By Devon Shuman, For The Miami Student
The thing about a house of cards is that the taller it gets, the more difficult it is to build, to find a new spot to place your next card. This seems to be what is happening to Beau Willimon and the rest of the minds behind Netflix's series, "House of Cards." After two seasons of having the ruthless Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) fight his way to the top of the American world of politics, they seem to have run out of ideas of what to do with him next.
The third season of the show opens with a scene that feels cozy and familiar to fans of the show. Underwood, now president of the United States, visits his hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina to visit the grave of his father, only to urinate on that grave when nobody is looking. This is exactly the kind of unexpected, ruthless power move viewers have come to expect from Frank.
It's just the kind of move that makes him such a great character.
From that opening scene on, however, there is not much to quench the viewer's thirst for Underwood's ruthless pragmatism. For two years, we enjoyed watching him climb his way to the top, scheming and brutally taking down everyone in his path as he found his way from majority whip to vice president to the oval office. Now, he just seems lost. He's like a dog that miraculously catches its tail after chasing it for so long. Now that he has what he was fighting for, he doesn't seem to know what to do with it.
It's not just Frank's storyline that has lost its luster now that he has no more power to gain. It's his character. Even in the first episode, it is immediately apparent that there is something different about Frank this season. However, it has nothing to do with the presidency, nothing to do with the White House or even with politics at all. It's actually very simple.
Frank's gone soft.
In the first two seasons, whenever it looked like Frank had lost, he would always have some new trick up his sleeve that would put him back on top. He wasn't afraid to use any resource at his disposal, no matter how terrible or diabolical, to get what he wanted.
This season, that side of Frank has disappeared. Now there is no reason to have any confidence in his ability to fight back. If he looks sad or beaten, it's not because he's using emotion to trick or coerce his enemies as we might have previously believed.
It's because he's a loser.
One could make the argument that this change in character is Willimon's way of trying to bring the series in a new direction. Instead of Frank always knowing what to do and how to win, it could be interesting to see what happens when he is lost and confused now that he has nowhere left to climb.
But let's be honest. Nobody watches this show to see Francis Underwood waver as he makes tough decisions. We watch it to see him win, no matter the cost. Without the ruthlessness of Frank Underwood, what is "House of Cards" other than a bland and somewhat exaggerated look at the world of American politics?
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We want the coldblooded Frank who snapped the neck of a dog dying in the street, who threw Zoe Barnes in front of a train when she threatened to reveal too much, who whistled, "Hail to the Chief" as he walked away from his arch nemesis, Raymond Tusk.
Instead we get the Frank who cries on the floor of his office when the pressure is too much, who sheepishly walks away after accidentally breaking a statue of Jesus in a church, who asks us permission to "break a man" to get what he wants. Really, Frank?
Despite all this, the season does have its bright spots. Lars Mikkelsen is frightening and intriguing as the Putin-esque Russian President, Viktor Petrov. There are also some wonderful returning performances from other secondary characters such as Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) and Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil). And as usual, Robin Wright is brilliant as the quietly cold and powerful first lady, Claire Underwood.
Perhaps the best storyline throughout the season is that of Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood's former Chief of Staff. After becoming overly creepy with his obsession with Rachel Posner in the second season, Doug becomes likeable again. Through his physical recovery and his journey back into the political world, we see a new, intriguing side to Doug's character.
The final three or four episodes of the season get back to the show's roots. Despite Underwood's softness in the beginning, he finally becomes his ruthless self again and helps the season build to a fiery and unexpected conclusion. However, this is a textbook case of "too little too late." A few great episodes don't make up for the dullness and monotony of the entire season.
Willimon's house of cards is beginning to shake. He has his work cut out for him in the fourth season if he wants to keep it from collapsing for good.