Before I get into this review, I just wanted to give you a heads up. This review will contain spoilers so if you haven’t seen anything from House of Cards S3, then I suggest you bookmark this review and come back.
But if you was like me – came back from work on a Friday night, turned your living room into your bedroom, stocked up on food and drinks and got out the Netflix account in preparation to binge watch your way through the series…then come on in and welcome aboard 🙂
“You know what takes real courage? Holding it all together when the stakes are this high.” – Francis Underwood
After 13 hours of binge watching, some may feel series 3 wasn’t as strong as the previous two. In some aspects, that’s true. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments but doesn’t have that instant shock value like what happened to Zoe Barnes. However, the outstanding performances from Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey and the ability to keep pushing the show in a different direction continues to pay off. Once again, this show got me hook, line and sinker.
Watching series 3 was like watching something Shakespearian. Julius Caesar springs to mind. With Francis (Kevin Spacey) at the top of the mountain, being king of the world as President of the United States, he naturally becomes a walking target. How many more times can Francis push and manipulate people to do his bidding before they crack? By the end of it, there’s a sense of everybody sharpening their knives, ready to stab Francis in the back.
Francis is still who he is – he’s still up to his old tricks and occasionally does his “not sure if serious” meme face that Kevin Spacey does so well every time he turns to the camera to speak to the audience. He still expects loyalty that is unquestioned and never doubted. He still makes me laugh with his wicked sense of humour – “what’s the face of a coward? The back of his head as he runs away from battle.” Must use that in a sentence!
But the game has changed.
When he was Chief Whip (series 1) or Vice President (series 2) he could control the elements around him. However his Machiavellian manipulation and intimidation doesn’t have the same impact as before. The scope of the show has moved onto a bigger chess board. It moves away from the domestic issues from series 1 and 2 and concentrates on foreign policy between Russia and the Middle East, handling subject matters that are current and realistic. Series 3 is also more political, highlighting the complicated posturing and compromises that would make your head hurt if you were in the same situation. No wonder Francis’s hair turns grey! He may be President of the United States but his support is dwindling and he’s under constant pressure. His inner circle are like sharks – once they smell blood they are going after the prey. His competition show moments of defiance, standing up to his bully tactics and in some cases, find strength to use information against him. Because of this, Francis does become vulnerable. Everything doesn’t go his way.
Francis doesn’t want to be a placeholder President. He wasn’t elected, he schemed his way to the position. He wants to be remembered. He wants to have a legacy and he becomes obsessed with the notion. He even pissed on his own father’s gravestone to demonstrate what he wants out of his Presidential life. When Francis dies, his death will have more significance over his good for nothing father. His ticket – America Works (which sounds more like a slogan buzzword than a campaign initiative) is designed to help get the unemployed jobs but it comes at a political price and is scrutinised intensely. It sounds admirable but he ends up making more enemies than friends.
Francis: “I should never have made you ambassador.”
Claire: “I should never have made you President.”
What’s clever about series 3 is that it showcases the illusion of power. Does being the most powerful man in the world give you more respect or more trouble for what it’s worth? Do you actually have control? A certain rib man downplays his grandson’s ambition of becoming President. It’s not because his grandson couldn’t achieve it. He wants his dreams to be realistic and smart, to stay away from the complicated mess that politics brings where the game is never fair. Francis and Claire may have wanted the dream but in fact, their relationship unravels under the weight of their own greed and expectations.
Power is an addictive attribute and the necessity to keep hold of it becomes essential yet destructive. Right up until that significant moment at the end of the series, you are watching a separation, not just physically but in terms of ideals. It’s a significant change but it’s no surprise. They were practically on the same page, working as a team in the previous two series. Everything they did was for the greater good with Claire often downplaying her ability to make Francis a winner. Now, they’re divided, both measuring up their achievements against each other. Their differences in opinion have been hinted at before but muted for their own preservation. However in this series it’s been aggressively pushed forward, cleverly against the backdrop of America’s foreign diplomacy plans.
If anything, the third series is more about Claire (Robin Wright) than Francis. Francis is focussed on consolidating his own position as President, no matter what the cost or who he hurts to achieve that. He does what he does best through fear and control, belittling his colleagues as if they were mere puppets and he’s the puppet master. Claire on the other hand is not content to just be the First Lady, playing second fiddle by picking out different coloured Easter eggs. Like Francis, she wants to do something of significance which leads her to a position of UN ambassador, despite her lack of experience and committing political suicide with a media escalated mishap of calling the military “irrelevant”. It doesn’t stop her from getting the position but there is a growing resentment that starts to bubble, not only verbally but physically menacing.
It comes to fruition in the brilliant episode, Chapter 32 where Claire and Francis travel to Moscow to “kill two birds with one stone” – negotiate a peace treaty with the Russian President, Victor Petrov (Lars MIkkelsen) and to free a US gay rights activist from a Russian prison. It ends in tragedy which forces Claire to speak her own mind rather than scripted words that mean absolutely nothing. It’s a significant moment because Claire grows a conscience and senses the opportunity to be independent without fear of the consequences. Does she need to keep supporting her husband with an unwavering support? Or can he be challenged? Who really benefits in their relationship? Whilst Francis is blinded by the bigger picture, it’s a favourable victory and gain for Claire as she sets her ambitions even higher and Francis is currently occupying the position. Chapter 32 is my favourite episode from the series because it sets in motion the repercussions. The Russian President (who in a previous episode turned a US visit into a Vodka fuelled party in the White House), abuses the trust Frank and Claire have by exposing the cracks for his own manipulative gain.
If you ever need a great visual representation of Frank and Claire’s relationship, Chapter 33 answers that. A group of monks carefully and intricately build this beautiful picture with nothing but coloured sand. They spend a month constructing it. Once it was over and a quick prayer later, the sand was rubbed together as if it the picture never existed. The sand was gathered and poured into a river. Nothing lasts forever – the best laid plans can be destroyed within a second and Claire has grown disillusioned with broken promises, the hypocrisy and false hope.
When you put aside all the political shenanigans, House of Cards S3 is a great, thematic examination of characters wanting to prove their self-worth. Claire and Francis experience it but Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is another clear example. Alive and well, he’s desperate to regain his purpose but struggles and resorts to old habits to get himself back into a favourable position with his master.
Series 4 will be an interesting one. It has the potential to change the dynamics once again with the Underwoods fighting against each other in a personal and political dogfight.
Claire Underwood for President? She’s not perfect and she has a sly demeanour but to the outside world, she has favourable qualities that gives her the momentum over her husband. What she lacks in experience, Claire makes up for it in her own way.
Is it February 2016 yet? I can’t wait.