In the pilot episode of House of Cards, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) talks about the two kinds of pain – the kind that is motivating and the kind that is useless. I’m going to posit that there’s a third kind which is the pain you feel that is half confusion about where the hell something is going, particularly when before it seemed like things were on track.
"Francis, Air Force One seems to have gone off course..."
Warning from here on out: I’m going to get mildly spoiler-y, but nothing major. Still, if you haven’t watched season three yet and you really don’t want to know anything about the outlines of some major storylines, go watch it and then come back.
We’ve talked about House of Cards before. Gushed about it, even. And while there have always been aspects to the show that didn’t exactly ring true to reality (it is television, after all), I, at least, have always appreciated the verisimilitude put forth by the show. Even when characters were doing things that no real politico would ever do, the show was trying to so hard to adhere to the look and feel of reality it helped to go a long way to excusing the need for dramatic license.
Now? Ugh. You guys, I’m just not sure anymore. Maybe it’s because so much of the action has moved away from Congress, a body that I understood even if I found it nutty, to the White House, which no matter how accurate the setting, it’s always going to be compared to The West Wing. But either way, the cracks are starting to show.
Some of those cracks just feel like stories that the writers have written themselves into the corner with. Case in point: The quickly disappearing prostitute. Remember Rachel? Didn’t she do something back in season one? How many of you remember what it was? Since then, we’ve gotten two years of Rachel either hanging out somewhere doing nothing or gone completely into hiding. Her only reason for remaining a character on the show is to further illustrate what a creep Doug Stamper is. She’s his plot point, not her own. What’s more, her brief appearances in season three actually kind of make Doug into something even worse: a boring creep. His entire arc in the season is to find Rachel and… what? Kill her? Rape her? Own her somehow? All we know is his intentions are clearly not good and for some reason he can’t get past them, even after she bashed his face in last season and left him for dead. While we do finally get some closure to this story, its closure that should have come two years ago.
Rachel, is it? Go buy yourself a nice condo in Vegas, Sweetie. It'll work out better.
The bigger cracks, unfortunately, are reserved for Frank and Claire themselves. House of Cards has always been about the intrigues and chess moves that make Washington a favorite topic for anyone writing a suspense thriller. Likewise, its biggest flaw has always been that Frank and Claire are portrayed not only as master manipulators but as essentially the only master manipulators in town. For every scheme they hatch, there is literally almost no one who has any kind of counter-scheme, a concept that is about as far away from reality in Washington as is possible. Now, Frank has maneuvered his way into the Presidency and from the Bully Pulpit has decided to… do a reasonable job.
The intrigues that made seasons one and two so watchable are all but gone here. There’s a half-hearted attempt to establish a new level of intrigue by making this season’s “Big Bad” a very thinly veiled stand-in for Vladimir Putin, but it never quite moved beyond a simmering boil. To say nothing of the fact that anyone who has truly been paying attention to someone who is as good at double-speak and reactive tactics as the real life Putin could see half of his ploys coming from a mile away. It just doesn’t feel like any of the story rings true with anything approaching that verisimilitude I mentioned earlier.
"I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of how not-Putin I am."
Then there’s the domestic agenda. Frank Underwood, a democrat, spends his political capital as a relatively unpopular, unelected President trying to do away with social security. Never mind that social security is called the third rail of politics for a reason or that both Republicans and Democrats don’t go anywhere near it. The show makes a half-hearted attempt to explain this away by saying that the needs of the sweeping social program don’t meet the needs of today before getting into some truly wonky talk about a new jobs program, the details of which are of course never discussed (fair enough – this is entertainment, not a real campaign). And while in life there is a certain truth to the fact that social security is a system in need of repair or revamping, the fact remains that no politician seeking reelection, even one as bold and unhindered by impossible odds as Frank Underwood, takes that kind of a risk. And, more importantly, the show never makes it clear why Frank wants this program to succeed. Is it to have another thing that he “wins” at? Something to cement his legacy? Or just because he thinks it’s the right thing to do?
All of which leads to the biggest crack: the Underwoods are, like, nice. Power may corrupt, but for most of season three it turned the two of them into civic-minded public servants. Think about it: In the first episode of season one, Frank strangles a dog with his own bare hands. Sure, he does it out of some twisted rationalization that it’s better for the wounded dog to die quickly instead of suffer longer in pain, but it’s not like there aren’t animal hospitals in Georgetown. Now he’s just sort of vaguely wormy, trying to maneuver candidates so that he can have the best possible field to himself when running for President. Claire used to be the woman who used that utterly sweet and kind voice to mock a dying man in his hospital bed who had just confessed that he loved her, telling him that not only was that feeling never going to be returned but he was pretty much an idiot for even thinking that telling her would do anything. And that’s before she told one of her former employees who was making life difficult for her that she would purposefully withhold prenatal insurance coverage for the pregnant employee if she didn’t give up her lawsuit. (I believe her exact line to the employee was “I will let your unborn child wither away inside you.”) Flash forward to now and she is ambassador to UN and spending nights in jail to protest a political prisoner’s capture in Russia.
Watching characters grow and change is good; characters that evolve are far more interesting than ones that are static or worse, evil just because. That said, the Underwoods’ growth is almost done in the wrong direction. Unlike real life, we don’t want to watch the Underwoods get redeemed, we want to see them make a mess of things. House of Cards isn’t A Christmas Carol, its Macbeth. The more the Underwoods use their powers for good rather than pure self-interest, the less interested we are in them. And while that trajectory starts to get a bit wobbly toward the end of the season, the characters’ motivations are far more left in the bright center rather than the dingy perimeters.
Yes, that's more like it. Now, more spot-cleaning. Could we possible get three weird sisters on set?
Much like Frank Underwood himself, rising up to the most powerful job on the planet a mere two-ish years after being denied a cabinet position, House of Cards is starting to feel like it has peaked too soon. And while the show sets up its next Big Bad, presumably in the form of an opposing candidate for the presidential campaign that is just beginning at the end of season three, it’s hard to see how much more of this story there is to tell without moving into the inevitable final act: downfall. We’ve seen Frank and Claire rise; the only thing left is for them to fall. If the show can’t get there quickly, we’re going to be all out of reasons to keep watching the realistic sets.