Friday, March 6, 2015

HOUSE OF CARDS Season Three Premiere

Article originally written for Seat42F.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers from the first two episodes of the third season of HOUSE OF CARDS. Also, if you haven’t watched the first two seasons yet but plan to, don’t read this article.

Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS return was highly anticipated, and thankfully it comes back strong. With thirteen episodes available immediately for streaming, many will binge watch their way through in a weekend, unable to wait to see what happens next. Hampered as I am by my wife, who loves the show but detests the binge, it may take me a few weeks to see how things end. But beginning with the first two hours last night, I’d say this season is off to a good start.

The premiere, “Chapter 27,” is very heavily about Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). When season two ended, Doug is beaten up in the woods by Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) and left for dead, and many viewers, myself included, feared he had passed. “Chapter 27” shows us that he is not dead, but is going through a months-long recovery process to heal his mind and body, only to find out that Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), now President of the United States, doesn’t want him anymore.

I know, that’s not what Frank says, but it’s clear to both the audience and to Doug that that’s what has happened. Frank doesn’t do weak, and by allowing Rachel to get the best of him, Doug has proven himself inadequate for the task at hand. Frank hopes that tossing a few sweet words will pacify his former closest advisor, and Frank does have his press secretary, Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil), keep an eye on Doug. But this is likely more because Frank is protecting himself than any lingering concern for Doug.

For a while, it looks like Doug may go the way of reporter Zoe Barnes, a major character who is killed in the season two opener, though Doug seems likely to go by his own hand or drug use, murdered by Frank’s inaction rather than Frank’s action. But Doug has surprising self-control for an addict, measuring out very small doses of alcohol, and he has surprising optimism for someone who so intimately knows Frank, holding out hope he will be called upon again. Maybe he will.

It’s actually a little frustrating that HOUSE OF CARDS devotes so much of its first hour back to Doug Stamper. I like Kelly’s performance, of course, and his story is very engaging, a good way to skip over a few months without abandoning them all together. But as the installment goes on, I can’t help but wonder what HOUSE OF CARDS’ leading couple is up to, something we see only sparingly.

The second hour takes the teases we get about Frank and his first lady, Claire (Robin Wright), and develops them much further, with the leads taking back the spotlight. Claire is trying to be ambassador to the UN, something Frank’s Republican opponent, Mendoza (Benito Martinez) says he won’t block, but he sort of does. Frank, meanwhile, is trying to push through a massive jobs bills that guts entitlements while fighting a DNC leadership that doesn’t want him to run for election in 18 months.

Claire deserves something more than the ceremonial First Lady position, but I don’t know if she can handle what she dreams of, the first time we’ve really seen her limitations. Mendoza does test her, but he doesn’t seem to be malicious towards her, though the civility could just be a cover, as it is for Frank. Instead, Claire kills her own chances, and I’m surprised the vote ends up being as close as it is, especially with the DNC upset at Frank. Claire is the sympathetic of the two, and I feel bad for her when she fails, but by getting the job in a back-door move by Frank, doing an end run around Congress, I feel she is leaving her husband vulnerable and setting herself up for more negative criticism and likely failure.

Frank is also in dire straights for most of “Chapter 27” and “Chapter 28.” He is blocked at every turn by the opposition and his own party, something he doesn’t understand. The thing is, though, we’ve watched Frank for two seasons at lower levels of government. He recruits pawns; he doesn’t make friends. He also makes plenty of mistakes (does anyone else assume a reporter will run up to get a picture of Frank’s dad’s grave and find the urine after the season-opening scene?). Frank is a very smart operator, and he does find a path forward by the end of the second episode that feels momentarily triumphant (what a great speech!), but I think much of these two hours expose his weaknesses that will lead to his eventual downfall.

It’s bizarre to think that Frank is a Democrat given his lack of empathy for the people, his disregard for social safety nets, and his obsession with jobs. I believe HOUSE OF CARDS may put him in that party purely to keep Republicans from dismissing the show and to do something surprising. Sure, there are calculating, jerk left-wingers serving in government, but his personality and values so much more lines up with the current GOP. This disconnect feels wrong in “Chapter 28,” the first major misstep HOUSE OF CARDS seems to make in three seasons. Well, that, and the fact that they show Stephen Colbert (himself, or his on-air persona from The Colbert Report’s version of himself) still being on the air in 2015, which is very regrettably not true.

Still, it’s very easy to be drawn into this story, so well crafted and acted. Frank and Claire are far from the heroes viewers root for, and yet their enemies are frequently despicable themselves, and so you end up hoping the Underwoods will find success. I don’t think they will end season three on a high note. I’m guessing with no foreknowledge or without having seen the end that this will also be the show’s last, purposely designed as such, despite its popularity and critical acclaim. But I’m very interested to see how they will be taken down and by whom, assuming they are their own worst enemies. By the end of “Chapter 28,” all I wanted to do was watch “Chapter 29.”

The entire HOUSE OF CARDS third season is available now on Netflix.

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