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‘House of Cards’ gets shaky in Season 3

Netflix show loses direction, surprise despite strong acting

Season 3 of “House of Cards” is weak not only by the stellar bar it set in its previous two outings, but also when judged against its peers in the increasingly crowded market of quality television dramas.

That this season is a disappointment should probably come as no surprise. We saw Frank Underwood ascend to the office of the presidency at the end of Season 2, giving him the cachet to bully politically rather than actually getting his hands dirty – which is where the series really shines. As a result, the foils in this season – Heather Dunbar, Petrov, the press – are all weakened at some point. This is particularly true of Petrov, who’s played by the incredibly capable Lars Mikkelson. The Russian leader is introduced as a dashing, fearless thorn in Frank’s side and made into a kitten kowtowing to public opinion in the very next episode.

The subplot with author Tom Yates, who’s penning a book pushing Frank’s jobs program, is the one potential side story that might have borne fruit. The scenes between Kevin Spacey and Paul Sparks are electric, presenting perhaps the most interesting side of Frank’s character since the brilliant episode with Frank and his school buddies in Season 1. But the writers can’t let him get too close to the Underwoods, lest he end the same way as Rachel Posner.

Michael Kelly continues to be one of the best things about the show, bringing a slow-burning performance to Doug Stamper that makes him one of the most intriguing characters on a program full of enigmas. The problem in Season 3 is that he’s driven largely by simple revenge. All of his actions are in furtherance of the goal of finding Rachel. When he does, the writers give him a lot of time to stare blankly into and out of the frame as he grapples with his character growth from the season and his devotion to Frank. The resolution of that conflict is not the shocking revelation the writers want it to be, instead relegating Doug’s changes throughout the season as a footnote to the lure of Frank Underwood.

The Underwood mythos shines through at times in Spacey’s performance in Season 3, but the problem is that the writers have put him in a place where it’s just not interesting to see the lengths of his fury anymore. When he focuses it on Claire (performed once again brilliantly by Robin Wright), it’s a facet of the anger we’ve yet to see. But anyone who’s watched Claire put up with what she has and understands her strong desire for independence could see the cliffhanger in the final moments of the season coming a mile away.

The breathless pace with which Frank Underwood succeeded to the White House in the American version of “House of Cards” is what made the show a thrill to watch. Now that he’s there, it just doesn’t have the same luster, despite the sheen of some continued excellence in performances and visually interesting choices clearly influenced by series producer and cinematic firebrand David Fincher.

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