House of Cards

Plot spoiler – I’m at Episode Ten of Season Three of House of Cards, so stop reading now if you don’t want to learn about the disappointments ahead. The first thing that went wrong was that Frank Underwood all but disappeared in the first two episodes. Rather than command the screen for 85 percent of the time (or whatever the exact number was) he went absent for long stretches. Doug Stamper, his henchman in the two earlier seasons, dominates airtime as he fights his way back to health after we thought he’d been murdered. I don’t care that much about his recovery and rehab. Other characters, such as Remy, have been eviscerated. He was deft and all things evil as a corporate lobbyist buying off Members of Congress. As chief of staff to the President, he’s become banal. And what’s this hangup he has for Jackie Sharp, who goes from tart to loving stepmother without a blink. None of this counts as character development.

But the biggest disappointment is the relationship between Frank and Claire. The former partners-in-crime have turned into just another cold, failed marriage. One episode ends with the two of them at loggerheads and I thought, at last, this is going to become like Mr. and Mrs. Smith when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – both assassins – tried to kill each other. But at the beginning of the next episode, we see Claire and Frank renewing their vows. It’s a flash forward, then we wander through the month leading up to the ceremony knowing that the troubles are soon over. Ridiculous!

And that’s the main problem with this season – too little dramatic tension. During the first two seasons, I’d watch an episode and, when it ended, let out a sigh and realize that I’d been holding my breath throughout. Not this year. Another failing is that replacement characters are not given much of a chance to shine. The new White House correspondent is no Zoe. Members of Congress don’t have any good lines. Most of the members of cabinet are not even introduced. Freddy, the loveable barbecue guy, becomes an invisible White House gardener.

Any story has only four elements: plot, character, style and structure. In the first two seasons, Frank won every battle. Now he loses tussles, some of them to Russian President Viktor Petrov, the only new character with any heft. Petrov is perfectly cast and has the same dead KGB eyes as his real-life role model, Vladimir Putin. When you change the plot that much, you change the main character. Even when Frank double-crosses his own wife, he doesn’t have that same conniving nature as in the past. As for style and structure, there are too many individual writers creating episodes so it doesn’t hang together from one to the next. 

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. When you try to build a house of cards, eventually they all fall down. 

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