Update, 10 a.m. Monday: Binge complete. Top-line verdict: The season starts extremely slowly, but gets pretty good, starting in the third episode. It never reaches the dark, dramatic heights of previous seasons, but it's also a little more focused and intelligent than they were. If you've enjoy this well-crafted yet ridiculous show in the past, these 13 episodes are worth a watch.
Spoilers ahead; don't scroll farther than you've watched.
Episode 1 (Chapter 27)
How, um, interesting that the two most memorable moments of House of Cards' third season premiere involve the emission of yellow liquids. On any other drama with Emmy aspirations, you might read some deeper meaning in the fact that the hour’s basically bookended by Frank's graveyard pee and Doug's syringe whiskey—motif: relief?—but House of Cards isn’t any other drama with Emmy aspirations. Which is to say, it’s pretty shallow. One suspects that the writers put these two particular WTF moments into the episode because it would otherwise be entirely lacking in conversation-causing material. It’s a tactic they’ve used before; when the action drags, why not throw in a threesome?
It’s maybe not a great sign, though, that they’ve resorted to such superficial shocks in a season premiere. Then again, few premieres of any show will measure up to Season 2’s opener, a symphony of mounting dread that crescendoed with the show’s most loved/hated character beneath a train. The tentative, mostly unflashy nature of Season 3's start hints that the plan here is not to open with a bang and then survive on the afterglow; it’s to turn the heat up slowly, and then … who knows?
That Douglas Stamper lives is a twist, but it’s not as shocking as the fact that the premiere spends about half its runtime on him. It's a gutsy move: It isn't exactly fun to watch a guy go through physical therapy, slip in the shower, and be condescended to by the man he's devoted his life to. But it is admirable that the show’s creators are making themselves and the audience reckon with what it means to bring a character back from the (near) dead. In past seasons, Michael Kelly imbued Stamper with a compelling flicker of inner life, but his character remained the archetype of the inexplicably-perfect, motivation-free henchman. Now that his services are no longer desired, we see that his job helped distract from his addictive tendencies. He's still fighting those tendencies—hence the syringe, which allows him to get drunk without technically giving himself a drink—but it seems likely that his dejection and frustration could curdle into something more troubling for the president.
Not that Frank needs more troubles. Six months into his administration, he’s not the all-powerful change agent we’ve come to know. The Stephen Colbert interview was hilarious and savage, catching viewers up with the various factors contributing to Underwood’s low approval. And most of the White House scenes were spent establishing that he's being pulled at from a bunch of different angles. Governing is really difficult, turns out—hey, finally some realism!
Less realistic, I imagine, is Frank’s plan to gut entitlements so as to provide every American a new job. And the dilemma over a drone strike in the Mideast was so pat that you wonder whether Fincher digitally inserted new characters into a Homeland scene. But the presidential storylines are compelling here because, as with Stamper, we're at long last getting some explanation as to what makes Frank tick. Underwood tells his father’s grave that people will have to line up to see his tomb; he vows to Claire that he won’t be a mere placeholder president. Immortality's the endgame, as it has been for many of history's worst people.
Claire, too, is finally becoming knowable. Her speech about being in the passenger seat for too long was the clearest and most pointed explanation yet of her motivations and her relationship with Frank. The hour was essentially a survey of potential threats to the president, but Claire was the one least expected, and potentially the most lethal. She’s nothing if not formidable; I, for one, think she’d be a great ambassador.
Episode 2 (Chapter 28)
Season 3 so far is a bit like the ceremonial egg that serves as the Underwoods’ stress ball: monochromatic. Stuck for the most part in the White House with a relatively small cast of characters, the show at times feels like a samey, slow-moving slog.
Which is ironic if you step back and think about all that happens in an hour. Over the course of this episode, Claire begins the confirmation process, faces (contrived, implausible) scandal, lobbies senators, loses her vote, and then demands a recess appointment—a plot arc that could, theoretically, have been stretched over multiple episodes. A lot happens to Frank, too: being told not to run, fighting back, assenting, revealing his great policy proposal on TV, and making a PB&J.
The truth is, though, that House of Cards really has only notionally ever been about plot. It’s more about moments and performances, and this episode served up a few nice ones. Claire insisting on making her egg-roll selection during the confirmation vote: a window into how she copes with defeat. Claire giving Frank his mojo back by mounting him as the score blared opera: an icky landmark, given that we've never seen the two have sex (anyone surprised that when they do, it's for power's sake, and Claire's on top?). A few of the secondary characters are really coming into their own; Jackie constantly and rightly appears to be in the process of consuming a canary, and Seth's put-on nonchalance while deflecting questions is impressive.
Frank’s schemes have always had a somewhat supernatural element to them, and TV legislation shouldn't ever be scrutinized too closely, but I still can't help but get caught up on plausibility this season. "You're entitled to nothing" is a fun line, but so far there's been no mention of all the senior citizens that credo will kill. And I'm a bit hazy on why Frank thinks he can wield more political power by playing lame duck. Oh well; it gives Kevin Spacey an excuse to scream and grandstand, and isn't that what we're here for?
Episode 3 (Chapter 29)
Though it's the poster child for the potential of streaming television, there’s something frustrating and old-fashioned in the fact that all House of Cards episodes are more or less an hour long. International syndication is the reason—abroad, the show airs on actual TV stations—but it means the show often feels padded out, as interminable as a state dinner.
I only bring this up because this was the best episode of the season; it just would have been better if it had been a little more concise. Underwood and visiting Russian head of state Petrov go round after round after round of facile negotiation, and a mess of scenes are used to demonstrate the power dynamics between Claire and Cathy when two or three would have done.
Still, the unendingness of the proceedings did have the virtue of helping to amp the tension. Game of Thrones watchers may have had flashbacks to that show’s wedding episodes, where long scenes of drinking and chowing and passive-aggressive toasts come with the possibility that everyone could be murdered. As there hasn’t been a huge, scary twist this season yet, that also seemed like a possibility here. Instead, we got microaggressions—Pussy Riot doing exactly what you’d expect, Petrov’s creepiness and shade-throwing, Claire’s “little pickle” line. Frank was the only one who didn’t bare his teeth to the other characters, which just made him more frightening. When he explained that he wanted to push Petrov down the stairs, it was the show acknowledging the trick it had just played on viewers who, like me, were sure that was exactly what was about to happen.
It’s hokey and too tidy, but I’ll admit to getting a little bit of a thrill from Frank stiffening up and blasting Petrov at the press conference at the end. Somehow, foreign intrigue offers the only new plotline this season with stakes that feel compelling; it’s probably because the show did such a good job in making Petrov seem as menacing as Putin. I wonder whether Cards is syndicated in Russia.
Episode 4 (Chapter 30)
"Is this how you live with yourself?” Dunbar spits at Frank. “By rationalizing the obscene into the palatable?"
The answer, of course, is no. Frank rationalizes nothing. For a little while there, it seemed otherwise; all episode, Frank flirted with having a crisis of conscience, a come-to-Jesus embrace of the golden rule. Instead, we had a spit-on-Jesus, get-fallen-on-by-Jesus moment à la Frank’s previous church scenes—remember when he prayed to the devil?—that reaffirmed ruthlessness as the Underwoods’ guiding philosophy.
Claire at least knew this was where we were headed all along—“if you're doubting yourself," she said, soothingly, "I can't indulge that.” But some doubt might truly be warranted. Frank’s machinations with regards to the Supreme Court Justice and sidelining Dunbar completely backfired; the show wants us to believe it’s because he decided not to “destroy” the judge, but it’s more because he misjudged the situation.
The biggest surprise this hour was the revelation that Frank has an “unclear” stance on gay rights. Perhaps this means the show will revisit the first-season mention of Frank’s homosexual exploits in college—possibly another card to be pulled out of the Underwood house. It's hard to imagine you can be a Democratic president in 2015 and maintain ambiguity on LGBT rights, but it's also hard to buy Seth's treatment of Ayla, the reporter who raised the issue. She may have annoyed the president with a tough question, but even a rudimentary understanding of how media works these days would indicate that you can’t just cast out one reporter and expect that the entire scrum to stay silent on the issue she was pushing. Maybe this is how Underwood falls: his administration's failure to realize that identity politics make for grade-A clickbait.
Episode 5 (Chapter 31)
All along, Frank Underwood’s great gift has been anticipation—seeing the moves that people will make in response to his provocations, and being ready to capitalize on them. That's what's enabled his original gambit—Peter Russo's rise and fall—and it's now what powers America Works and his shadow reelection campaign. He believes any backlash about executive overreach will be replaced with admiration as people get jobs; he's sure it’ll be helpful for Jackie to campaign against, and then for, the program.
But his foresight's frustratingly selective, as shown by his flabbergasted reaction to the FEMA leaks in this episode. There’s always been a reality-distortion field around House of Cards’ media landscape, and some suspension of disbelief is fine, but it undermines the credibility of your central politician’s genius if he’s continually caught flatfooted by the notion that someone might tell on him to the press.
Still, there’s a fun thought experiment going on with Cards this season: What would happen if a president actually did stop at nothing to get things done? The new Telegraph reporter calls Underwood a tyrant as she watches him bend the constitution to set up a jobs program on the National Mall (featuring former ribs cook Freddy), but others admire how he’s broken through gridlock. On foreign policy, too, there's gratifying, if misbegotten, progress. If Frank is playing Andrew Jackson domestically, living out the apocryphal line “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!,” Claire is taking a page from LBJ by forcing the sexist Russian ambassador to address her in the ladies room, as she sits on the toilet seat. These victories are fun to watch, in part, because they're a vision of what it’d be like to be in an America that, well, works. Of course, the catch is that you'd need rulers like Underwoods to make it a reality.
A yet-unanswered question: What's Doug up to? Is he a mole in Underwood's opposition, as Dunbar’s campaign manager worries, or is he on a revenge mission for being shut out from the administration? In either case, Frank seems to have no clue of Doug's machinations. He also seems pretty clueless in recruiting that National Book Award winner to chronicle his life—a much clearer case of inviting the fox into the hen, or White, house.
Episode 6 (Chapter 32)
Oof. I suppose this is Cards at its best: headsmacking, portentous, and slow, but also wrenching, well-crafted, and packed with scenes begging to be performed in a small, intimate theater venue. (Though you'd have to give up sweeping shots of the Northern Lights and Moscow.)
Again, there are distracting plausibility issues. It’s ridiculous that the Underwoods would think that an activist like Corrigan would entertain making a statement like the one they offered; it’s even more ridiculous that they’d want to be associated with that statement. But I suppose you could write this off as the weakness of their brand of sociopathy—they forget, and are shocked by, true idealism. (Though it’s grading on a curve to say that opposing the jailing of gay people is "idealism.") Frank’s also shocked by Petrov’s seemingly irrational, artless brand of politics. I suppose that's not too far off from how many Americans see real rulers like Putin, which is why it was nice to hear Petrov explain the realpolitik reasons for why he supports a law he finds barbaric.
It was also nice to see the Underwoods showing their chops as negotiators, channeling Better Call Saul by switching from rhetorical strategy to rhetorical strategy to trying and persuade their opponents. But Cards has never loved the idea of letting its characters talk their way to success sans bloodshed, and once Corrigan asked Claire to lie down, it became obvious that the death of another sympathetic character was imminent.
Claire’s outburst seemed wholly plausible after all the time we’d spent with her and Corrigan. I suppose Frank’s reaction did, too. But contra what Claire says, it may not have been a political mistake to tell the truth and shame the Kremlin. As Thomas Yates told her, “it was the right thing to do,” and with Frank publicly styling himself as a courageous lame duck making the hard but correct choices, saying some words on Corrigan's behalf may have been on-message for the administration.
If so, Frank doesn’t see it yet, and may pay a price for his myopia. Telling Claire he regrets making her an ambassador was a spiteful remark, and spite is not a particularly helpful emotion—as Frank points out, he's gotten ahead by keeping his mouth shut. If he's off his game, you can understand why. The Underwoods' relationship has ruptured majorly before, but this time the fight is driven by something strange and new: a moral epiphany. Like Frank says, you can’t just expect him to have one of those.
Episode 7 (Chapter 33)
What a lovely and sensitive episode, and not just because it features the season’s biggest twist yet—Claire as brunette! Rather than let the marital strife from Moscow seep through the rest of the season like a poison, as I’d expected, for this episode Cards pulled back on the action and let its central pair prove its mettle by mending its relationship. This seems true to the show's philosophy: The Underwoods are savvy enough to know that they can’t survive if they’re divided, and so they make the cold, rational, and frankly beautiful choice to do something about it.
It’s in a slower, issue-based episode like this that the show’s strengths really come to the fore. Many a TV program has portrayed wounded partnerships, but never with Fincher’s eye; when Claire and Frank walk into the presidential chambers and then silently peel off into their respective bedroom, it was just one example of how the show uses symmetry and staging to communicate the state of characters’ relationships. And if we must have obvious, portentous symbolism, let us have it be as vividly rendered and legitimately extraordinary as a Tibetan sand mandala assembled over a month in the White House hallway.
Praise should go to the writing and acting here as well. The Underwoods’ communication style is well established by now, and it’s gratifying to see it in action here; their conversations are extremely forthright, yet not hurtful because the two parties know they share the same goals. I’ve seen some people say that Robin Wright’s chilly affect on this show is more cartoonish than it should be, but the scene where she replies to the accusation that she’d flinched at Frank’s touch should end that line of critique once and for all.
Gavin’s long and tiresome quest to find Rachel for Doug has finally paid off; thank goodness that the show didn’t have him feign HIV for nothing. I’m not really sure what to make of Stamper’s kegger visit and pleasant tryst with his former physical therapist, but it might be a sign that he could have a normal, healthy, happy life—if only he could let his obsessions, with Underwood and Rachel, go.
Episode 8 (Chapter 34)
It was like a hurricane of bad writing in this episode, amirite? Sorry, I was doing an impression of Kate Baldwin’s column. Let’s try again: It was a dark and stormy night, but one man overcame all doubters and …
Okay, enough snarking about the very snarkable dueling-narratives conceit. Politics rewards hacky storytelling, so both Baldwin’s and Yates’s overwrought takes on Frank Underwood sounded believable enough. Less believable was the idea that these two journalists would couple up, but that’s only because Kim Dickens's Baldwin is spunky and Yates, as played by Paul Sparks, has all the personality of a boiled peanut.
Maybe spitting on Jesus a few episodes back wasn’t such a good idea for Frank. The forces of nature turned on him in this episode, sending a megastorm that made him to sign away the America Works program—all in vain when there was no landfall. A less arbitrary reversal of fortune for Frank: Picking a useless fight with Remy who, as Remy rightly points out, is one of the only two soldiers Frank now has.
We now know that his old No. 1 soldier, Doug, is explicitly playing both sides; his ultimate motive is still unclear, but so is the reason why Remy and/or Seth would lie to Frank about the source of their intel about Jackie meeting Dunbar. Maybe there’s a mutiny brewing. Though the two Democratic ladies suspended their campaigns together, standing at the podium it almost looked like they were starting one together. Frank should be nicer to Remy; if Jackie ends up jumping sides, there’s no doubt who her chief of staff will be.
Episode 9 (Chapter 35)
The episode opened on amber waves of grain; it closed with condolence to the family of a dead soldier; in the meantime, there were many reminders that government has real effects on regular lives, on nations, on the entire globe. Yet as House of Cards has gotten bigger and bigger in terms of the scope of the policy issues it portrays, as a viewer, all that seems to matter is the same question as ever: How will this affect the Underwoods?
That might be show’s point. It might even be a profound one, a commentary on the nature of politics; try as one might to focus on the issues, it’s hard to ever forget the horse race. Or it might just be a byproduct of the way that House of Cards only deals with its plot grist in a glancing, perfunctory way. In any case, it’s taken a decent amount of effort to follow every turn of intrigue in the Jordan Valley—just as it did with last season’s interconnected tale of Indian casinos and bridge-building—but it hasn’t been difficult to understand where Frank and Claire are at in their quest for dominance. At the beginning of the hour: a jubilant campaign rally that shows some hope for re-election. At the end, reeling from a botched covert operation that could have implications for the world and for the first family.
Politics haven’t merely consumed the Underwoods. It has consumed Doug, contorting his desires and sense of purpose, and now that he’s been robbed of both he has collapsed. It has also consumed Remy, who now realizes he has sacrificed a personal life to be close to power. His encounter with the cops was weird—doesn’t every politician know in this day in age just to cooperate when pulled over?—but it makes sense that he’d be irritable, given his fraying relationship with Frank and the fact that Jackie is now married.
America's intervention in the Jordan Valley has backfired, resulting in a death and big implications for global affairs. But it goes without saying that Frank and Claire are only concerned with all of that—and they are, right now, very concerned—insofar as as it will affect their election prospects. How fitting is the slogan of Frank’s campaign, a description for the substance upon which his ambition is based—“nothing.”
Episode 10 (Chapter 36)
Petrov proposes that Frank’s just like him—ruthless—and to a certain extent that’s true. But the Russian ruler’s demand that Claire leave her post is the kind of ask Frank would never make: emotional, symbolic, macho, a microcosm of his larger camo-clad theatrics. Pride gets people into trouble on this show, and yet in this case the person making the prideful, irrational choice—Petrov—holds all the power. Refusing him would inflame the international crisis, and moreover it would have big consequences to Frank's reelection. So the president never really had a choice.
“You can’t let the campaign drive our foreign policy,” Claire tells her husband, but of course she knows that he can and he does and she more or less wants him to. So she takes her removal like a champ, gamely agreeing take hair advice from focus groups. The truth is, with the Russian pullout looking like an Underwood win, and with “resigning to focus on the campaign” seeming a plausible enough excuse for quitting, the political career Claire wanted to jumpstart with her ambassadorship may be intact.
That is, if some grand calamity isn’t about to befall both Underwoods. The Rachel/Gavin loose thread that could have unraveled their empire appears to be tied up now, but there are plenty of other liabilities. Frank’s sexuality may be one; for a minute there when he was caressing his pet author, it looked like Meechum's jealousies toward Thomas were about to be validated. Petrov’s comments about killing with his bare hands, and Underwood’s determined silence on the topic, were a reminder of the two murders in the president's recent past. Jackie and Remy continue to waver; Doug is getting a look at domestic bliss; I wondered about a mutiny among Underwood’s underlings before, but now it’s looking like they all might instead decide to quit the game and post up some picket fences.
Episode 11 (Chapter 37)
"I almost respect it," Jackie tells her husband of Dunbar's unwillingness to sell a cabinet seat to Sharp, the sham candidate. That unwillingness helps Frank for a bit, but the fact that Jackie respects Dunbar is a sign of a possibly fatal flaw in the Underwood philosophy. Ruthless pragmatism only works if everyone involved buy in—and in a dementedly optimistic way, this season of House of Cards presents a world in which most people, to Frank's detriment, don't.
Or, at least: Most people in his crew have some dignity and savvy. Throughout this season, Frank has overstepped in his interactions with his subordinates, acting as though the presidency affords intrinsic rather than earned authority. The latest sign that chewing out and bossing around one's allies isn't a smart long-term strategy is Jackie's flip to support Dunbar. It's not even a decision made out of pride; in that beautifully filmed car-ride with her husband after the tense and brutal debate, it's clear that Jackie can envision the long-term damage that's being done to her political future by Frank. Being a leashed "pit bull" doesn't just hurt her ego—it hurts her ambitions.
Other examples of hubris's consequences abound, from Remy's ongoing loyalty crisis to the failure of basically every policy initiative Frank has undertaken. Once upon a time, Frank seemed to understand that people didn't like feeling manipulated; in previous seasons, he was a subtler operator, except for when he committed murder. The mentality shift may have consequences for Frank's most essential partner. When Claire, as Yates points out, literally gives blood for her husband, she says that she gets a check-in on the marriage's health every seven years; if the check-in were to happen now, the takeaway would be obvious. This isn't a pairing of equals: Frank has all the legal power and prestige, and Claire is stuck glandhanding at Rotary Clubs. Right now, that gladhanding may be the best thing the White House has going for it, and if Frank understands that, he's not acting like it.
Episode 12 (Chapter 38)
Google “relationships are about,” and autocomplete helpfully suggests three answers: sacrifice, giving, and power. That ordered list roughly describes the Underwood marriage, though the power balance is so out of whack that all the sacrifice and giving is coming from one person, Claire. The first lady surely thought of her own marriage when sitting down with the remarkably candid constituent Suzie, who described the power imbalance in her own life—her man, an Underwood supporter, screws around but gets mad when she goes down on the guy who assembles her baby’s crib—and then said she wished Claire would run instead of Frank.
What lie is Claire talking about at the end of the episode? (Nice, understated cliffhanger, by the way.) It might be the idea, written in Thomas's book chapter, that she and Frank are the "unsplittable atom of American politics." Claire breaks down at the news that her abortion doctor's journal might be publicized; she’s furious that the blackmailer, Doug, was giving Frank’s chief-of-staff job without her consultation. When reporters ask whether Frank made Claire step down from the UN post because he prefers to have her campaigning, he replies that it was her decision; when she calls Frank on that fib, he condescends—“Well, it was, wasn’t it? At least, that’s how we presented it.”
If Claire snaps, it may because she’s realized how low the stakes really are. “They rule an empire without heirs,” Thomas writes. “Legacy is their only child.” Legacy is a hard thing to live for when one’s reign, so far, has been largely defined by its failures. Frank doesn't hesitate when asked what they’re doing everything for: “This house. The presidency.” Once, it seemed like Claire would have agreed with that self-serving answer. But with so much pain and humiliation as the cost to stay in the White House, might she have started to want something else?
Episode 13 (Chapter 39)
No big twist here: The season ends by staging the big blow-up that's been threatened all season. The past 12 episodes have extensively detailed the way that Claire’s been turned into a prop to serve her husband’s ambitions. They've also made clear that Claire wanted to be an equal partner in the presidency and have a political future of her own. Cards brings her crisis of conscience together with assurance and style. Her come-on to her husband confirms that the sexual spark is gone; his fangs-bared disgust at her complaints shows Claire that the current state of affairs isn’t likely to change soon.
The fight between them was awful but riveting to watch, but seeing what becomes of Rachel was just awful. Cards feinted, acting like it was reintroducing a major character by giving a lot of screen time to her life in Santa Fe, and then having Doug spare her. But when he turned that van around, it was a chilling, heartbreaking moment of inevitability. In a sick way, you can understand why he made the call: All season long, Rachel has been haunting him, and would continue to do so even if she really did remain "Cassie" forever. The jump-cut to him burying her gave dark symmetry to this finale; it was a full season ago that we saw Doug thwacked and left for dead, and now he’s killed any hint of a soul he might have once had.
As for the whole season—I’d say it was a qualified success. Some viewers probably found Underwood as president pretty boring, but while there were no murdered congressmen or journalists here, it was nice (or, nicely dramatic) to see Frank run up against some real obstacles for once. By keeping the portfolio of governing issues small, and by not expanding the cast of characters very much, the writers avoided having the plot devolve into a jumble of proper names and competing interests like it did in Season 2. Instead, they focused on the Underwood marriage, and came up with formidable adversaries in the form of Petrov (eviler than Frank) and Dunbar (a legitimately compelling candidate, and quite savvy). Next season, it's possible that even those two enemies of Frank will seem gentle in comparison to the one who just walked out of the White House.