(Warning: This review contains Season 3 spoilers.)
“They rule an empire without heirs. Legacy is their only child.”
Frank and Claire Underwood, those Beltway Machiavels, have schemed and connived for so long, they’ve left a coat of fresh blood on every rung from the South Carolina state Senate to the Oval Office.
Now, at the start of House of Cards‘ third season—in the crosshairs of scrutiny unlike anything they’ve ever seen, and lacking another summit to climb—the Underwoods seem slightly lost, stumbling around the corridors of power without their coordinates. The same could be said of the show, which was all about the ruthless ascension of its antiheroes. When you get to the top, what then? There’s nowhere to go but down.
“I’m starting to question all of this. What are we doing this for?” Claire asks.
“For this house,” Frank replies. “For the presidency.”
But whose house? And whose presidency? That’s the rub at the heart of Season 3.
As if Frank’s asides weren’t enough, this year the show knocked a few more bricks out of the fourth wall by introducing a metafictional element in a new character: a novelist named Tom, who is commissioned to hype Frank’s domestic agenda, but ends up writing a tell-all about Claire and Frank’s marriage. “That’s the key to the whole thing,” he says. Subtle. Forget politics; it’s about couples counseling.
But House of Cards was never just the portrait of a marriage; it was about the whole rotten town. Every Washingtonian — from the pols to the staffers to the journos — was as vicious as the Underwoods, if less competently so. After two years of teeming depravity from all sides, the show finally has something new to report, some delicate possibility of grace lurking under the everyday parade of massacre: family.
House of Cards wasn’t very interested in who its characters were when they left the office, or what the “men in their smoky back rooms,” as one character puts it, did when they went home. The seats of power function as work/life diodes, channeling all of the characters’ time, energy, and passion into achievement and ambition, leaving nothing but a chasm of dread when they slow down or step away from the rat race long enough to look at themselves honestly. It took two seasons, but the family, with its quiet comforts and promise of deliverance, finally comes to the fore.
Early in the season, a Supreme Court Justice, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, wonders whether to continue working or retire as soon as possible to live out his remaining years with his wife — signaling the tension that is the primary focus of the new season. “I can’t remember the last time I had a home-cooked meal,” says Remy, a former lobbyist and now Frank’s chief of staff, quietly awakening to the cold void his life has become. Frank’s protégé Jackie Sharp marries a surgeon, instantly absorbing his picture-perfect two children, but it’s a political calculation; the true comforts of family elude her. Even Doug Stamper, Frank’s vicious fixer, gets to spend a few halcyon days with his brother from Ohio and his wife and two children, emblems of the simple pleasures of domesticity, home, and anonymity that he ultimately rejects when he buries poor Rachel Posner in the ground.
It’s a choice that every character must make in the third season, and it’s this dichotomy between the bottomless hell that comes with pursuing power and the redemption that comes with rejecting it that makes Season 3 the most compelling and devastating edition thus far.
Oh, but it’s not all dour, existential angst. The show’s ludicrous plot threads and flashes of high camp continue to abound, delightfully. It turns out House of Cards is escapist for an entirely unexpected reason. For all of the exaggerated (are they?) horrors of realpolitik on display, the show presents an alternate world that is actually very comforting: It reduces inscrutable dilemmas of international affairs to the daily trivia of domestic affairs.
What a soothing notion — that the fate of the Jordan Valley is tangled up in the squabbles of a high-functioning power couple. Wouldn’t it be nice if Russian-U.S. relations hinged on one gay-rights activist’s relationship with his husband?
Maybe this is the season in which House of Cards came clean. It’s not really about politics at all. It’s about the dynamics between husbands and wives writ large — forgiveness, resentment, compassion, and love that sours with time — playing themselves out in the global stage, dictating the fate of nations.
As if politicians were humans with beating hearts. Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?
Image: David Giesbrecht for Netflix