Whenever a new season of “House of Cards” comes along, what begins is less of a television experience and more of a total binge. Every day I’m checking with friends to find out what episode they’re on, and to remind them not to spoil anything if they’re ahead. As I write this, I’ve made it through five episodes, and from what I gather so far this isn’t the “House of Cards” I remember from over the last two years.
In many ways, “House of Cards” is and will always be Netflix’s great experiment. Unlike traditional television it remains a buffet-style smorgasbord of episodes. Originally Netflix ordered just two seasons, but given the runaway success (and several Emmys) the show was quickly renewed. This third season, from which I won’t spoil too much, is one I’d characterize as far slower and calculating than its two previous seasons. There’s a perfectly justifiable reason for this too: It’s a lot more important to pace yourself when you’re leader of the free world.
But here is where the problem lies with “House of Cards.” As we saw Underwood climb his way through hell and high water, deep down I wanted some sort of foil character to emerge. As he made enemies, burnt bridges and turned America’s government inside out, all along it felt like we deserved someone to emerge as a grand foe to his ethos. But in the land of “House of Cards,” frankly there’s no one to root for except Frank Underwood. Sure, along the way we’ve had (and still have) characters in Underwood’s way, but such characters either remain minor voices or end up getting literally written off the show. If anything, “House of Cards” is instead a revelation in how potent, sexy and successful Underwood’s corruptibility is in Washington.
What this leaves us with is one of two plateaus in season three. At last, after two seasons, Underwood has gotten his presidency, and can at best move laterally. To address this first plateau, the writers try to twist it by pulling out the rug from under him, forcing him to fight as he tries to consolidate his political gains. I can understand why, too: Kevin Spacey’s character really only works as a fighter in the front lines. Still, without a grand foe or some counterpart trying to single-handedly destroy Underwood, nothing feels like a true threat to him or his authority as President of the United States. There is one person in this season as a possible contender, but I’m not sure how long the writers will let her last.
This season the writers also chose to trade in fist-to-cuff fights with union bosses for state dinners with international boogeymen. There’s nothing wrong with this, but what “House of Cards” is renowned for is that grittiness it’s fearless to share. This is where the second plateau emerges in “House of Cards.” I don’t think, after season two, things are going to feel any more intense or gritty. I think the writers were well aware of this. Season three, by nature, is that necessary transition to a more seasoned, calculating character and space. To do this, “House of Cards” ought to take some lessons from Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” to figure out these growing pains. The show should spend more time showing how characters figure out ideas and balance this with the edginess we already know and love. Spacey’s character is ruler of the free world–yet his White House feels like it’s being run by a skeleton crew, rather than the world’s finest politicians and diplomats. At least by episode five we see the puzzle pieces come together, but far too late for a show with this many accolades.
In the end I enjoy watching “House of Cards” for many reasons. Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Michael Kelly continue to outperform themselves. It’s fun, it’s entertaining and most of all it’s still an experiment in progress. Does “House of Cards” leave us with an experience worth remembering? Yes. Absolutely yes. What it needs is to move with more grace and figure itself out far sooner than episode five, where everything begins to click.