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House of Cards season 3 is the show's best — and worst — season so far

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is the president now, and the old maxim "Heavy lies the head that wears the crown" doesn't really seem to apply. Dude seems downright sprightly.
Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is the president now, and the old maxim "Heavy lies the head that wears the crown" doesn't really seem to apply. Dude seems downright sprightly.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Simultaneously the best and worst season of the show, House of Cards' third season is a strange beast. It's a season that recognizes all of the criticisms the show has accrued through the first two seasons of its run and also has some good ideas about how to respond to them. But it also proves woefully out of its depth in doing so.



The chief move House of Cards makes is to pivot hard into character drama after two years of raw, Machiavellian scheming, where plot drove character much more than the reverse. After two years of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) getting everything he wants, season three wants to give him some credible opposition, so that we might care a little more when he ... gets everything he wants.

But season three is an awfully late point at which to pivot into character drama. You can make this work — Walking Dead, of all shows, has done so in season five — but House of Cards wants to have that cake and eat it, too, which means the characters fall prey to Frank's various schemes. (Frank's wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, spends much of this season jerking around to the plot's specifications.)

In browsing fan reactions to the season, it seems to often be written off as a slight disappointment, even as individual elements of the season (particularly the story centered on Frank and Claire's marriage) are appreciated or even praised. And if I were to guess why many fans are feeling that way, it would be because of that turn to character drama. In many ways, House of Cards has become an entirely different show between season two and season three, and in ways that seem mostly half-hearted.

But there are other reasons, too. Here are five of them.

Warning: Spoilers for the full season follow.

1) The entire season is an up-and-back

In TV writing terms, the "up-and-back" is a story where the characters seem to have changed everything about their lives, only to end up right where they started by episode's end. Most television takes this form, because TV requires a status quo that is returned to again and again.

House of Cards Netflix

Frank briefly considers being a one-term president, but he doesn't really mean it. Of course he doesn't. (Netflix)

In particular, it's the lifeblood of the sitcom. Think of the classic Simpsons episode "Cape Feare," for instance, in which the Simpsons leave Springfield and take different names when entering the Witness Protection Program after being threatened by the murderous Sideshow Bob. But by the end of that episode, they're right back where they were, living under the name "Simpson" again, and the episode mostly treats it as a sly joke. That's an up-and-back.

In the age of the serialized drama, the up-and-back has migrated to the seasonal level. Think of the season of The Sopranos when Tony's wife, Carmela, kicked him out, only to welcome him back at season's end. Or think of the season of Breaking Bad where Walter faced off with drug kingpin Gus Fring. Both of these seasons could have been lifted out of their respective series without changing that much.

A skillful up-and-back — as all of the examples I've listed are — teaches you enough about the characters and how they respond to awful situations that you don't mind everything going back to the way it was. An unskillful up-and-back just feels like wheel-spinning, which is true of much of season three of House of Cards.

Frank says he will be a one-term president, then immediately reverses that decision. Doug (Michael Kelly) spends the entire season trying to get back to the point he was at in the season two finale, then finally succeeds at the task he was supposed to do back then. Claire changes her hair, then changes it right back. Frank seems like he might lose against his latest adversary, primary opponent Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), only to triumph against her in the Iowa caucuses.

Things change here and there — Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) turns against Frank, for instance — but the show has taught us so well by now that we know when Frank needs Jackie back, he'll probably get her back. The season flirts with Doug turning against Frank, only to have him back in the Underwood bosom by the finale, for instance. Jackie will be back, or she'll be off the show. All things return to Frank.

"But wait!" I hear you House of Cards fans saying. "What about Claire leaving Frank? That's a pretty big deal." To which I will respond to pointing at the above paragraph. The show can't afford to lose Claire, because having her as a wild card would break its internal logic of an all-powerful Frank Underwood too much. She'll be back. They always come back. Shows teach you how to watch them; House of Cards has taught us to expect nothing less than this.

2) It has the "third season of Lost" problem

Do you remember the third season of Lost? The first half of that season was constructed in a time when the producers didn't have a hard end-date, and they were obviously vamping for time, filling the series' backstory with more and more crazy elements. At midseason, they got an end-date, and the show turned a corner, with the back half of the season being perhaps the best sustained stretch of episodes the show ever did.

House of Cards

Claire (Robin Wright) seems the most likely candidate to bring Frank down. But she can't really do that until the show's endgame. (Netflix)

House of Cards is in exactly the same predicament now that Frank is president. The show can't have him touch off World War III with Russia or China, because then it would break from our reality too much (though I'd love to see Frank wandering a post-apocalyptic hellscape — wouldn't you?). It can't have him stop being president, because then there's no show. For a second, I thought the show might make him a Supreme Court Justice, just because that appointment is for life, but alas, it didn't come to pass.

The British original miniseries (which ran just 12 episodes) solved this by having Francis Urquhart face off with the king of England in its middle season, before the inevitable downfall of the final season. But the US — spoiler alert! — doesn't have a king, and House of Cards has done basically nothing to build up a credible opposition party to push back against Frank, because to do so would, again, break its internal logic. (Basically, the Republicans have to ultimately prove acquiescent to Frank, because one of the show's guiding ideas is that politicians get results when they're being duplicitous.)

So the show is basically screwed until it knows it has an endgame in place. The only people who can bring down Frank at this point are Doug and Claire. Frank has killed everybody else. They'll probably only turn their sights on him once the show is headed toward its end.

3) The series takes place in no known political reality

House of Cards

Frank faces off with his chief political opponent, Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel). (Netflix)

I used to cheekily describe the show's political universe as "a Politico comments section," because it seemed governed less by political science than it was by old conventional wisdom about bipartisanship at all costs and politicians caring more about power than policy. And that was fine for the show — that political universe is more dramatically interesting than ours.

But season three takes place in a world where Frank has decided to pivot hard to a policy position he cares deeply about — universal employment. This is all well and good, but the show constantly reveals how little it cares about any political reality with the way the story unfolds.

Frank forces a smaller version of his bill on the country by borrowing FEMA funds (something Congress has actually worried about, as explained by my colleague Sarah Kliff here), then has to gut that bill to afford hurricane relief later in the season. But instead of anybody using this moment to attack, everybody rallies behind Frank because he's proved his program can get results.

Similarly, Frank turns against Jackie in a debate, which causes her to drop out of the primary and throw her support behind Heather. (The plan had been for her to drop out and support Frank.) Heather, who is already in the lead in Iowa polls, should theoretically surge out in front. Instead, a few weeks pass, and Frank is now neck-and-neck with Heather, for reasons the show doesn't bother explaining. He later wins, because the House always wins.

All of this might be more tenable if it weren't for the fact that ...

4) The characters remain ciphers

I give House of Cards credit for all of the work it attempted to do in building out its characters. The idea of bringing in novelist Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) to dig into Frank and Claire's backstory was a good one, and it led to some solid scenes.

House of Cards

Kim Dickens plays a reporter who tries to get to the truth. That doesn't really happen. (Netflix)

But Tom scowls in the finale that he hasn't gotten to see anything of either Underwood, just what little he can see through the cracks of their façade. And that's really true. The things we "learn" about the characters are surface level, of the sort you might read in official campaign biographies. We, theoretically, get to see the "real" Frank, but he's always, constantly, playing us as well, even when he's making direct address to camera.

The one thing the season underlines is that Frank is probably a deeply repressed homosexual, not a bisexual (as season two seemed to suggest). And that has some interesting implications for the show's larger themes. But when the central story of the season is the disintegration of the Underwoods' marriage, there needs to be more there than just the two of them getting angry with each other a couple of times.

5) All anybody cares about is Frank

The entirety of the House of Cards universe is solely concerned with what Frank is up to. That goes for the whole country, as a matter of fact, as we see in the hurricane episode, when a local newscaster says that the real damage of the hurricane (which didn't make landfall in the US) is to Frank Underwood's America Works program. Theoretically possible? Absolutely. But it just serves to underline how single-minded the show and its characters are.

House of Cards

Frank and Claire have an argument. (Netflix)

By the third season of their runs, most dramas have built out huge casts of interesting characters. To return to The Sopranos, Lost, and Breaking Bad, think of how many fascinating figures existed in those series beyond just their protagonists by season three.

House of Cards doesn't have this, even in the abstract. The most interesting character of the season without Underwood in their name is probably Heather, who is mostly interesting because she's going up against Frank, not because of anything intrinsic to her being. Beyond her, what do you have? Doug? Remy? Jackie? These are all mere functionaries in Frank's various schemes.

House of Cards is a frequently fun show to watch. I'm sort of glad to have it pop up each and every February to gobble up over a weekend. But the heartburn from doing so gets a little larger with every season. Paradoxically, by getting superficially better with each and every year, House of Cards reveals even more just how empty all those calories always were.

House of Cards, season three, is currently streaming on Netflix.

WATCH: 'Kevin Spacey's accent in House of Cards sounds off'

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