – we surely are living in the future!) and felt more than prepared to watch it a second time for review. The DVD also comes with a digital ultraviolet version which can be accessed from a wide range of devices, a natural bridge between traditional disc media and the soon to be widespread online distribution. The special feature – entitled Backstage Politics – features a blend of talking head interviews with various directors, photography directors and the show’s creator Beau Willimon. Don’t watch it before you finish the season or else you’ll find a few spoilers present. In essence it confirms what we know about HOC being incredibly stylised and shot to perfection but also goes into the flexibility they maintain on set and the creative input of the actors involved. Director Agnieszka Holland makes the salient point that television, as opposed to film, is now the innovative and courageous medium and Backstage Politics is a tantalising glimpse into the sheer amount of work that these big budget, big concept TV shows demand. It’s a little short at 23 minutes but, like the series, packed with interest and introspection.
So, is House of Cards good? Evidently yes – we are living in what some might call a golden age of television drama with such show stoppers as House of Cards, True Detective and Breaking Bad gracing our screens and challenging our ideas of traditional TV. From the very start this show has been compelling us, drawing us in to this world that very few non-Americans are really aware of and constantly startling us viewers with the dark, torrid depths of the American political system. The story is given credibility by Dobbs’ involvement with this adaptation. Before writing House of Cards he worked in the UK government as Chief of Staff in the Conservative Party and knows how the game was played in this country at least. It is given weight by the actors involved: both Spacey and Wright (who plays Frank’s ambitious and emotionally repressed wife/co-conspirator Claire) are well known and respected lights of the industry. Finally, it is given a well moneyed and polished air by its publishers Netflix, who must by now be considered on a par with HBO for exemplary production and heavy budgets.
Safe in the knowledge that House of Cards is a brilliant TV show, we must now focus on its latest offering. Season 3 follows exactly the same format as its predecessors being 10 episodes of around an hour with each episode being assisted by Underwoods expository dialogue to camera (personally my favourite part of the show). As you no doubt gathered all is not well for the Underwoods whom in the 6 months that pass in the first episode find themselves beset by a restless population and uneasy cabinet members. What follows may sound similar to regular viewers of the series. Each episode confronts the Underwoods with some new challenge in the form of political rivals and various global or domestic conflicts and follows their attempts to crush the former and defuse the latter. Speaking of domestic conflicts however, unlike previous seasons, a much greater emphasis is placed on Frank and Claire’s relationship as each plan to carve out their legacy regardless of the consequences. This plotline, I find, is where the real meat of the story is to be found.
No longer able to rely on the relative isolation of their townhouse each is exposed to new characters who loom large in their development. One is played by Lars Mikkelsen who has gone from being a loathed and feared press magnate in BBC’s Sherlock to being the loathed and feared President of the Russian Federation and Frank’s primary antagonist of the season. For all intents and purposes, Mikklesen’s President Petrov is a facsimile of the real life President Putin, albeit exaggerated and just different enough to not implicate the show’s writers for libel. Put simply, Mikkelsen makes an excellent antagonist and is a braver man than I for taking on the role. The other important new arrival is Paul Sparks’ character, novelist Tom Yates. Sparks’ was unknown to me but I soon warmed to his portrayal of Yates, who acts as both arbiter of conflict and confidant to the Underwoods, ostensibly while researching for a new book at Frank’s request. The significance of these two new arrivals are a new development in the writing of House of Cards. Rather than adversaries to be crushed or allies to befriend they come across as threatening and unknown, you get the feeling for the first time that events may be falling out of control.
This new feeling of the unknown is however lessened by an overall loss of arguably the shows most alluring feature- subtlety. Mikkelsen’s Petrov, while brilliantly realised, is somewhat on the nose and not in keeping with the shows low key approach to politicians. While Walker, Tusk and other adversaries are shown to be distinctly human and full of personality, Petrov and Yates betray an emptiness and appear more as devices than real characters. Even Frank’s “shocker” moments seem less sinister and more garish- the act of a man who is simply unpleasant as opposed to the concealed evil genius of seasons 1 and 2. Yates appears mysterious and we wonder if he’s trustworthy but at the same time is so reserved that I’m sure he’d bore me to tears if we met in real life. More boring is Doug Stamper’s endless journey to make it back to the A list of political intrigue, peppered with pointless encounters with his brother, his physio nurse and other people of no consequence. Doug has been one of my favourite characters, a tortured and yet unbreakable servant to Frank’s Dark Lord persona. Moving on from the deeply unsettling interaction between Doug and perpetual victim Rachel Posner that at least had exciting creepy factor to his own “things fall apart” storyline seems unnecessary when Doug’s life was never remotely together to begin with.
These problems with season 3 exist, but only because the show and story needed to evolve past the bounds of previous installments. Frank and Claire’s lives have changed, no longer are they cooped up in their controlled and insulated bubbles but instead thrown out into the open to be examined and judged by their country and the world. The show’s creators have reflected this by presenting us cracks in the cool, calm exterior the Underwoods present, which requires a few cracks to the subtlety and depths of the show. As I said, “things fall apart” is a time tested path for a drama to take. “And they lived happily ever after” is an idea that we as audiences know to be outdated. Once the protagonist has everything they wanted, the only thing left to do is to watch it all smash to pieces and try to keep going. Maybe we’ve seen the like of it before and will again, but what’s for certain is that House of Cards Season 3 sets a new bar in this category and that, while the Underwoods might be faltering, the show doesn’t seem in danger of falling apart anytime soon.
Review by Struan Tyrrell
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House of Cards Season 3 is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms.