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‘House of Cards’ season three fails to live up to hype

‘House of Cards’ season three fails to live up to hype

By Jacob Edelman and Zach Phil Schwartz

Section: Arts, Featured

March 6, 2015

Spoiler disclaimer: If you haven’t watched the third season of Netflix’s series “House of Cards” and are planning to, you probably shouldn’t read further.

This review comes from the perspective of two fans of the show who binge-watched all 13 episodes of the season in a row the same day of release. Food and drink were prepared beforehand so there would be no interruption, and once the binge started, there was no stopping until completion.

Although many fans eagerly awaited Netflix’s release of the critically acclaimed political drama starring Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards,” the new season failed to deliver on many of its expectations. As lofty as the expectations were, the release was nonetheless synonymous with mediocre. If nothing else, compared to the significantly better previous two seasons, the new release was stale, and the show simply did not fire on all cylinders.

The season opener was a CGI-laden, outdoor setting that seemed out-of-step with the start of a new season. Thoroughly unnecessary to start with, it left a bland taste on the palette that remained for much of the rest of the first several unmemorable episodes. Within the first five minutes of the opening, however, the “wow” moment of the entire season had taken place, leaving nowhere to go but down.

The show was conceived of for the purposes of portraying a political power couple willing to stop at nothing on their climb to the top. Season one consists of Frank Underwood’s development into a cold, calculating psychopath. He takes decisive action and makes it to within one step from the top as he so desires. Season two’s outcome was predictable from the outset, that Frank would only have to take one final step up the ladder to achieve his ends, which turned out to be the hardest step to position for in his political career. Season three was no game of conniving offense, but a display of playing defense on all sides, both from that of his enemies and his rapidly defecting friends, finally culminating in a showdown under his own roof. The plotting had ended, and the show lost some of its icy, ruthless charm.

During the first two seasons, Frank frequently turns to the audience and let them know exactly his thought processes, but this became far too infrequent in the new season. The show gives the audience a similar, yet more defensive Underwood who made the same questionable choices, although this time failing to explain his mindset to the viewers. This threw off the viewers on more than one occasion and only helped add to the confusion factor involved in the release.

In the beginning of the season, it is revealed that Doug Stamper is still alive, with the natural assumption being that he would rejoin Frank as a trusted advisor, as the show is about Frank. In actuality, however, many of the episodes revolved around Doug’s recovery from the injuries he sustained in the second season’s finale and his twisted quest for revenge against Rachel, which had become an obsession for him. In the Rachel-Doug storyline that had been uninteresting since the first season, this was a slap in the face to viewers who expected a political drama, and instead got an obsessed ex-aide—mind you, a minor character—bent on twisted revenge. The only positive about this totally unrelated and wasteful storyline is that it is predictably resolved in the end, giving the viewers much-needed relief.

The Stamper story arc is not the only conflicting one, however. The U.S.-Russia story arc that occurs mid-season is arguably the best offered to the audience, touching on real-world issues and showing remnants of writing talent that are visible in only the first two seasons. What did the show do to this arc, however? The show turns in the opposite direction, totally dropping it entirely, instead focusing on the primaries for the 2016 election. Not only would this have been a terrible move in the real world politically, this move was terrible for the show. It totally abandoned an interesting story arc and replaced it with filler-quality material that lasts until the end of the season.

Worse yet, the show reused elements that would be best used once not just in the same season but in the span of several episodes. Toward the end of the season, Frank tries unsuccessfully to keep Jackie Sharp, an ally, in line by making it perfectly clear who the boss is, but this tactic backfires, and Sharp defects. Used once, this was a surprising and interesting move by the writing staff, but they utilized the betrayal card again on Claire, which also backfires, driving her away. With the Sharp defection fresh on the minds of viewers, this tactic had gone stale. And this was not just an isolated incident. At many times throughout the season, elements like these were reused arbitrarily, only strengthening the stale factor and the boredom that followed.

It feels to us as though the third season of “House of Cards” lost what made it so captivating in the first two. Previously, individual episodes operated not only as part of a larger story arc, but also contained their own conflicts that were entirely and deliciously resolved by their ends. This time around, there is a distinct lack of tasty mini-conflict in each episode, and the episodes are structured so that each contributes to the overall storyline, even at the expense of the show’s expediency. This would have been great if it had been done correctly and with more interesting techniques, but many television shows enter risky waters when they switch from mini-conflicts and overall arc contribution to total storyline progression, and most of those do not make it out alive. The third season felt like a slow train ride through endless miles of repetitious, CGI skyline. The overall progression in this season is best categorized as uninteresting, and the ending is nothing more than a cop-out.

Our final verdict for the third season of “House of Cards” is a profound “We probably would have been better off not watching this.” We say this with much regret—regret not for the season being as mediocre as it was but with regret that we devoted almost 12 straight hours of our lives to binge-watch it. Unless you are mentally prepared to wade through the mediocrity that is the third season, you would probably be better off pretending the third season does not even exist. Wait until the reviews are out on the next season to decide whether or not to proceed with this once-masterpiece of a show.

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