One of the thoughts that must have crossed the mind of most viewers after watching the second season of ‘House of Cards’ would have been – what next? After all, Frank Underwood, the scheming, diabolical, megalomaniac, hyper ambitious Democratic legislator from South Carolina had risen in a breathtaking fashion from the rather obscure post of the Majority Whip in the House to the Office of the Vice President at the end of Season I, and then had gone on to become a President at the end of Season 2. What further career progression could possibly await the most powerful man in the world?
After completion of Season 3, the answer appears to be ‘not much’. Of course, President Underwood still has to prove his mettle at the ballot box. He has not won anything outside the fifth Congressional District of South Carolina. He has inherited presidency from an outgoing president who resigned in the face of impeachment and record low approval ratings. He has to fend off loss of confidence from the party leadership and a spirited primary challenge. His signature legislative proposal is a non-starter for both the parties in the Congress. He has to face tough negotiations with President Petrov of Russia (probably the nearest thing to Vladimir Putin that you will get to watch in an American television production). And most of all, he has to overcome increasing cracks in the one thing he could always bank on – his marriage.
None of these situations require the kind of cynical manipulations that Underwood became known for in the first two seasons. However, in the face of lesser challenges, Underwood also becomes a lesser competitor. He loses most of the major battles in the season – to Petrov, to the Congress, to his staff and even at his own house. He underestimates his foes, walks into traps laid by them, gets emotionally blackmailed by his opponents and betrays the trust of people who believed in him. In general, Underwood of season 3 bears more resemblance to the bumbling Gerald Ford (who also ascended to the White House from a leadership position in the House of Representatives in less than two years) than the cunning Richard Nixon, the closest thing the Underwood of Season 1 and 2 had to an actual US President.
While Underwood becomes more fallible, his setbacks also provide some relief from one of the central weaknesses of the story – after all, how do you show a person to have such Machiavellian attributes that he manages to grotesquely manipulate the entire system of US legislators from meek Congressmen to the President himself. Unlike in the first two seasons, none of the characters is quite gullible enough to fall for Underwood’s persuasive power and backstabbing tactics. The audience is thus, to a large extent, spared from yet another story of Underwood making mockery of the entire system and all his rivals through a ridiculous sleight of hand.
The emphasis in this season is thus more on character development and emotional drama than relentless progress of Underwood’s career. This works to an extent. Claire, Underwood’s wife, whose character is much more fascinating and layered compared to the one-dimensional Frank, has a more central presence in the story than in the first two seasons. This is also the season where she finally manages to develop a sense of righteousness and goes through the inevitable moral conflict that took some time in coming. She begins to question the entire premise of their marriage and the objective of their partnership. The stirring of this moral pot, however, required the introduction of two new characters in the form of Thomas Yates and Kate Baldwin. Which is kind of a letdown as both the characters are bland at best and do not bring much to the story.
The character development of Claire also raises significant feminist questions. After all, Claire, despite being probably more qualified than Frank, has had to play a second fiddle to her husband all through his career. She tries to lay the groundwork for her own career but gets repeatedly thwarted by the demands of her husband’s job. She remains much more popular than her husband, tries to do her job as an UN ambassador to the best of her abilities, campaigns tirelessly on his behalf and wins the Iowa caucus for her husband almost singlehandedly. Still, it seems almost destined that her name shall remain only an insignificant footnote in the biography of President Underwood. It is a game where the rules are made by men and a woman can at best become a minor accomplice. She thus has to decide between playing by the rules of traditional mores of society (“Behind every successful man, there is a woman”) or charter a new course all by herself.
The character of Doug Stamper also provides an interesting side story. He has a similar brush with his more humane emotions, although with dramatically different results. He also provides one of the rare true shocking moments of the season.
The season also has its share of joys for the desperate political junkies who can get high only once in every four years, during the election season. In the interim period, they can only look at ‘House of Cards’ for some quick-fix, artificial happiness. They will not be disappointed. The show, finally, has some electioneering as opposed to the largely backroom deals of the first two seasons. The democratic primary campaign in the show closely resembles the democratic primary campaign of 2008. Ironically though, Underwood plays the role of Hillary Clinton (an establishment figure who is known for getting things done by manipulating the system but is neither likeable nor trustworthy) while Heather Dunbar plays the role of Barack Obama (an outsider who has little experience in the system but is running based on message of hope and change) and Jackie Sharp the role of John Edwards (the underdog in a three way race, who knows her limitations and is ready to offer her support to the one with the better deal). The debate sequence is full of zingers and rhetorical drama. It kind of also reminds one of one of the debates in the 2008 season when both Obama and Edwards turned on Clinton. Finally, there is no bigger joy than watching John King moderating a debate (I was half-expecting Underwood to rip into him, Gingrich style; but sadly, that did not happen).
The show still suffers from its main limitation – emphasizing on hard to believe drama and constant cliff hangers at the cost of practicality. As a political show, ‘Veep’ remains far more believable and subtle. But ‘House of Cards’ has its own charm. With its sleek production design, flawless (albeit melodramatic) writing from people who know the US political system inside out, stellar team of directors, a dream cast and a pervading sense of cynicism in the subjects it handles, ‘House of Cards’ is definitely watchable, even in a marathon binge and despite a season that seems content in laying the groundwork for the next season.