OK, for starters, I assumed Doug Stamper, left bludgeoned in the woods in rural Maryland at the end of Season 2 of House of Cards, was dead and gone. I’m not spoiling anything saying that out loud since that issue is cleared up early on in the first episode of Season 3.
If you read further, the rest of the season will be spoiled, so if you haven’t gotten through all 13 yet, run, screaming, away.
Here we go.
- I did not see the cliffhanger at the end of Season 3 coming, did you? I presumed that we’d get something like Francis suffering a heart attack or stroke to push him out of the nomination race, opening the door for Claire, or something more calculating, like Frank pulling a George Wallace and stepping aside willingly. The chatter throughout the last couple of episodes about how popular Claire was on the stump had me thinking that we were being prepped for a candidate switcheroo of some sort. Turns out it was the pretext for Claire to set herself up as a rival power sphere.
- All the murder, mayhem, affairs, etc., in Seasons 1 and 2, and in Season 3, we get none of that, as the focus shifted to psychology. Claire talks her way into being named UN ambassador, then Russian President Victor Petrov plays Claire off on Frank in a sensitive negotiation. Then all the back-and-forth over whether Frank was going to run, his alliance with Jackie Sharp that eventually goes sour, the dirty politics involving Heather Dunbar and her surface-level ethics-focused campaign.
- Maybe the shortage of backroom murderin’ had to do with Doug Stamper being on the mend for much of the season. Doug’s recovery takes up a lot of screen time, first the physical, then the psychological, until he forces his way back into Frank’s inner circle in the final two episodes, at which point he takes it upon himself to deal with the final piece in the puzzle linking the death of Peter Russo to the political rise of the Underwoods into the White House, Rachel.
- The reporters from Seasons 1 and 2 tracking down the Russo story and ostensibly avenging the death of Zoe Barnes are not mentioned or even obliquely referenced once in Season 3. We do get a new reporter-type story when Frank hires best-selling novelist Thomas Yates to write a campaign propaganda book, and the first drafts open a window into the relationship of the power couple that plants the seeds for Claire’s surprise announcement in the final scene of the season finale. How that gets resolved will be a pressing question for Season 4, and you have to wonder if the Zoe Barnes/Peter Russo story doesn’t also still have legs. (Of course it does.)
- The storyline involved Victor Petrov is well-developed. An obvious allusion to Vladimir Putin, the writers take creative license to develop a character portrait that efforts to explain what goes on in the mind of a sort of benevolent dictator. The climax is a clever scene in the desert in the Middle East when Petrov and Underwood come to the realization that they’re each as ruthless and focused as the other. Good stuff, and hope they keep the Petrov dynamic going in Season 4.
- The overall thrust of the series seemed to change, to me, from what was becoming a cheap soap opera as Season 2 played out, with the need for a body count at the end of each episode, to a more “West Wing” feel in Season 3. We get international politics with Russia-U.S. relations in the context of the Middle East and NATO, the relative merits of entitlements against putting federal dollars to a jobs program that feels like a relitigation of the New Deal, the inside baseball of the dance that is a presidential nomination process. Season 3 felt more realistic to me, and I hope the new point of emphasis continues into Season 4.
Where does it go from here?
That’s the fun question that we can debate endlessly for the next 12 months. My best guess is that we will pick things back up at the 2016 nominating convention, with Frank and Claire on the stage accepting the Democratic nomination, with Jackie Sharp in the background as his VP nominee, before flashing back to how we got there.
The smiling faces on the stage recede into the assorted wheelings and dealings that get us from a split in the power couple, that we can presume never becomes public knowledge, and what assuredly was an ugly spat between the president and Sharp behind the scenes, to that made-for-TV moment.
Maybe by the fifth episode, we get to the fun of the general, and we can only hope that the cast of characters includes a Sarah Palin-esque force on the GOP side to add another layer to our story.
The hard part will be in the waiting. Another year?
– Column by Chris Graham