“That isn’t how politics works.” “That’s how revolution works.”
In Chapters 31, 32 and 33, cracks begin to appear; some more worrying than others. Frank is forced to fight on both fronts, taking reckless action to ensure the success of America Works while also continuing the chess match with Russia’s President Petrov. Claire is forced to confront some harsh realities and all those around them struggle. It’s lonely at the top.
It’s not lonely, however, in the ladies room at the White House. Robin Wright tackles the season-high dressing down of the Russian Ambassador after her offers. “You’ve no business being Ambassador. No more than I do being First Lady,” she says, her words thinly veiled as advice. The First Lady proceeds to force him into the toilets, where she discusses business, while he squirms, not unlike Bob Birch’s trick in the first few episodes. She re-explains the situation to the uncomfortable delegate, urinates, threatens to declare war on Russia, then leaves. It’s flamboyant in a manner only describable as “Underwoodian”, and every viewer joins in her gritty, momentary success.
Frank and Claire’s biggest battle, though, takes the form of the arrogant and cold Petrov. Lars Mikkelsen’s knowing sneer is as riling as his thuggish brand of old school diplomacy, both to the Underwoods and the viewer. He plays the part well, each lie and countermove slithering from his mouth, never to be trusted. Although his impact on Claire is removed this time, she still feels as though she is forced to smile, as she dances with this lecherous leader. She travels with Frank in order to guarantee the safety and release of gay rights activist Michael Litsky, unprepared for the moral stand he takes against the tyrannical Petrov. Written by Melissa James Gibson, the scenes between Litsky and Claire not only represent a major milestone for the story arc of the season, but also a display of excellent writing and acting; Robin Wright shows a woman at her juxtaposed strongest and weakest when asked what she has that’s worth dying for. It’s precise, ferocious and elegant, all at once.
When not sparring with his Russian counterpart, Spacey’s President is declaring metaphorical war on another front. He cleverly re-interprets the constitution so as to take money ($3 billion, to be exact) from FEMA and effectively give it to himself, for the Am-Works initiative. Bypassing Congress and, let’s face it, the law, Underwood is finally playing to his strengths. “If I can’t scrape the money together behind the scenes, I’ll rob the bank in broad god-damn daylight,” declares the most powerful man in the world. Writer Kenneth Lin wittily injects an air of revolution and defiance into a series that’s more accustomed to Frank acting as puppeteer than armed thief. It’s bold, it’s uplifting and it’s certainly heartfelt – more importantly, it’s Presidential. But it looks like it’ll take more than daylight robbery to keep him in the Oval Office, so Frank begins to make plans with Jackie Sharp. Her plotlines are totally drowned by her relationship with everyone’s favourite middleman-lobbyist-turned-Chief of Staff, Remy Danton – she hides her desires for him only slightly better than he does for her. The days in which actor Mahershala Ali just turned up to be knowing, handsome and smooth – they’re long gone. Ali has Danton tripping over his words and forgetting his thoughts in her presence. It introduces a flagship theme into the season: that the phrase “power couple” requires equal emphasis on both words.
Frank’s endgame of 2016 deals him another thorn in his side: Heather Dunbar, who stands for honesty, integrity and other such fluffy notions. Which is, effectively, the problem. Veteran viewers of Beau Willimon’s political drama will often see Dunbar not as a shining light in all the murky, deadly back-channelling, but as weak. Her family values and unwillingness to participate in political sniping, 30 chapters in, is not commendable: it’s a huge, gaping vulnerability. She would be a thorn in Frank’s side, but little more. Until she receives a very interesting offer. Doug Stamper, purportedly feeling let down by Frank and Seth, has already offered his services to Dunbar. For every step she has taken towards Heaven, Stamper has taken one further away. His knowledge of the Underwoods, his political savvy and ruthlessness could all spell disaster for the President. As always, Michael Kelly’s unwavering gaze and Stamper’s concrete resolve dissuade from any second-guessing on the part of the audience, but the move is troubling in a unique and unsettling way.
As thorns-in-the-side go, Kate Baldwin also ranks pretty highly. Replacing Ayla Sayaad as the Telegraph’s White House Correspondent and played by one-to-watch Kim Dickens (Sons of Anarchy, Gone Girl), Baldwin makes her feelings about Seth’s dismissal of Ayla very clear upon arriving. Frank makes his feelings about Baldwin clear to Seth as well: “You kicked out a pit-bull and they sent in a dragon.” Kate appears to be the reporter Zoe Barnes dreamed of. She’s utterly fearless, she’s tough and she’s razor-sharp. Awards-laden and relentless, she could pose a serious threat if she asks the right questions. Similar feelings could be levelled at the other writer introduced recently, Thomas Yates. A mysterious novelist, Yates peaks Underwood’s interest as a puppet to write a great novel about jobs, helping to sell Am-Works to the people. Yates appears to spend a little too much time talking about Francis’ personal life, but seems more interested than threatening.
And so, when Chapter 33 (Episode 7) opens on Frank and Claire renewing their wedding vows, the warmth and joy associated with a celebration of love is made malleable and abstract by the two standing together to be celebrated. Murderers, liars, thieves, thugs, snakes and manipulators; the both of them. The gravitational writing, courtesy of Gibson once more, paints a regal and emotive picture of the pair and their personalities, morals and tactics make it hard to decipher whether the ceremony is negated or enhanced by their unique brand of love. Halfway through the season, this scene makes it clear what the real focus of the show now is: after this display of affection, they wordlessly return to separate rooms, before Francis reads ‘First Lady Defiant’ as a headline on his morning paper. Gibson’s writing, in particular, is hugely effective at delivering these short, sharp jolts back to reality. A headline here, some Tibetan monks creating a visually spectacular mandala there; the exploration of this marriage between two titans has reached the point where heartbreak is a genuine worry – no small feat, considering the titans involved. Although it may be entertaining to bask in the Southern tones and visceral lawlessness of the couple, Season 3 of House of Cards makes it quite clear that the marriage of the two isn’t entirely unlike any other. Vows or no vows, only one person can be the most powerful.
All 13 episodes of House of Cards Season 3 are available to watch on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photos: David Giesbrecht for Netflix