With a compelling nemesis in the Kremlin, the complexity of geo-politics and international relations gives House of Cards a real sense of drama the way that Frank’s jobs program doesn’t. Although I infer that Petrov is a born super-villain, that’s only superficial, as the character plays so very close to the real-life Putin that they might as well have skipped the name change.
The trouble with the domestic policy stuff is that it seems way too complicated to be practical. Laying aside the old adage comparing law-making to sausage-making, what we see of the plan in the first six episodes seems more like something Frank and his team are making up as they go along as opposed to something practically thought out and considered by actual political operatives. Worse still, for House of Cards’ loyal audience of mostly political savvy viewers, people deeply attuned with politics, it really makes no sense how Frank gets from Point A to jobs.
All of Frank’s semi-noble efforts to get Americans working seem only like an opportunity for Spacey to chew scenery and twirl his moustache while reveling in his own magnificence. Really, the compelling drama lies with the international duel with Petrov, and how that effects the Frank/Claire dynamic, or even how that dynamic ends up effecting those foreign relations.
Claire’s game is that she wants to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, but the journey is somewhat rocky as she does things out of character in order to achieve her objectives. While Claire is often the calmer, cooler head in the Underwood dynamic duo, this seasons tests her in some interesting ways, including a rare crisis of conscience that lets Robin Wright very delicately peel away some of Claire’s steel while still showing all of her character’s strength. Wright’s performance in episode 6 is especially compelling.
In season 3, the show about smooth Washington operators seems like it’s getting progressively messier. It’s fitting though from the point of view of “be careful what you wish for,” because how often do real-life politicians buck and scam and maneuver and betray in order to get themselves exactly where they want to be, only to be stymied by procedure, or worse still, other politicians with only their own goals and issues in mind? As much as we complain about bureaucracy, I’ve interviewed politicians on all levels of government and it’s occasionally surprising how, in rare candidate moments, they admit that political power is not magic, and they are not wizards. Apparently, there are still limits to power. In some ways, that’s where House of Cards is in season 3.
But I don’t think the show has ever been about what’s practical and what’s real. As much as we want to think that there isn’t an earnest bone in the body of any politician, we do know that there are many who do good work everyday and not make a lot of noise about it. House of Cards isn’t about them though, and I’m sure even the seemingly saintly Solicitor-General Helen Dunbar will have a skeleton, or a fleet of skeletons, in her closet. But as a satire of the very worst of what we associate with politics, this show still delivers.
The end of the six episodes that Netflix previewed for the press leave things off at a very compelling point. In fact, if I were binging these on Friday, I would be well into episodes 7, 8 or even 9 by now. The on-screen drama unfurls in a way that feels quite genuine, because sometimes, in the real world, the best politicking can be ground to powder by a singular unexpected development. More than that though, the developments that take place this season upset House of Cards’ core team, which is Frank and Claire. For you can surround yourself with yes men, and utilize all the players by feeding their own agendas, but there’s really no substitute for having that person by your side who just completes you.
What am I looking at, Frank? How about a man that should be gravely concerned that all his schemes are about to sink him like an iceberg on a cold April night in the Atlantic Ocean? They say a president doesn’t make any new friends, after all…
The inspiration from real world political tensions give season three of House of Cards an added gravitas that goes beyond Frank Underwood's usual scheming, and adds another welcome dimension to the show.