Third season fatigue is a common enough pitfall for most shows. For a series like House of Cards, where the lead is, at best, an antihero and, at worst, the most reprehensible character around, the risk is all the more pertinent. How do you keep audiences invested in the success of someone whom you would be rooting against in reality?
The answer, in this case, is to create obstacles in seemingly untouchable places. For the first two seasons, the one constant amidst all the political scheming and turmoil has been the strong relationship between Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright). Aiming for the same goal together – the White House – the Machiavellian power couple proved that pragmatic compatibility is just as intriguing as grand romanticism.
With the presidency now firmly in their grasp, cracks finally start to appear. Throughout this season, we see how Frank’s ambition to avoid being a one term placeholder President constantly overshadows Claire’s career goals, focused on her tenure as the US Ambassador to the UN. Having a common objective made them a formidable twosome, but with their interests finally and inevitably diverging, the script was able to open a new avenue to explore plot lines that still fit in organically with the overarching storyline.
The tension between the Underwoods is perfectly underlined by the interplay between them and the rest of the cast. Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) has to prove himself after his mishaps in the previous season, providing what is arguably the most nail biting minor arc of the season. Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) and Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) have to hold the administration together, with their loyalties pushed to the limit. Remy’s ultimate disillusionment is an excellent touch to counter criticisms levelled in previous seasons regarding the implausibility of continuously working for such an unscrupulous taskmaster.
As always, Frank also has to deal with challenges from within the Democratic Party. With elections coming up, the incumbent President has to handle challenges from Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) and Jacqueline Sharp (Molly Parker) for the presidential nomination. The plotting and double-crossing during the election campaign – which plays a significant part in the Underwoods’ marital issues – is a more engaging plot than Frank’s ambitious legislative agenda, even though the latter provides some closure with Freddy Hayes (Reg E. Cathey), one of the only people Frank can truly call a friend.
Alongside Dunbar, who finally gives audiences a morally sound and successful politician to cheer for, the two biggest new characters are Russian President Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) and author Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks). While the parallels to a certain Vladimir Putin might be too on the nose, Petrov represents what Frank could be if he did not have to please the voters, and also serves as an amusing reminder that, even in fiction, the USA is not quite as strong as it thinks. His interactions with his American counterpart are brilliantly written and acted, particularly the scenes featuring just Spacey and Mikkelsen in the White House and the Kremlin.
Yates, meanwhile, is brought on board Frank’s re-election team to try and sell his version of the American Dream through writing. What happens instead is a deeper look at the president’s childhood and psyche, as well as some obvious hints about his fluid sexuality. If Petrov pushes Frank professionally, Yates pushes him emotionally, and this juxtaposition lets viewers see him at both his most vulnerable and his most conniving.
The show also continues to look into the various issues that are so relevant in contemporary political discourse, ranging from national security and drone warfare to social welfare and sexuality rights. An argument can be made for squeezing too much into a thirteen-episode run, but it stays faithful to the nature of Washington politics, even if the exact circumstances are exaggerated.
So, is the third season just as compelling as one and two? Not quite. The writing is excellent, the acting should rake in the usual accolades and the production is confidently steady after thirty-nine episodes. The problem, however, is the relentless pacing. Both the previous seasons had high stakes, but also had just enough quiet moments to ensure it was not overwhelming.
The 2015 edition is not entirely devoid of this – an episode featuring a Tibetan ceremonial table comes to mind – but, with the dangers clearly heightened, it might have benefited from a similar increase in actual breathing space. That being said, the finale was fantastic, and is sure to draw audiences in for the fourth season next year. House of Cards might have fallen just short of a home run, but there is still plenty of gas in the tank for another try.