House of Cards: Season 3 Review (Spoiler Alert)

As many of you may know, I am editor of House of Cards and Philosophy, and I have been watching it intensely for the last three years. I must say I am rather ambivalent about the third season. At first, the season starts with tiny threads starting to unravel. I was convinced that this season might be when all the cards start falling down, what we might call the Empire Strikes Back in which there would be some major defeats to the egoist surging power of Frank’s ascendancy to the White House and the other main characters. Instead, the show’s third season reveals a series of stop-and-gos, of near defeats and evasions in the exchange of power that resembles a dogfight from Top Gun rather than a decisive narrative arch. The ending of the season is not even abrupt as the first two and even less surprising. In that way, I found it to be a let down. 

We start six months into Frank’s administration. Heather Dunbar seems poised as a virtuous person, a force of moral rectitude that could stand against Frank’s tyranny, and in overly-simplistic fashion could be the Light to Franks’s Vader-esqueness. She is used by the show’s writers to highlight the obvious nature of Frank’s tyranny. That’s something we already know. Yet, she falls from the moral high ground. Philosophically, her failure implies that one cannot be Kantian in politics (as I suspect all good lawyers are good Kantians in real life). Secondly, her failure amounts to one strategy that makes her become almost what she hates, and you get the sense that the only way to make sense of Underwood’s nomination for the Democratic ticket is that the voters pick up on the reality of politics. House of Cards still depicts the ever-present need to transform oneself before the machinatoins of power in DC rather than trying to transform DC. There is a high level of cynicism that is maintained throughtout this season. In that way, nothing has changed, and Heather Dunbar falls from grace. It just takes more desperation as she comes closer to getting the nomination to resort to Frank-like tactics.  

Doug falls. He is recovering from injuries as Rachel left him at the end of season 2, and he almost becomes respectable. His growth teeters between reconciling with a long lost brother and then after recovering from a lapse of his alcoholism, he is sucked back into the maw of power. The first few episodes are shot in dark, as if the entire cast of main characters is lurking in shadow. This dark lighting strategy is used especially in scenes where we see Doug on the outside of Frank’s inner circle in the beginning of the season. He is weak in body, and cannot stand being apart from Frank. He even falls literally in the dark, a shower breaking his arm and before the meeting with Frank, he duct tapes the injury forging a cast with kitchen utensils. That’s just what being tough means. 

The not-so-real-shocker is the trajectory of Claire and Frank. Claire wants power and Frank resists but gives in to her demand to be the US Ambassador to the United Nations. When her appointment is denied by Congress, Frank reluctantly gives in and makes a recess appointment to the United Nations anyway. They come to loggerheads over some issues until Claire finally delivers an overturning of Russia’s veto of a peackeeping plan on the UNSC. In between these episodes, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks are sand-painting a mandala, a Buddhist picture of colorful sand meticulously crafted. The mandala symbolizes the impermanence of all things attesting to the Buddhist truth that there is no self-subsisting identity of any one entity in the universe. Instead, we stand in constant relation to a dynamic overwhelming flux and only the arrogant see themselves apart and permanent outside this flux. In the same episode, both Claire and Frank renew their vows of marriage, the political process is taking a toll on their marriage since for political reasons, Frank will remove Claire from the post of UN Ambassador in order to get the Russians from withdrawing their troops. 

When I first saw the mandala, that’s when I had anticipated the unraveling of the entire series. However, the unraveling was the slow and wobbly nature of their marriage. Frank and Claire seemed indomitable, but now Lady Macbeth (if that was even appropriate analogy to begin with) is in the 21st century. She wants to be an equal, and yet she is betrayed by Frank, always expected to be at his beck and call, and she wants equality of station. She resists him. In the very last episode, she does not go to Iowa Caucus. Frank is furious. He holds her chin like a mother scolding a child. She looks at him. She doesn’t flinch. She knows the Frank she married, and she looks at him ambivalently. You cannot tell if it is horror, shock or stoicism—maybe it’s a little bit of everything. She 

Added to this season is the character Tom Yates, a writer of somewhat ambiguous background. He is tapped as a talented writer since Frank loved reading his review of video games. He wrote a famous book some years ago, and now he is summoned to the Oval Office to write about Frank’s background and why the domestic jobs program called America Works should be praised. Frank wants the idea, the philosophy of the program, to be described, but the writer resists. He accompanies Frank almost everywhere and is the envy of the White House press corp. Pretty soon, Tom’s voice almost replaces the need for Frank’s asides. Tom becomes a conscience for the audience, and reveals a deep penetrating look not at America Works, or Frank’s life, but the equality behind Frank and Claire. In the end, he is fired for giving an honest telling of the distance and aspiration of both Claire and Frank. The only thing he misses is the deeply truly sinister energy, the real tyrant, still left to our knowledge, but the introduction of Tom does reduce the amount of significant asides Frank gives to us. Frank’s asides let us in to his sinister plans as he went from Majority Whip, to Vice President, and finally now to the Presidency. Now Frank has nowhere to go, and perhaps nothing or little left to say to us? What’s higher or more prestigious to the Presidency: nothing as far as our imaginations can stretch, unless of course, Frank makes a bid to transform the character and heart of American democracy into a dictatorship. That’s a show we could accept Frank in, and we’d secretly root for him to ruin but probably not the political imaginary we have at the heart of popular culture. The only way such a set-up would even be acceptable in a future season would be to see Frank nearly succeed, but only cut short at the last minute as an agent of virtue stopped him (even up to assassinating him) from transforming the heart of the republic into the projection of fear and domination Frank ultimately desires. As predictions go, I feel as though I do not know who could actually be the agent of that change. 

The only virtuous people throughout the entire series are the victims of Frank and Doug. Freddie is back. He got hired through the America Works program, and Frank gets him a job on the grounds when the program fails to be funded through Congress. He has his grandson named Deshawn with him, and Frank jokes with the young boy that he, too, could be President of the United States. When Freddie walks out with his grandson, DeShawn excitedly reports back that Frank said, “I could be President someday.” Freddie stops in the middle of the hallway. He looks down at him and said that Frank lied to him. Freddie is now well aware of what happens when you try to befriend Frank, and he wants his grandson to never be part of that world, the world that we also see Remy Denton suddenly quitting. Remy wants to be outside politics, and whether or not the lure is big enough to pull him back in is one we’ll have to see, but certainly Remy isn’t the one of virtue I wanted to talk about, though I mention him since his withdrawal from politics is very much like the virtue of Rachel. Instead, the second victim is Rachel Posner. She had to withdraw from DC to be redeemable. 

In the last episode, we see Rachel hiding in the Southwest. She is working jobs alongside illegal aliens in the hidden economy of the Southwest. She is hiding. She has saved up enough money to secure phony IDs, and she will be reborn as Cassie Lockhart. Then, we see Doug watching her, and he is quiet. He meticulously buys an unmarked van, shovel, and other implements of a murder we already know is coming. He looks like every horror-movie-psycho-truck-driver. His huge forehead and unnerving emotion of being dedicated to the task is a brilliant performance by Michael Kelly. Rachel’s murder is the price of admission to return as the Chief of Staff vacated by Remy. She is the one link, the final string that could end Frank and link him to Peter Russo’s murder. However, if we had any doubts that Doug could be redeemed it was in the scene with Rachel talking to him from the back of the van. She pleads for her life, and Doug initially let’s her go and the scene backs away to watch the van driving down the road. Then, we see Rachel walking, and the van barrelling towards her. The scene flashes to dirt covering her grave. He is now gone the way of Frank. 

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