I watch House of Cards for one reason above all else: filthy, ruthless, hilariously unrealistic politics (and I realize that’s not the case for much of the show’s audience). A lot of people grew tired of Frank and Claire Underwood’s seemingly omnipotent ability to scheme themselves to the top, but that’s what made the show completely unique. It took something completely fantastic- the oversexed, blood drenched politicking of Game of Thrones– and set it in real-life Washington DC.
But when I burned through House of Cards’ third season this weekend, my entire reason for watching the show had disappeared. Frank was an impotent Commander-in-Chief and Claire had a season-long crisis of conscience. There may not have been a single political battle they outright won (does the Iowa caucus count? I’m hesitant to include it, as Frank won not via manipulation, but by actually being a more appealing candidate and getting more votes. Perish the thought).
So soft and ineffectual, it barely felt like House of Cards at all. And there’s a reason for that- four load-bearing pillars of the show that were yanked away when Frank and Claire turned their aggression on each other instead of the political system at large. So as a post-season retrospective, let’s dive into exactly what those pillars are, what they meant to House of Cards, and where the show’s starting to sag without them. Then, just for fun, I’ll throw in my own little version of what House of Cards’ third season might be like, were they still in place.
House of Cards Grew a Conscience
“There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”- Frank Underwood
“I’ve done what I have to do. Now you do what you have to do. Seduce him, give him your heart. Cut it out and put it in his fucking hands!” – Claire Underwood
That was House of Cards’ first two seasons, starring a tyrant and his Lady Macbeth. Not so much in season three. Frank gives the go-ahead on a drone strike, knowing civilians will almost certainly be killed in the blast. Episodes later, after being shouted down by sole survivor Mr. Mahmoud, Frank realizes his guilt over the killings may be affecting his decision-making. Meanwhile, Claire can’t stomach that activist Michael Corrigan died for his convictions and no one will ever know, so she speaks out against Russian President Victor Petrov in the middle of a press conference. Afterward, Frank’s pet writer Tom assures her she did the right thing.
Doing the right thing is not what House of Cards needs. When Frank and Claire start doing the right thing (or worrying that they’re doing the right thing, even), all ruthlessness goes out the window. Without that ruthlessness, the Underwoods lose what makes them unique. Also, interesting. Also, competent- if Frank and Claire were on their game, would they have been blindsided when Jackie Sharp defects to Dunbar’s side? When the Russian ambassador was feeding them false info? Probably not.
Season three’s toothlessness extends beyond its lead characters. Early on, the show hits us with a nasty gut punch- jobless DC citizens are lining up for America Works employment, and Freddie’s among them. Remember Freddie? We hadn’t thought about him all season. Clearly, neither has Frank. It’s a moment of cold truth, that’s completely undercut when Frank finds out what happened to Freddie and grants his old friend a dream job working outdoors on the White House lawn. Later, they’re shooting the shit- a friendship perfectly repaired. Giving Freddie a sugar-sweet ending is totally out of character for House of Cards, and it undoes everything that was so cutting in that two-second glimpse of him in the job line.
Now, what would season three look like without any of this?
Frank and Claire stop giving a rat’s ass about other people’s feelings. Corrigan hangs himself? Claire spins it for political gain. Frank meets Mr. Mahmoud? Initially he’s remorseful, but when Mahmoud doesn’t back down, Frank bares his teeth and is as brutal as when he half-jokingly insinuated that a union leader should blow him- so brazen, he knows no one will ever believe it. Frank and Claire don’t win every battle, but they don’t lose every time, either. Let’s say… America Works ends up a success. Also, we never see Freddie after that glimpse in the job line.
House of Cards Split Up Frank and Claire
Consider any other show about a thoroughly unpleasant antihero who we can’t help but root for. The Shield. Breaking Bad. Mad Men. The Sopranos. All those antiheroes have the exact same Put-Upon Wife character in the wings. Corrine Mackey, Skyler White, Betty Draper and Carmela Soprano are all naive and/or semi-complicit in their husband’s terribleness, until they can’t take it anymore and leave him in dramatic fashion in the final moments of a season. Season one for Corrine, season two for Skyler, season three for Betty and season four for Carm.
That’s the norm. Claire is not the norm. She’s just as much an antihero as her husband; equally invested in being a power-mad dictator. Instead of the usual contradiction (the wife objects to her husband’s misdeeds and it comes off as irritating- she’s obviously in the right, but we’d rather he succeed), Claire and Frank are each other’s rock during especially rough patches of deceit and slaughter.
That’s something House of Cards has that no one else does, and it’s not worth tanking a wholly unique dynamic for whatever divorce storylines might come next season. So instead:
Frank and Claire, now confident/competent and not losing every single battle, have a stronger relationship. Claire isn’t a completely incompetent UN ambassador and doesn’t get duped by Russia/call out Petrov at the press conference. Frank isn’t going to go back on two seasons’ worth of devotion to Claire and choke her like a cartoon villain. Thus, there’s less tension between her and Frank, and one of TV’s most unique relationships is saved.
House of Cards Forgot to Connect its Story Arcs
For the last two years, House of Cards has built each season up to a gotcha moment, where you realize all of Frank’s various plans were really centered around a single goal.
In season one, Frank’s schmoozing with President Walker and setting Peter Russo up for the governor’s office. Then gotcha, killing Russo opens up a vice presidential hole Frank can conveniently fill.
In season two, Frank’s schmoozing President Walker even harder, negotiating with China and battling Raymond Tusk. Then gotcha, Frank convinces Walker to turn on Tusk, Tusk openly admits Walker was involved with a little insider Chinese dealing and Walker’s forced to resign. Now there’s an Underwood in the White House.
Yes, the gotchas are cheesy and telegraphed plainly enough to spot half a season in advance. But they add narrative drive and there’s neither gotcha nor drive in the third season. Frank pushes America Works, and the hurricane kills it. Then he’s done. Given up. Same deal with Petrov, the Russian President wants Claire to resign, so she does. Also the primary, which is there presumably because Frank needs some kind of position to fight for. None of those presidential plans have any correlation with each other, so when they end, there’s no sense of closure or necessity. Did AmWorks have any lasting impression on the series, at all? At least Petrov caused some tension between Frank and Claire. That’s something.
But in Hypothetical Season Three Land:
Just like seasons past, the main arcs tie into each other at the end. AmWorks is one third military (creating jobs in government, the private sector and the armed forces) so if Frank met his hilariously impossible goal of employing all ten million unemployed Americans, that’d be about three or four million new recruits in the military. And the military currently has about 1.3m active personnel, meaning he’s just tripled the armed forces’ manpower. Which he could use as a tool to bully Petrov into a better deal (remember, Frank’s competent now, he’s not just going to roll over and accept his wife’s firing). And winning big against Petrov could make Frank look real good at the Iowa caucuses. Boom. Connected.
House of Cards Didn’t Give Frank a Promotion
That gotcha moment is twofold. It ties multiple subplots together, but it also centers around Frank making an outrageous power grab that couldn’t possibly happen in real life. In the first season it was the vice presidency; in the second it was the Oval Office. There’s nowhere to go after that, which is obviously the dilemma House of Cards faced since getting the go-ahead on a third season. Beau Willimon and Netflix’s response was to throw Frank a primary race and switch his main drive from seizing absolute power to passing meaningful legislation.
I don’t buy it at all. A man willing to murder multiple people to become president, who speaks of his own hoarded power like he’s Smaug sitting on a mountain of gold, wanted to be President… just to enact a jobs bill and help out the country? The Underwoods must have had some plan for when they’re finally in the White House, but in the third season they seem completely unprepared.
Here’s why (probably): The only place to go after President is back down, unless you want to start breaking away from reality and letting Frank become something more than President. That runs a colossal risk: that Frank begins God-King of all Earth and House of Cards becomes hilariously cartoon stupid. But from the perspective of a viewer, a viewer who didn’t care at all for thirteen episodes of the Underwoods having marital spats and failing to govern, I’d rather see a show that took a huge risk and ended up laughable than a show that took zero risks and ended up a snooze.
With that in mind, here’s how Hypothetical House of Cards might dip a toe into the waters of higher-than-the-Presidency.
Let’s say Frank and Claire are a united front, AmWorks is thriving, but Dunbar’s still a major threat and because neither Frank nor Petrov will back down, peace talks are at an absolute standstill.
So Frank does what Frank does best- something absolutely ghastly that gets him what he wants. Instead of Petrov probably-murdering his own soldiers for political points, Frank’s the one to commit that horrible deed (really, that kind of calculated sociopathy is classic Frank). Frank sets something horrific in motion- an attack on US soil or an assassination attempt- and makes it look like Russia gave the order. Suddenly, the American people are incensed against Petrov and Frank uses the swell in public opinion to his advantage.
He declares war on Russia and kicks off World War Three.
Frank knows the numbers- like Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed after 9/11 and FDR’s did the same after Pearl Harbor, Frank stays strong during his “crisis” and people love him. That’s an easy win against Dunbar. And look! He’s spent the past several months using AmWorks to triple the size of the military (and he’s Frank Underwood, so wartime strategy should be his forte). Because, as is the Underwood way, everything was planned out fifty turns in advance.
Something fantastic but not too fantastic- kicking off WWIII, say- would show that House of Cards isn’t tethered so strictly to an exact replica of the world we live in. After all, it’s far closer in style to Game of Thrones than The West Wing. Might as well embrace that, right?
Obviously, this is just one counter-idea to “Frank and Claire do nothing, then get divorced,” but anything that actually resembled the House of Cards of seasons past would have been better than what we got. What we got barely felt like House of Cards at all. I watch Mad Men to see characters wallow in existential malaise and eventually divorce their spouses. I watch House of Cards to see the President of the United States spit in people’s faces and steal every ounce of power that isn’t bolted down. Maybe next season we can see a little more of that from the First Family.
Related Topics: Netflix