It sounded so good: Frank Underwood is the new Beyoncé! Alas, the 10 episodes of House of Cards’ third season that appeared on Netflix on Wednesday afternoon, more than two weeks ahead of the official release date, weren't part of an innovative stealth-release strategy. “Due to a technical glitch some Frank Underwood fans got a sneak peak,” the service’s representative Karen Barragan said in an email. “He'll be back on Netflix on Feb. 27.”
Accordingly, the episodes went offline quickly. But for some people who'd started in on the first installment, the stream remained viable for long enough to finish viewing. That was the case for me. The fact that I’m writing about any of this could signify that Netflix’s purported screw-up is actually a publicity stunt; if so, it’s worthy of Underwood. After the occasional slog of the second season, I wasn’t super-psyched to dive into the new one. But the general air of leaked state secret changed that.
Below are some general, not-too-spoilery thoughts on the first hour for anyone curious where the show could possibly go after anointing the ever-climbing backroom dealer Underwood as president. He knocked on the Oval Office desk at the end of last season, then the screen cut to black—not so much a cliffhanger as a turning of a book to find a blank page. One of the show’s biggest problems is that Frank’s deep motives have never been all that clear; power for power’s sake is the assumption, but even that hasn’t ever been made explicit. Which means predicting what happens once he gets in office is basically impossible.
Well, not totally impossible. If you’d asked me or really anyone to guess one of the things to be depicted in a 21st-century tale about the demands of the presidency, “making a call on a drone strike against terrorists” would come up pretty quickly. So would the notion of the president being pulled at from all sides, having to weigh competing demands both from close friends and frenemies and random powerful people now in your orbit. So would public polls, ambitious legislative efforts, and Stephen Colbert. That's all here.
But there’s a striking amount of screen time spent outside the White House, focused on a secondary character’s solitary and wrenching personal plight. The storyline at issue suggests that a major theme of this third season will revolve around people trying to lead purpose-driven-lives and being thwarted, and the way that stifled ambition can be as painful as any injury.
The Season 2 premiere—the return episode for arguably the most significant and successful season of streaming television in history—was a bustling, impeccably executed ballet of intrigue, climaxing with one of the most shocking TV deaths of all time. This premiere is gloomier, slower, and far less fun. Yes, there’s an early moment of camp villainy that recalls the old “F.U.” cufflinks moment. And yes, David Fincher’s trademark prettiness is still there—the scenery shots look like museum photography, and faces are captured in aching detail; in one early scene the camera lingers close in on a distressed character’s eyes, to vibrant and disturbing effect. But now that Underwood must govern a nation, the intrigue is necessarily of a different, more delicate sort: The question isn’t how high he can climb, but whether it’s possible he could fall.