In the third season of House of Cards, Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright) identity begins to splinter under stress and scrutiny. Her husband, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), brokers a deal with Russia over the Jordan Valley, weathers an unpredictable bid for the Democratic ticket, and shepherds an ambitious jobs program, but he remains fundamentally unchanged for the most part. His campaign, however, is dependent on the first lady’s image as a loyal, dutiful wife, who just happens to have a far higher approval rating. The series views this need for a united front, all the work that goes into glorifying the president’s image, as an unholy concession for Claire, causing philosophic panic, depression, and self-abuse. Even as House of Cards seemingly hits a creative wall this season, its dedication to Claire’s complex, perhaps inevitable revolt against Frank keeps the series fascinating.
As the season begins, Claire pointedly asks Frank to make her ambassador to the United Nations, even after a failed confirmation, and the position puts her right in the middle of the war over LGBT rights in Russia. The fact that she must ask him for the position makes her literally vomit, and Frank goes on to parade Claire out for Russia’s aggressively suave, control-crazed leader, Victor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), who moves in on her like a shark toward chum. The series pitches Petrov as a funhouse vision of Frank, pickled by a dictatorial tradition and calcified by a career in the KGB, a presence Claire only abides to get close to Michael Corrigan (Christian Camargo), an American gay activist jailed during a protest in Moscow.
The scenes between Claire and Michael are some of the best of the season, and the show’s routinely superb editing underlines their conversation as being equally internal as it is external. In the self-reliant, radical Michael, Claire sees an outspoken life she left behind, and in the first lady he sees the life he loves, but can’t go back to. Their talk doesn’t end well, but it makes the issue personal for Claire, just as Frank’s relationship with Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), the hesitant author of his quasi-memoir, brings up intimate, unexpected questions of perspective for the president. These emotions are still volcanic at times, but the writing grows both repetitive and a bit muddled throughout the season, though it’s thankfully intertwined with plenty of involving political and historical discourse.
In season two, Frank’s confrontation with the ghosts of his ancestors during a Civil War reenactment gives thrilling, expressionistic force to his sense of history in the South Carolina mud and his obsession with legacy. There’s no such moment of personal reckoning or haunted contemplation this season, not even in the case of Stamper’s (Michael Kelly) dedicated search for Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan). Much of the plotting, including Stamper’s recovery, Gavin’s (Jimmi Simpson) job at the F.B.I., and the firing of Ayla Sayyad (Mozhan Marnò), has the strained, laborious feeling of tying up loose ends and arcs. Even the tumultuous relationship between Remy (Mahershala Ali), now chief of staff, and Jackie (Molly Parker), Frank’s prospective vice president in 2016, quickly loses its dramatic snap, devolving into a maddeningly dull love triangle.
House of Cards is at its best when investigating the uneasy balance of studied, built-up political performance and personal dogmas, obsessions, gripes, and fears, but as many of these masks begin to give way in the story, the series noticeably struggles to keep up its addictive tension. The show’s female characters, especially, are unwilling to keep up with the charade, as evinced by the bunko nature of Jackie’s marriage and the wily ambitions of Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), who declines a seat on the Supreme Court in order to make a run for the presidency. At one point, Yates compares his job to hammering away at the Underwoods’ façade just to get a look through the cracks, to see the people separated from the narrative they’ve created for themselves. The show’s stylish aesthetic remains efficient, gorgeous, and moody, and the superb cast shades their characters with expressive deliveries, gestures, and glances, but the cracks that the writers offer prove less and less revealing of any single character.
The bigger issue with season three is that the dark wit at the heart of the show’s excellent previous seasons has grown less savage and more obvious now. Indeed, at this point, House of Cards is more Scandal than The West Wing or its own source material, and that’s largely because the writing feels wrapped up in hitting plot points and story beats rather than seeking out moments of violent personal revelation. The last shot of the season shows Claire leaving Frank as he calls out for her to listen to him, and her indifference to his indignation is weirdly reflective of the experience of watching this entertaining but increasingly shallow political melodrama, unable to take its moments of true fury seriously in the wake of such rampant, unneeded bullshitting.