4 / 5
The carefully constructed house of cards perpetuated upon television audiences is beginning to crumble in the show’s third season. House of Cards has functioned in the methodical mindset of Frank Underwood by long establishing that the foundation of deceit and corruption is necessary to succeed in the world of politics while those with a conscience are collateral damage. House of Cards has especially been noteworthy for representing weakness through morality. Morality is a politician’s undoing in the world of House of Cards, which undeniably may be the current environment of Washington D.C. The show outlines the politician mindset, through the mentality of Frank Underwood, that their motivation is legacy, not the determination of helping the American people, which is what they tell the open public. Helping the American people is a guise; a ruse that insinuates the concept that they care about the average American, when it is precisely the opposite. It is only about achieving votes and getting the public’s support for what they care about, which is the prevalent motif of House of Cards.
The wind has been blowing on the house of cards Frank and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright) have built since the show began, but season three has shown the first cards at the top of the stack toppling down, hinting at the eventual collapse of the facade. Ironically, it is morality that is challenging this structure, indicating a true distinction between good and evil. With this distinction, audiences are now beginning to witness that the cutthroat attitude of Washington D.C. eventually challenges the very ideals that caused someone to want to become subservient to the American people. The idea of being selfless and giving back to those one represents is what politics is supposed to be about, yet it is contradictory to the real mechanisms of how the nation’s capital functions. It’s the insistence of power, and attaining more power, that has become more of a focus. For Frank Understand, who has schemed his way up to the Presidency, his focus is entirely upon power.
As a result, the show’s third season presents the Underwood presidency as corrupt and devoid of any true compassion towards the American people. Frank Underwood, who is expertly played by Kevin Spacey, tries to frame his government programs to benefit the American people, but in actuality it is about him cementing his legacy for future generations to idolize him. Underwood is the very definition of a tyrant; someone who displaces the law and the Constitution for the sake of benefiting himself. This especially is evident in the controversial church scene in the show’s fourth episode. While looking upon a statue of Jesus Christ, Underwood directly challenges the notion of leadership and scoffs at having love for others. “So you’re selling love? Well I’m not buying it,” he says with venom in his voice before he spats in the face of Jesus, which emphasizes Frank’s arrogance of believing he is more important than God himself.
Yet despite the revolting arrogance of Frank Underwood, the show’s third season has begun to present the reality that Frank isn’t as solid of a schemer and politician as he, himself, has represented to the audience. The most glaring of his failures is his belief that he can manipulate others, especially with characters such as Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), who he sees as a threat and attempts to neutralize. Rather than keep her away from running against him in the Democrat primary process, his actions propel her to start a campaign against corruption. “I am much more of an authority of the Constitution than you are,” she boldly tells him during a debate, barely hiding her contempt for what he represents in American politics. Even with Frank’s biographer (Paul Sparks), he is able to identify that the Underwoods aren’t the personification of “perfect” that they dare to represent themselves as. He tells Claire at one point, “It’s exhausting to swing a sledgehammer at a facade and hope for a glimmer within the cracks,” emphasizing that while the truth is carefully tucked away, they aren’t truly deceiving anyone about them being good people.
It is with Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) that this facade is beginning to unravel. House of Cards has been careful to insert moments of hesitancy and conscience within her character’s narrative, yet it is within this third season that she has finally taken these instances into action. Wright is the clear standout in this season by representing someone who is tremendously in conflict with herself, more so in direct conflict with her husband. It is an achievement for Wright to offer a new perspective into the mindset of Claire Underwood, allowing viewers to understand her isolation and internalized anger. In contrast to Frank, Claire does want to make a difference; the power being the added benefit to having such clout. What makes her character profound in this particular season is that Claire’s conscience has a direct correlation with her decision making process. Robin Wright is brilliant in her portrayal of Claire by further representing her as no longer willing to stand idly and have her actions be dictated by others. Wright has always interjected hints of humanity within her Claire Underwood, but it is within this season that those sentiments have finally soared. Wright was able to utilize scenes to which her character encountered those truly struggling, such as the pivotal scenes where she speaks to the jailed gay activist in Russia or the exhausted mother in Iowa who insinuates how easily she could smother her baby and escape an unhappy marriage. Yet the most notable achievement with Wright’s acting this season is the resulting realization that the iconic political smile she has given throughout the show’s run has a different meaning than all presumed, especially after her unintended confession to Frank’s biographer and the cliffhanger the season ends upon. It is for these reasons that Robin Wright ought to be commended for her season three work, which surpassed even Kevin Spacey’s performance.
House of Cards‘ third season has proven the show has entered a period of maturity with its narrative and actors. The supporting cast, especially Elizabeth Marvel (Heather Dunbar) and Molly Parker (Jackie Sharp), compliment the direction of where the show is headed along with provided the necessary conflict of morality that the show desperately needed in its first two seasons. It is the tension and the threat of the house of cards collapsing that makes this third season the best of the show’s run thus far because Frank Underwood has been exposed to the audience as capable of being taken down. His strength isn’t as well-grounded as he claims, or believes it to be. It is the rift between Frank and Claire that could potentially be his undoing, especially with Claire seemingly listening to her conscience and choosing not to be a doormat. The undercurrent theme of this season is female equality and choosing not to be submissive in a male dominated environment. For that, the female actresses of this season excel tremendously by providing performances that defy the notion of being equated solely by their gender. This theme further supports the overarching theme of morality within this season, by emphasizing that eventually evil and corruption will be challenged by the forces for good.