Frank Underwood’s Crumbling House of Cards

EspañolThe beginning of the third season of House of Cards shows Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) finally on top in Washington, DC, but far from comfortable on his throne. Underwood now has put his scheming aside (at least for a while) and assumes the pesky responsibility that comes with being a world leader: to rule.

From the outset, House of Cards stood out from the usual cinematic and televised offerings for its crude portrayal of politics. Gone are the usual fanfare of smiling candidates promising things they ultimately fail to deliver. The flagship Netflix series did away with any shred of  idealism and exposed the nitty-gritty details of power relations away from the glare of the cameras.

The relationship between Claire and Frank Underwood becomes central to the third season of House of Cards.
The relationship between Claire and Frank Underwood becomes central to the third season of House of Cards. (Imgkid)

Maybe I’d set my standards too high, but I was disappointed by the new installment’s derailing of this trend. After all, the goal of a fictional TV show is to entertain people, and politics is just a backdrop with which to tell a story. At least that is how this last season comes across. Underwood’s new role pushes him out of his comfort zone, and with him, the whole series. Trust Frank to defy our expectations.

All of a sudden, the ruthless Capitol Hill insider becomes a statesman worried about making it beyond the end of his term. Successive episodes show the Underwood administration scrambling to juggle a full-employment program, drone strikes, peacekeeping efforts, and endless high-level diplomatic negotiations. Not as fun as treason and premeditated murder, right?

The change isn’t all that surprising if you think about it. Becoming a head of state implies responsibility and sobriety, something the recently sworn-in president confirms in the first scene. “It makes me look more human,” he says after showing up to pay his respects at his father’s grave (away from the cameras he pisses on the tombstone). President Underwood no longer throws his enemies in front of subway trains. Instead, he orders drone strikes in a packed room and hires a biographer to write a book extolling his clichéd jobs program America Works.

But not everything is about Frank, if it ever was. Backroom negotiations also take place in the presidential bedroom. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) also wants to move beyond the First Lady role, and her ambition pits her against her husband’s interests. The strain on the so-far symbiotic relationship between Frank and Claire is the season’s new focus.

The writers summon new characters to expose the human side of the Underwoods, such as Putin look-alike Viktor Petrov as Frank’s devious rival, triggering a series of conflicts that undermine the foundations of what held the couple together for so long.

The interactions between the Underwoods and the rest of the cast are no longer dominated by political machinations but by rather personal matters, something the previous seasons had featured only tangentially, such as the affair between Claire and her lover Adam Galloway. A troubled romance continues beneath the surface for lobbyist Remy Denton and House Majority Whip Jackie Sharp, and congressional aide Doug Stamper goes to dramatic lengths to prove his loyalty to Frank and get back in his good books.

In the meanwhile, Frank’s political rivals fall by the wayside. A rebellion within the Democratic Party motivates Special Prosecutor Heather Dunbar to run against him for the presidential ticket. The tension between the two competing candidates barely gets any screen time, and apparently we’ll have to wait for another season to reach the critical confrontation.

For my tastes, Season 3 focuses too much on the personal at the expense of the political, when at its best House of Cards gives space to both. Imagine for a moment that Breaking Bad decided to focus an entire season on the relationship between Skyler and Walter Jr., leaving the meth labs to one side, or that The Walking Dead was all about killing zombies.

Perhaps it’s understandable, given that the Underwoods now inhabit the White House and few rungs remain to be climbed on the political ladder. If this is just an interlude to set things in place for presidential-size conspiracies, hopefully fans next year will get to enjoy 13 new hours of business and backstabbing as usual.

Translated by Daniel Duarte.

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