Published on March 6th, 2015 | by Tom May


House of Cards – Season 3 Review

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Have you ever heard of the shaggy dog story? A boy’s very shaggy dog goes missing while on holiday with his family, and so they offer a reward to anyone who finds the family pet and brings it back to them. A man finds said shaggy dog and in desperate need of the reward money embarks on a particularly long, fantastical journey with the canine to get it home. After months of incredible adventures with that shaggy dog, with everyone they met remarking on how ridiculously shaggy the dog was, the man finally arrives on the doorstep of the boy’s home. The boy takes one look at the dog, says “that’s not him, my dog is a lot shaggier than that” and slams the door in the man’s face. The end.

It’s an example of the kind of joke that strings the listener along for as long as possible before hitting them with a sudden punchline that renders the rest of the story completely meaningless. But it can also represent a story with more serious intentions, padded out with enough events, characters, and subplots to really make it seem complex. The audience is convinced that it’s all going somewhere but then the story ends on a complete non sequitur and it turns out that nothing building up to that moment really mattered. It was, in essence, a complete waste of time. Incidentally, here’s my relatively spoiler-free review of the new season of House of Cards.

Once upon a time, a particularly devious and clever man became President of the United States.

Season 2 of Netflix’s ‘Web Original’ series House of Cards had its share of problems, and yet despite that managed to overcome those various issues to deliver on a tense and satisfying ending that ultimately lives up to what we’d come to expect from the first season of the show. There was definite potential in the concept of Frank Underwood finally achieving his goal and assuming office as the President of the United States. What would this nefarious, scheming malcontent do next now that he had the near-limitless power he’d lusted after for so long? The size of the collective imagination of the show’s writers was the limit, and even if they didn’t decide to immediately go to Frank’s inevitable downfall, they at least had the tools to keep things interesting.

Instead of learning a lesson from the last season’s mistakes, however, House of Cards preferred to double down. Those characters introduced or otherwise given a greater focus in Season 2 that ended up going nowhere? Good news, they’re back. I had previously given the show the benefit of the doubt, that maybe there was a plan and that the uninteresting milling about of Jackie, Remy, Seth, et al. in the second season would build up to something far more worthwhile now that introductions were out of the way. Nope!

The pieces have been shuffled about the board a little, but at the end of the day they’re still uninspired background dressing that contribute nothing to what made House of Cards compelling in the first place. And their trite storylines, if they even get one, go face-first into a dead end yet again. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional little side story if it’s fun to watch and it’s even better if you find a way to tie it back into the main plot. But Season 3 really overindulges with typical TV nonsense that most viewers are going to have already seen dozens of times before, except probably done better and not stretched out across far too many episodes.

Suddenly he became incompetent and devoid of all charm as he blundered his way through some rote political intrigue.

Why would you bring back characters who barely mattered to the plot the first time around if you still don’t have any decent ideas for them? That’s a really great question, and one that I expect we’ll be asking again next year, because apparently not satisfied with the already bloated cast of extraneous characters, Season Three decides to bring a few more on board. Do they do anything important in the story? No. Are they interesting? Not particularly. Is there any sort of satisfying resolution to their stories to justify their existence? Of course not. Do they help pad out thirteen 50 minute episodes that are starving for meaningful content? Oh, you bet.

These aren’t new flaws, however. Season 2 made many of the same mistakes, even if it didn’t have the benefit of hindsight as an excuse to avoid them like Season 3 does. The inventive machinations of the Underwood family was what kept it floating, and let’s face it: has always been the main draw of House of Cards, even in Season 1 where the show seemed to have a much more competent grasp on handling its supporting cast. So Season 3 should at least be able to float through as worthwhile on that merit alone, right? Well, no, because they screwed that up worst of all.

Frank and Claire Underwood were terrible, horrible people. They were also fascinating and fun to watch as they mercilessly tore through their opponents with entertaining panache. And they had a certain mystique about them that came from being in near-perfect synchronisation with each other and their goals, cutting through any sort of personal drama like butter and emerging stronger because of it. It was rather sweet, in a terrifying and barely human sort of way.

His dull, tiresome friends from last year were there too.

But forget all of that because the Frank and Claire of Season 3 might as well be different characters altogether. After becoming the President, Frank soon proves himself to be toothless and incapable in his new position of power. The hyper-competent mastermind of yesteryear would faint at the sight of what he becomes. This misstep could have been in response to criticism that Frank was always a little too good at twisting everyone around his finger, or it might be some sort of misguided attempt to make him appear more human, but whatever the motivation may be it doesn’t work.

Frank fumbles his way from one situation to the next, with no lasting effect in true Season 3 fashion, never really seeming to be in his element. His smirking asides to the audience are all but extinct, which is a great shame in itself, and he never really does anything truly reprehensible like we’ve come to expect. There’s a few cheap ‘taboo’ moments offered as a token gesture, but they’re more silly than truly malevolent.

There’s an occasion fairly early in the season, after having already watched Frank blunder through a number of crises, where he finally puts his foot down and seems to find his second wind. “It’s good to be on the offensive again” he proclaims soon after. For just a little while, you’re tricked into believing that Frank and the show’s writers have found their groove again. But before you know it, it’s all fallen flat and Frank is back on the defensive, flailing ineffectually at every catastrophe that comes into his office. (And there’s quite a few, all of which amount to nothing in the end. Sounding familiar?)

There were some new people too, who also had nothing of consequence to add.

Claire suffers the same treatment as well when it’s decided that she should really become the moral one of the pair. Suddenly fraught with doubts and these particularly un-Underwood things called ‘feelings’, Claire’s new purpose is to be there to offer some low-cost, readily available conflict by second-guessing everything that Frank does. She might as well since everything he does is a disaster, but it’s just another nail in the coffin for these once dynamic sociopaths. Anyone who has seen any of the promotional trailers leading up to Season 3’s release can probably guess where this abrupt, unnecessary friction is trying to go, but just when you think it’s all coming to a head, it stops dead in its tracks and for all intents and purposes appears to be resolved. And then at the last possible moment of the season, it all becomes an issue again. Talk about being given the run around.

The final episode doesn’t do anything that bodes well for the next season either. Half of it is obsessed with being a low-rent serial killer flick as it brings to a close the longest, most aggravatingly pointless shaggy dog story of the entire show so far. The rest of the episode leaves plenty of plot threads a-dangling in its wake as House of Cards makes a mad dash for its deeply unsatisfying cliffhanger of an ending.

It gives me no joy to call Season 3 a disappointment. There was the opportunity to expand on the scope of House of Cards without sacrificing what made the show so unique in the first place, but instead we were stuck with a meandering 13 episodes of filler that feel almost cynical in the way it pads out the story for as long as possible to buy the show another few seasons (Of which I have no doubt we’ll be getting.) Instead of Frank trying to connive his way into becoming God-Emperor of the world, we’ve been left with a rather lukewarm West Wing inhabited by mean people who don’t like each other. There’s always the hope that the inevitable Season 4 will be better, but I’m just not sure how many people will be bothering to tune in when it gets here.

And then his wife left him. The end.
Tom May
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