For a show almost entirely built on the mischievously seductive evil of its main character, House of Cards’ third season had one serious flaw: it was often very difficult to actually respect President Frank Underwood.
You could see why his approval ratings were so low, and it subsequently became hard to get enthused about whether he’d actually get elected back into the role. It was hard to buy into him. Basically, Underwood seemed much more in control when he was striving for power, rather than when he was wielding it.
That may have been part of some facile point being made about the reality of the American presidency, but it was to the high cost of a show that has been mostly succeeded in selling us unreality.
It also involved quite a break from character.
In the previous two seasons, House of Cards’ primary strength and driving force was how Underwood would so scrupulously execute long-term plans, and eventually out-wit all his opponents in ways that barely seemed imaginable given the predicament he was in. Even the show’s biggest shock so far, the death of Zoe Barnes, involved some vintage manipulation with the way Frank casually walked off first.
Here, there was none of that nuance.
There were two extremes.
Underwood was either so oddly meek – as in his dealings with his party, his cabinet, his election campaign and Russian President Victor Petrov – or too viciously angry, such as when he told rival Catherine Dunbar that he would put her “in her fucking grave” or to “go fuck” herself.
These may have been two vintage pay-off moments, but they both basically amounted to the supposed shock value of the president of the United States cursing. That was pretty simplistic, and not just for the juvenile thrill of the moments.
Previously, there’s been so much more in between about Underwood’s attempts to force his will on situations. It wasn’t just appeasement jumping to opprobrium. It was calculation and manipulation. That craft actually made his displays of ire all the more shocking – and convincing. They were earned.
Here, it seemed like it was his only recourse when his bizarre initial meekness didn’t work.
There was none of the mischief. None of the seduction. As Junior Soprano put it about Richie Aprile, “he couldn’t sell it”.
It was no surprise then that jumping to the most aggressive anger possible was his only solution to the season’s single main story, the dissolving Underwood marriage.
It didn’t work, and we’re not just talking about Frank’s attempts to bend Claire to his will.
Just as it was hard to respect President Underwood, it was hard to respect what the show was trying to do with the Underwood relationship. It tried to humanise the inhuman, to clumsily add emotion when the strength had been the total absence of emotion, or at least anything like human emotion.
These were a couple who the show had successfully sold as two people wilfully and intentionally entering into something closer to a business transaction than a marriage. They had traded in blackmail and murder, and both fully new the deal. You could see it most glaringly in the scenes after Barnes’ slaying, in which Claire so distantly told Frank she’d opened a bottle of wine, and he so formally responded he’d be down in a minute.
They didn’t seem like intimate partners. They seemed like unfeeling robots, and the scenes weren’t unlike the Agents interacting in the first Matrix film.
That may have been intentional, but it made the sudden introduction of any semblance of emotion or guilt into the relationship impossible to buy. How could Claire realistically go from that to this? Her long night of the soul was too brief and bright.
It did lead to Frank indirectly getting it absolutely right, for once in this series. He angrily informed Claire that “without me, you are nothing”. It rings true for everything about House of Cards.
Without Frank being classically Frank, it is nothing.
Everything revolves around him and his charm, far more than any other drama dominated by a male anti-hero. House of Cards simply hasn’t invested enough time or substance to any other part of the show to make it buyable when Underwood isn’t himself at his best.
This is the problem with a show that from the start was always about one man’s rise, to the exclusion of almost anything else. It is also why trying to introduce other dramatic tropes, to move away from the narrative clarity of that rise, causes the show to feel so weighty and duller.
The issue is not that it is trying to be deeper. The issue is the clumsy way they have suddenly changed tack.
There’s not enough built up.
There was also not much to top it off.
What actually happened by the end of this series? Claire finally walked out on Frank again, a poor girl was run over, and Underwood defeated Dunbar in a political race that had been by then stripped of all tension and excitement.
That latter strand reflects how badly the third series fumbled some of its key strengths.
By the fourth episode, after all, it had seemed like they might be setting up some of the thrilling plot movements and battles of wills that have so defined and driven the show.
Underwood had been discarded by the Democratic leadership as a nominee given his unpopularity as a president, and – for a moment that was all too brief – it was genuinely enticing to wonder how he could think himself out of this one; how he could outmanoeuvre a party that didn’t want him. There was fresh narrative drive.
It was the same with Petrov, who was such a thin veneer of Vladimir Putin, but also mercifully represented a wider scope and allowed the show to move away from the limits of American party politics.
The face-offs between the two leaders were the most energised part of the seasons. Just like with the presidential nomination, though, these dynamics were allowed drift. Worse, so did Underwood’s sharpness. This was where he was most difficult to respect. He couldn’t seem to rise to the challenges.
The only storyline that came close to classic House of Cards was Doug Stamper’s attempts to get back into the political game. It was often genuinely hard to see which way he was thinking, what he was plotting, whose side he would end up on.
It was played beautifully. It was reminiscent of Frank himself. It was joyous.
In that regard, there was also far fewer of the joyous moments that really made the show, the giddy displays of evil and mischief.
Sure, there were obviously stand-out scenes: Frank pissing on his father’s grave, the scene with the shattered statue of Jesus, some glorious asides and, in an especially troubling moment, the president finally turning to the audience and asking “what are you looking at?”
In general, though, it says an awful lot that House of Cards really suffered for the infrequency of those interactions with Frank; that we did miss him.
It didn’t just mean he was harder to identify with as president and to get behind him. It meant it was hard to identify and get behind anybody.
This is the other problem of the show’s previous drive, and when the main character is not on his best: every other character is a cipher, someone there as a pawn for one ultimate purpose. They are not just there as a pawn that Frank himself can notionally manipulate but also that the show’s makers can manipulate for the sole objective of serving Frank’s story. The secondary characters are at best marginal.
Look at Dunbar. She was right about everything she said regarding Frank. She would have been a far more palatable and moral president than Frank. And yet it was virtually impossible to actually get behind her. The show hadn’t made her earn it.
Likewise the Remi and Jackie story. It was hard to care.
The show doesn’t make you care enough in general. There’s nothing really to think about it. What is its primary theme? How power corrupts, how corruption is actually needed for power? Either way, it’s a bit simplistic.
There are, admittedly, two caveats here. House of Cards probably does have something to say about both sexuality and gender equality, and both are related to the Underwood marriage.
For one, there is Frank’s own sexuality, and the questions about the psychological effects of his self-repression. You only had to consider the scene with his erstwhile biographer, Tom Yates.
Secondly, there was the theme of one genuinely electrifying set-piece, the Democratic nominees’ debate, and the accusations of sexism and who made them, as well as Claire’s season-long attempts to be on an equal footing to Frank.
This is what the show was building up to, this may be its main thematic point, and it may end up hugely distinctive for it.
There is one lingering issue with that, however; one potential big problem.
weThe strongest move Claire and the show could make is walking away from Frank, striking out on her own, even going up against him.
And yet, the entire premise dictates that they must get back together.
It wouldn’t be the first time that “reset” has simply been pressed on their relationship. It already happened so many times in this season alone.
It was just one other reason why this season sagged so much.
There were obviously individual moments of over-arching brilliance, but it was generally so underwhelming.
Like President Underwood, it was harder to respect.