“I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your president.” That almost Radiohead lyric could basically have served as the campaign slogan of Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the diabolic antihero of House of Cards. It’s third season is available on Netflix right now, you’ve probably already watched it if you care about the series, but whatever. Things are getting political right now, with people like Hilary Clinton finally announcing they’re campaigning for the presidency, and maybe you’re looking for something political to watch. In which case I would not recommend starting with House of Cards season three, and that’s not entirely because you should really start with the first season. Spoilers below, obviously.
So Frank’s the president now, that’s pretty cool, right? He maneuvered himself from the majority whip to president in a matter of months without a vote being cast – the man’s unstoppable. At least, that’s what we thought until this season started and the show went about relentlessly tearing him down. Suddenly the man who played everyone was getting played, the master tactician seemed to be without a clue. I guess the idea was that Frank has never been great in the limelight (a part of the show since his awkward cable news interviews in season one) and now he’s always under the biggest spotlight in the world. I don’t like it.
Think about other antihero characters. Walter White got in over his head a lot, he made many mistakes, but there was a dark thrill in watching him triumph over the odds. The same could be said about Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey or (early season) Dexter Morgan. Those were bad dudes and they got away with it and as audience members, we kind of liked it that way. A show where Walter White breaks bad only to get killed by the drug dealers in that hardware store parking lot is less fun. Just like watching Frank get beaten to the point that he’s an impotent mess at the end of the season, and then to just kick him while he’s down and call it done.
It doesn’t help that the supporting cast is so unlikable. Robin Wright is so, so good as Claire Underwood, but this year Claire reminds me most of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation with his malfunctioning emotion chip. She seriously seems to always be doing the most selfish, foolish thing possible – and this is after the last few years made her out to be the tough one. There was a way to make her arc this year sympathetic and moving – I’d say most of the pieces were there. Instead she kind of looks like a dick. And that’s compared to Frank, the dickmaster general.
Doug (Michael Kelly) is back and has another sad, super creepy story. Derek Cecil’s Seth is also back and still a blank slate – without looking it up do you even know which character I’m talking about? Other supporting players have little arcs too, like Remy (Mahershala Ali) and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), which are fine but generally unrelated to the main story.
I will also say that one of the best parts of the first season was how you could believe this cynical, dark look at Washington, D.C. could be closer to reality than we’d like to admit. I’d say at this point, that’s gone. Case-in-point, the main legislation this year, called “America Works,” is all about gutting social entitlements in favor of universal employment. In no universe would a president be naive enough to actually say out loud his goal is a 100% employment rate. Similarly, no politician, especially a democrat, would ever seriously threaten defunding social security. Disbelief can only be suspended so far, you guys.
So a pretty uneven season from Netflix’s flagship show. In writing this review, I actually realized I liked it less than I thought I did and lowered my star rating down from three stars. Maybe I’m being a little harsh. I’ll give the show this: season three was probably the easiest to marathon yet. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.