“You don’t add up and I’m intrigued,” novelist Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) tells President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey).
We might have shared Yates’ sentiments when we were first introduced to one of Netflix’s top moneymakers, “House of Cards,” two seasons ago, but the narrative’s changed. We’ve grown out of the honeymoon phase and fallen out of love — realizing a man we were infatuated with is a cruel and violent monster ruling with a Machiavellian fist. Once upon a time, he charmed us with his witty Shakespearean asides. Now, he leaves a coldness in our hearts and an uneasiness in our bellies.
It’s not pleasant. Which is why the third season of “House of Cards” is difficult to swallow.
Before season three, “House of Cards” followed the first of two major story arches: the one where a man has nothing and remakes himself from rags to riches — the Horatio Alger myth that America’s so fond of. For two seasons (and 26 episodes), we watched “House of Cards'” Frank Underwood’s ascent — from majority whip to vice president and now POTUS.
Now, the narrative’s evolved. Frank may have initially sought respect and revenge. But now he has what he wants and he has everything to lose.
When “House of Card’s” third season begins, President Frank Underwood’s visiting his father’s grave.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be here if I had a choice,” Underwood tells us, “but I have to do these sort of things now. It makes me seem more human and you have to be a little human when you’re president.”
While we may have been charmed and intrigued with Underwood’s confidence in us (after all, every time Spacey breaks the forth wall, he’s confiding in us — even as he fooling others), President Underwood scares us. We’re not alone. No one likes President Underwood.
His polls are lower than former President Garrett Walker’s (Michael Gill). The Democratic Leadership don’t want him to run for re-election in 2016. His wife, Claire (Robin Wright), has her own political agenda and doesn’t think he’d win a re-election bid. In one scene, she even recoils from his touch.
Meanwhile, his Chief of Staff Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) still has feelings for his former fling, the ambitious democratic whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker). And Underwood’s esteemed henchman, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), is out of his inner circle and consulting with troublesome opponents: hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) and democratic presidential candidate Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel). There are a lot of Brutuses and Cassiuses in Frank Underwood’s court.
But friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears. While President Frank Underwood is ambitious, he is an honorable man. He wants to revolutionize entitlements and create more jobs — implementing a new piece of legislation, America Works. Everyone one who wants a job will have one. You just won’t have social security, medicare, medicaid, universal health care or anything else.
Sure, that’s a frightening prospect, but President Frank Underwood promised you a job. And President Frank Underwood is a smart, calculated and honorable man. He doesn’t want to be a seat filler. He wants to revolutionize America — and he doesn’t care who or what is in his way (even if its his own wife or inner consciousness). He will leave a legacy, he says.
Underwood’s greatest accomplishment, though, is twisting words and re-packaging them. Like Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, Underwood’s a skilled orator — who’s greatest gift might include fooling himself.
“Is this how you live with yourself?” Attorney General Dunbar questioned him. “By rationalizing the obscene into the palatable?”
Underwood’s pills are tough to swallow though — despite how much sugar he coats them with. Underwood’s a bully and a tyrant — who shields his not-so-hidden agendas under a thin veil of threats and pleasantries. Like the current slew of politicians, he’s fluent in double-speak and dancing around a presidential bid.
Meanwhile, he makes satirical cracks at the other dysfunctional branches of government — especially this year’s Republican-controlled Congress. (“I’m not declaring war on Congress,” he says. “I’m declaring war on atrophy. But these days, who can tell the difference.”)
While “House of Cards” was a smart commentary on the rotten underbelly of Washington, this season doesn’t add up. The plot’s unbelievable far-fetched as if the show’s creator, Beau Willimon, is courting scandal — aiming for shock value rather than substance. While president, Underwood pees on graves of dead men and spits at the image of Jesus on the cross. We always knew that Underwood is ruthless, but this Frank Underwood seems more controversial, sacrilegious and taboo.
After another 13-episode season, Underwood’s exhausted our sympathy and curiosity. And while Spacey’s deep voice still carries gravitas, his words hold no meaning; his likability suffers; and we’re no longer intrigued by his story.
Instead, we long for the good old days — when American TV presidents were idealistic and inspirational as “The West Wing’s” Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen). At least back then, America seemed to work.
Season 3 of “House of Cards” is now streaming on Netflix. “House of Cards” was written by Beau Willimon, Andrew Davies and others, based on the 1990 BBC mini-series and the novels by Michael Dobbs.