It's tough at the top
Whisper it quietly but the third season of House of Cards isn't that good.Or rather it isn't that good when compared to the high standards set by the previous two seasons. In fairness it was never going to be easy following on from Frank Underwood's rise to power, as charted in season one and two. Now that he's finally President of the United States, there was always going to be a sense of where do we go from here? The first season of House of Cards was ground-breaking with Netflix taking on the networks using a revolutionary approach of commissioning a series based upon their customers' viewing habits. They brought in Kevin Spacey and David Fincher to create a TV series with high quality production values and a greater degree of creative freedom.It was a huge success, winning awards and firmly establishing Netflix as a serious player in terms of new TV content. The second season took up where the first left off but now it wasn't just changing the way TV programmes were made, it was changing how we watch them. Netflix were no longer just offering House of Cards for streaming in Full HD, they were providing it in 4K, paving the way for a higher resolution future. It's fair to say that House of Cards is far more than just a TV series and is helping to usher in a new era of internet streaming and binge-watching. So given all this, the expectations for the third season were stratospherically and probably unrealistically high.
The latest season is billed as Volume 3, emphasising the novel-like structure of the series, something that is enhanced by each episode being titled as a chapter, and since each season consists of thirteen chapters, we kick off with Chapter 27. Frank (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) have achieved their goal of reaching the White House, now they must find a way of staying there. Frank is a transitionary president and has promised the Democratic Party that he won't run for re-election, allowing someone else to stand in 2016.
Of course Frank has absolutely no intention of giving up power that easily and much of the season revolves around his efforts to manipulate the choice of Democratic presidential candidate. His plans intimately involve Chief Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) and his Chief of Staff Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) and brings him into direct competition with the front-running Democratic candidate Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel). She had previously investigated President Walker in season two and is running on a promise of rooting out political corruption, as personified by the incumbent president.
The other major thread this season is Frank's relationship with the Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), a thinly-veiled Putin. This part of the story brings Claire into direct confrontation with Frank in her new role as Ambassador to the UN. The relationship between Frank and Claire has always been at the centre of House of Cards but the different dynamic in the third season could be seen as disappointing. The same goes for the Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) subplot, which feels as though it has been dragging on for far too long.
There is plenty to enjoy in this season of House of Cards but also a feeling of treading water.
The other major subplot revolves around Frank's hopes of leaving a lasting legacy as president and to this end he enlists the help of Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) to write his biography. This process will undoubtedly result in Frank's many skeletons tumbling out of the closet in future seasons but it does give greater insight into his character. Of course, the series belongs to Kevin Spacey and his performance as Frank remains as mesmerising as ever, even if there is less breaking of the fourth wall this season. He is ably supported by a superb cast, with the always elegant Robin Wright matching him step for step.
A lot of the fun in the first two seasons of House of Cards was derived from watching Frank rise to the top by systematically eliminating his opponents. Whilst the series couldn't continue to do that forever, especially as Frank is the president now, the loss of that particular element robs the story of some of its drama. That's not to say there isn't plenty of enjoyment to be had in the third season of House of Cards but there is a feeling that the series is treading water to some degree. However there are some surprising plot twists, especially in the final episode, and things are nicely set up for season four.
The original BBC series only ran for three seasons, the first charted Francis Urquhart's rise to leader of the Conservative Party, the second his rise to Prime Minister and the third his ultimate fall as he comes into direct confrontation with the monarchy. The importance of House of Cards to Netflix means that it will run for more seasons than the BBC original but it needs to make sure it doesn't lose its dramatic momentum by extending the story to multiple seasons. In the meantime we can still enjoy the writing, acting and production values of one of the best shows on television.
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