I have an unnatural addiction to political drama. It started way back in 1999 when my new friend (and now God) Aaron Sorkin took me inside of The West Wing. Over the course of 7 seasons, I developed a love for the cast, world, and writing of the series. It branched into a need for more and I sought out all of Aaron Sorkin’s works, then and now. Still I needed more.
Finally in 2013 Netflix, as a part of their initiative to help people break from traditional cable television services, premiered a new political drama with the weight of David Fincher (one of my favourite directors) and Kevin Spacey (one of my favourite actors) behind it. They premiered the series, as a whole, back on February 1st of 2013 and it took me little more than a day and a half to consume it in its entirety.
I had, at the time, assumed it was going to be a one-shot deal. I had no delusions of a second season, even knowing that this was one of the best shows I’ve seen in years and the only patch for the hole left by 7 years of West Wing since it ended back in 2006. When season 2 came out, I was pleasantly surprised and did a similar marathon; wrapping up the season in its entirety in a mere day and a half.
There was no surprise this time around that there would be a third season. The second season ended with a massive cliffhanger, Frank Underwood having risen to the highest rank in US diplomatic power – The Office of the President.
Season 3 was set to be the biggest and baddest of them all. The wait was painfully long, but finally last Friday we received its release.
As you might imagine I immediately went into marathon mode. It was a challenge; I wanted to see if I could beat my previous times for marathoning a full season of House of Cards. I had every intention of sitting down for 13 hours straight and blasting through every episode of the third season in a single day and then turning around and spitting out a review of what I’d just experienced.
You might have already guessed, based on the release of this article, that wasn’t the case.
Season 3 proved to be excruciating in its delivery. It is by far the most stressful season of the show to date and potentially the most stressful current television series overall.
I wasn’t able to watch more than three or four episodes at a time before needing to step back for a bit and collect myself. To say that the stakes have never been higher is obvious, it’s clichéd, and it’s needed. The fact of the matter is with Frank and Claire playing the game at the level they are now, every single action and reaction becomes live-or-die.
As the series progressed I found myself wondering if this was the season that pushed the show’s title. A house of cards, well, we’ve all heard the expression and it’s likely that a lot of us knew what was coming when we got into a show with that title. With two seasons of Frank and Claire Underwood destroying everyone and everything in their path though, it’s also likely that some may have forgotten what that means. Obviously this story wasn’t going to have a happy ending, especially if you consider what a terrible human being Frank Underwood really is, all the things he’s done to get where he is now at the beginning of the third series. A fall was inevitable, but the way it’s presented is absolutely nerve-wracking.
I have not felt so emotionally involved in a television series in years, potentially ever. Frank and Claire’s story is one that resonates with me on so many levels. There is, of course the political drama addiction I already mentioned, but I also love a good love story. I also thoroughly enjoy a proper villain over any heroic protagonist. The focus within House of Cards on a villainous lead made it an instant favourite of mine, but getting to see how that culminates in this most recent season makes this nothing short of glorious. It all helps, in no small part, that the surrounding cast is equally as well played and devious as the mainstays of Clair and Frank Underwood. About half of this season revolves around Frank Underwood’s old second-in-command Doug Stamper and his attempts to stay relevant and useful in the eyes of the new president.
I’m trying, desperately, not to point to specific moments. Character growth and exploration that might spoil the series for those who didn’t have the time or desire to marathon the season this past weekend… but I will say that Doug Stamper’s story this season becomes easily one of the most compelling bits of “side story” ever told on television. I say “side story” only because it is maybe 40% of the season rather than an even split with the story of Frank and Claire dealing with everything that comes along with a seat at the head of the table (including the inability to share said seat).
There’s a moment, mid-season, that I do want to talk about. Hopefully not spoiling anything for anyone, but a prime example of the intelligence of this series and how it refuses to “talk down” to its audience.
One episode deals with a slightly messy timeline, jumping back and forth between moments in the current timeline and in the past. This time-hoping is made even more complex by a secondary story that’s being told along a linear time progression. To deal with this, the show didn’t slap on a sepia tone for the “flashbacks” or offer us a blue/orange palate for the different stories that were branching independently and simultaneously… instead, they interlocked everything via a hair color change and a cultural exchange art-piece from Tibet.
Having two distinct different hair colours for a main character acted as a quick visual guide, where we were in terms of flashing forwards/backwards, while the creation of the art piece from Tibet (introduced as being in work for the next month) served as our check-in for linear time progression. The episode is beautifully told, easy to follow, and unique in its approach both in establishing the time line for events and in its subtly.
Those are key factors that echo throughout House of Cards as a whole and specifically within its third season. The only sour note for this season is the intentional cliff-hanger moment at the end of the season that leaves marathoners, like myself, lusting for season 4 a full year in advance.
If you’re smart and haven’t already done what I’ve done, you’ll pace this one out for a while, to minimize the damage of that last moment. Other than that, enjoy the dark decent of Frank Underwood and the destruction of the lives that surround him, as season three tells the tale of his term in office and run at election 2016.