Editor’s note: Mild spoilers below, though we’ve done our best to spare the viewer.
If you noticed some of your friends made themselves scarce last weekend, it’s not altogether unlikely they joined the legions of binge-watchers of Netflix’s runaway smash hit House of Cards, the third season of which made its way to public availability early Friday morning. The return of the drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as a pair of political grotesques ascending to the White House over 26 episodes’ worth of political machinations in Seasons One and Two have had an exalted profile over the past month; rumors of an early deposit of the show to Netflix subscribers last week nearly set off an online stampede.
But the 13 new episodes of Season Three are not the House of Cards its fans have made such a guilty pleasure of. Season Three is more of a depressing crash-and-burn than a continuation of the political rise of Spacey’s Frank Underwood, a blue-dog Democrat congressman from South Carolina who sets off on an orgy of Machiavellian intrigues after being snubbed for the job of Secretary of State in a new presidential administration. Season Two ends with Underwood’s inauguration as an unelected president — he finds a way to be nominated as Vice President when the position comes open and then schemes to have his boss impeached — and makes an implicit promise to the viewer that Underwood will leverage his legendary political skill, not to mention his ruthless capacity for self-serving evil, into an entertaining romp of a presidency.
That promise isn’t delivered in Season Three. While Spacey and Wright turn in outstanding performances as Underwood and his First Lady Claire, the plot offers a faint echo of Shakespearean comeuppance rather than dramatic inspiration. Because Underwood, for all the skill in back-room dealing that put him in the White House, shows himself an astonishingly weak president.
Underwood’s incompetence is essentially total. Faced with low approval ratings from a public that distrusts him for his shadowy role in the campaign-finance scandals that took down his predecessor, he is exhorted by the Democratic Party’s congressional leadership not to run for a second term. He demands from them a promise to support a grandiose jobs program which purports to put 10 million Americans to work either in infrastructure or military jobs when not subsidizing private sector employers to hire more people, all of it funded by massive cuts to entitlement programs. Not surprisingly, the program finds no purchase in Congress and cannot pass — so Underwood abuses the Stafford Act to have unemployment in Washington, D.C. declared an emergency and redirects FEMA funds into a local pilot for his scheme.
Without spoiling the outcome of that gambit, let’s just say there are no miracles afoot.
Meanwhile, Claire has demanded a piece of the titular pie, settling on the job of UN Ambassador as the object of her ambition having immediately become unfulfilled with the job of First Lady. She’s thoroughly unqualified for the position and presides over a series of diplomatic disasters which, even for House of Cards, come off as unrealistic to the point of ridicule. The show does offer a decent lesson, however, about the wages usurpation of power pays when the Underwoods find themselves matched against Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), a Putin-style Russian premier they attempt to entice into participating in a cockamamie Middle East peace plan. Petrov takes their measure and proceeds to rake them — and America — over the coals for one concession after another as Frank spirals into a capitulation that would make Barack Obama blush.
All of this plays out against Underwood’s deciding on whether to seek actual election to the presidency in 2016 and amid the early Democratic primaries, with a sub-plot of Underwood’s former chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) trying to come back from serious injuries sustained attempting to protect Underwood from secrets that could destroy his political career if not his freedom. Stamper, a recovering alcoholic distinctly lacking in charisma — the creep factor is off the charts during the segments of the show focusing on his travails — desperately wants to return to Underwood’s staff but is kept on the sidelines by the president throughout the season.
In the end, though, the darkest — and possibly most fitting — aspect of House of Cards’ third season is the ever disintegrating marriage of Frank and Claire. The pair increasingly find themselves unable to handle the success of seeing their political dreams realized, and ultimately — in nearly Shakespearian fashion — their personal misery comes to reflect the quality of their behavior toward each other and those around them.
The show continues to be well worth watching. But while the first two seasons of House of Cards were entertaining as the rise of the Underwoods unfolded, in Season Three their act becomes more than a little tiresome. By the end, rather than taking guilty pleasure in rooting for Frank one can’t help but hope that he and his wife will meet an end not unlike that which befell drama’s most famous political usurpers. Underwood is Macbeth with a Carolina accent; we are left with an increasing desire for a Macduff.