"House of Cards" Season 3 dropped at midnight but no matter how many times you try to hide Netflix on a separate work screen, most of us hard working folks haven’t been able to watch yet.
But don’t worry, I have managed to watch the first four episodes of the 3rd season for you, to give you a preview of what to expect as you rush home from work, pour some wine, turn off twitter, and binge watch.
This preview gives you just enough to know what’s going on, but not enough to ruin anything. And there are no spoilers here. If you haven’t watched the previous two seasons of "House of Cards" you may miss some of the nuances below but you’ll still get the show.
Most importantly, remember it’s television, it’s NOT Washington D.C. More on that later.
1. Faster, Leaner Quicker
The biggest problem with "House of Cards" Season 1, is that it was incredibly slow, like first season of "Breaking Bad" slow. It was clearly meant to be binge watched because if it had been a weekly show or a mini-series I don’t know that anyone would’ve stuck around past the first half. Season 2 got a little better on pacing but the plot still meandered near the 3rd act.
Like any good trilogy "House of Cards" seems to have worked out the bugs in this third season. The stories are much more self-contained and the pacing is better. You can tell time has passed (even between episodes) by how the relationships have changed instead of wordy exposition (Underwood has a lot fewer 4th wall breaking monologues in the first episodes.) Overall it feels much more like a well–paced commercial free HBO show from the early '00s which is a good thing.
2. Everybody Hates Frank
Until this season Frank Underwood was like the Batman of Washington D.C. Somehow, someway this congressman from South Carolina always managed to outsmart, outplan and outwit superpower foes and allies alike despite being a mortal man. It was cute in the first season but by season 2 it just got ridiculous, and it was hard to believe that everyone kept falling for Frank’s schemes when he had such an obvious record of lying, cheating and betraying his “allies.”
Fortunately Season 3 begins with a bit of course correction. While Claire and Frank’s plans are just as diabolical as in the past, everyone else in the show seems to have grown up and wised up. From the once doe-eyed Congressperson Jackie Sharp to Remy, and even Huck/Sam impersonator-professional-fixer Doug Stamper, all seem much more hip to Frank’s shenanigans than in the past. So while there are fewer over the top mind games, the show is actually more complex as Frank has to deal with real power dynamics and not a punch of political straw men.
3. Bring On The Think Pieces
"House of Cards" is a political phenomenon that gives journalists, pundits and commentators the Rorschach test they always dream of. This season is no different. From the titular “America Works” legislation from the Underwood administration, to the battles about entitlements, drones, social security, let alone the incredibly ambitious (but not-quite-ready-on-day-one) First Lady Claire Underwood, this season can be seen from several vastly different political angles.
Is it a criticism of the Obama presidency, or a prescription for what ails it? Is it a general commentary about Washington or the story of one incredibly ambitious man and his lust for power? It was clear that the original British program from 1990 was a critique of the final years of Margaret Thatcher but Season 3 seems much less about skewering a particular administration than it is about telling Frank’s unique journey. But that won’t stop half a dozen bloggers from trying to make their cases about season 3 by the Sunday talk show circuit.
4. Breakout Performances
Just four episodes in, there are two definitive stand outs in season 3. The first is Lars Mikkelsen who plays fictional Russian President Victor Petrov. He is outstanding in his portrayal of what is likely the most realistic and fascinating depiction of Vladimir Putin, (and likely any other world leader who feels they are dealing with a lame duck) interacting with a U.S. president. To explain what he actually does would give too much away, but you will be glued to ever scene that he is in, and if he doesn’t get a major Hollywood career boost he will certainly have a future playing various Russian thugs and villains in upcoming Liam Nesson films.
The second breakout is Elizabeth Marvel as Heather Dunbar, the solicitor general who brought down president Walker and is now taking on a major role in the third season. Her depiction of power and savvy, and the lectures she gives to Frank Underwood in the Oval office will resonate throughout this entire series. She already made a name for herself as attorney Rita Calhoun on "Law and Order SVU" but this role should definitely introduce her to a new audience.
I must admit, that to fulfill my "House of Cards" longing during the summer of 2014, I cheated a bit and watched the final season of the original British version of the show, "House of Cards: the Final Cut." The seasons are playing out a bit differently in part because the UK seasons were only about 4 episodes a piece and the American version is 13 episodes long.
Further, the cast of characters in the American version are much more varied and the show is much less satirical and more of a straight drama than the original version. That said, all signs point to a less than stellar end for Frank and Clare Underwood.
Even without seeing the British version, there is such heavy foreshadowing in the first four episodes on Netflix (including an interaction with a statue that would probably never be allowed on network television) that you can’t help but think this is Frank’s final run.
Of course, it’s not the destination as much as the ride to get there, and it seems clear to me that "House of Cards" is going to take us on a fast paced but windy road to finally get to a wild conclusion.