Written by Dylan Brandsema
DISCLAIMER: DO NOT READ THESE REVIEWS IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE EPISODES! SPOILERS AHEAD!
House of Cards: EPISODE 301: “CHAPTER 27”
Season 2 of House of Cards ended on what was likely the highest point of the series thus far. Our esteemed protagonist, the ruthless Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), had worked his way up the political ladder all the way to role of president, through skillful lies and meticulous framing of the people around him. In the final moments of the finale, he waltzed into the Oval Office, placed his hands on the desk, looked at the camera to address the audience, and banged twice on the desk (his signature good luck charm), then it cut to black. This was a brilliant way to end the second season, and it kind of winked and nodded at the viewer, as if saying “Yeah, you what’s next.” It was a perfect, almost Hitchcockian-style cliffhanger, and, for a little over a year, House of Cards fans were left dangling in seemingly eternal apprehension as to where the series would go next.
As where the 2nd season picked right where the first left off, the highly anticipated third season does quite the opposite, jumping an apparent six months into the Underwood presidency. Oddly, Frank doesn’t actually appear until roughly 30 minutes in. The first half of the episode focuses instead on Doug Stamper’s (Michael Kelly) recovery from having beaten to near-death with a rock by Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) in last season’s finale. It’s an interesting creative choice to draw so much focus of the Season 3 premiere to Doug’s recovery as opposed to Frank and his presidential duties. The viewers who spent so much of the past year debating whether or not Doug was dead will immediately be rewarded the answer. For a while, this unconventional approach seems like a good way to start the season, but after about 25 minutes of ‘The Doug Show,’ you begin to wonder if the episode is really going anywhere. It begins to drag, and it makes for a rather humdrum second act.
Gladly, once we pick back up with the Underwoods in the White House, it’s exhilarating. We see Frank sitting around a roundtable with various members of his cabinet, discuss Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other such entitlements. Frank says that these government policies are “killing them” and he starts laying out his plan for reform that he calls “America Works” (abbreviated as ‘AmWorks’). When a member of the cabinet, opposes Frank, and says he’s out line, that member is fired. This scene, although brief, is a brilliant introduction to presidential Frank, and it gives us a little glimpse of just what kind of leader he’s going to be — Frank is dissatisfied with his administration, and if someone doesn’t like the way he does things, tough luck.
Later, we get back to looking at the status of the relationship between Claire (Robin Wright) and Frank. Unhappy with her position as First Lady, Claire wants to go bigger – she’s applying for the nomination for Ambassador to the UN, in an attempt to work her way up the ladder herself, and gain more power than already has. At first, this seems farfetched. Then we learn the facts about how the country is responding to Frank as the commander in chief: his approval ratings are at a low 8% (lower than Walker, the man he previously was desperate to push out of office) and it’s likely that if ran for reelection in 2016, we would not win. Claire is scared that if this happens she’ll have nothing and she’ll have no power to create change. Frank is delusion, at first, to this fact and we can feel the thread of their marriage beginning to be stretched thinner.
Finally, towards the end of Chapter 27, Stamper returns to White House to serve Frank as he so devotedly has in the past, and much to his surprise, Frank sends him home, telling him that his recovery is much more important. One of the much rewarding things about this series is that more often than often the audience knows more than the characters do, and this has become one of the key elements of the show of its 2 seasons. This plot point shifts this characteristic, and not in a bad way – is Frank telling Doug to focus on his recovery because he doesn’t want him around? Is he no longer in need of Doug’s assistance? Does he wish Doug had died? It’s clear that Doug, despite his crippled state, can still do his work, and debates are sure to spark as why Frank is pushing him away.
House of Cards, as much as it is a political drama, is also very much about the characters and their relationships with one another, and showrunner Beau Willimon has toyed with them very much in this episode. Just as the members of Congress have been puppets for Frank to play with, the characters of this show, as well as the viewers, have been Willimon’s. Much of the writing going into the 3rd season is ambiguous, and beautifully so.
The six month time jump stands out as a questionable choice – the end of Season 2 had a lot going on – the trade war with China, the drama between Tusk (Gerald McRaney), Walker (Michael Gill), and Feng, and of course, the ongoing secret investigation of the murder of Zoe Barnes that, through Lucas Goodwin, led to illegal hacking by Gavin Orsay. All of this had disappeared in the 3rd season. Perhaps Beau Willimon and the writers felt it was all irrelevant, or perhaps it was glanced over for ambiguity purposes – at this point, no one can really say for sure, but either way, it only adds to the sense of mystery created in this quiet season premiere.
Altogether, Season 3 of House of Cards begins on some rather somber notes. It established and hinted at the future, while also establishing new plot lines, and also managed to breath new life into some characters who, at the end of Season 2, seemed rather purposeless (Remy and Ayla, for example). It’s certainly not as shocking as the previous season opener, and no, it’s not perfect, but it is unquestionably engaging and a welcoming start to the next era in the House of Cards story.
Overall Rating: 8/10
EPISODE 302: “CHAPTER 28”
The second episode of House of Cards Season 3 comes off as a generally appropriate follow-up to the first, and unfortunately there’s not much to say about it other than that is an altogether solid installment.
Claire gets shot down in her UN bid as a statement she makes about the military is taken way out of context, Doug is forced to continue his life as a shut-in, and Frank realizes his situation as he announces, in a brilliantly written speech to the country, while continuing to develop AmWorks, that he does not intend to run in the 2016 Presidential Election. Because of this, the administration (referred to here as ‘the leadership’) is looking for a punching bag. They need someone who won’t knock them around as much as Frank does, and there’s hints that Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) and current House Majority Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) want in on the action.
In this episode, Frank has an epiphany. He realizes that, if announces his intentions not to run, he can do much more as a sitting president over the course of 18 months than he could if here were to be a candidate. As he so eloquently states in his speech in the third act, “Candidates are cautious,” and cautious is something he ever wants to have to be.
One observation that comes from this episode in the character development concerning Frank and Claire. In Season 2, they almost switched personalities from the first season, but in a short time, they both have developed into completely different people, in both the sense of being different from past versions of themselves, as well as being different from eachother. This comes through in a brilliant split-screen towards the middle of the episode sequence that provides an interesting juxtaposition of the two, showing them both as they handle their individual similar dilemmas in very different ways, almost providing an underlying commentary of sorts on how far our two main characters have come. (This was probably the highlight of Chapter 28).
There aren’t too many noteworthy examinations to be made, but episode 302 of House of Cards is definitely satisfactory, and in a way, it introduces us to a new tone for the series. As where the previous two seasons never shied away from jumping right into a storyline, this season is taking it slow. And it works. At the end of it all you get the feeling that a storm is brewing, as if all the heinous acts and crimes the Underwoods have committed are about to reign down on them like hellfire, but similar to the end of season 2, it leaves you hanging, grinding your teeth in suspense. That seems one thing this show has grown increasingly good at.
Overall rating: 7.5/10