This post doesn’t contain any spoilers from Season 3, and only brief mentions of any specific plot points from Seasons 2 and 3.
I loved this season. The critical reviews are largely positive, but seem to border on the line between good and great. I think Season 3 was great.
I didn’t like Season 2. Francis Underwood’s political chicanery, which we loved in Season 1, was ratcheted up to absurd and uninteresting – even boring – levels involving relatively low stakes the second go-around. There’s only so much a viewer can care about trade and finance disputes with China. The whole premise of the season was flawed and frequently avoided the more gripping elements of Season 1– the personal consequences resulting from Underwood’s mischievous maneuvering. I was glad when it was over– a feeling I rarely have when I’m done binge watching a show.
Thankfully, Season 3 brought us back to what we loved most about House of Cards— the real, human toll of Underwood’s actions, and interesting, complex-yet-easy-to-digest plot lines. What made Season 1 so great was that despite all the scheming, there were just a handful of major story arcs, all of which were almost equally fascinating. Season 2 was a seemingly never-ending ball of yarn unspooling to an abrupt conclusion. Season 3 brought things back down to Earth (or as close to it as HOC will ever get), and in doing so toned down the insanity to almost plausible levels (Season 2 was taking the show into the realm of the absurd). That might disappoint people who were rooting for wilder and riskier antics from Kevin Spacey’s brilliantly played character, but I think it was the right choice. Eventually, watching Underwood stick the landing on yet another complex and vague plan would get stale. Instead, the latest offering focused on character development – for everyone in the show – to the point where it was often equally as interesting as the latest crisis Underwood was faced with. And the plot points, this time around, involved high stakes that were not only plausible in the real world, but in some cases almost mirrored the news. [Without giving anything away, some of the stuff with Russia was hard to separate from actual events happening in Russia this weekend. And virtually every scene with the Russian president was tense and gripping. You could almost feel the weight of every word, every movement.] I couldn’t have given less of a shit about the Chinese bridge in Season 2, but I can’t say the same about nearly every conflict in Season 3. At times, it felt like I was watching a dark version of The West Wing (I mean that as a compliment).
And then there’s the acting, which was just brilliant. Spacey was even better this season than the previous two. His character, while still ruthless and ridiculous, was somehow more grounded in reality and, on more than a few occasions, actually showed signs of being a real human… and you couldn’t blame him the times he seemed like a murderous madman.
Robin Wright, as Claire, was more of a part of the story than ever and she didn’t disappoint.
The rest of the characters floating around the periphery all had their own truly compelling storylines, which often meshed well with Underwood’s. The show was like crack more than ever. The themes were heavy, but each chapter went down like a Cheez-It. You just can’t stop once you start.
I can’t write much more without giving some things away, but I’ll just say this: If you’re looking for more crazed Machiavellian tactics from a scheming maestro, then Season 3 might disappoint (there’s still more than enough of that, though). But if you’re looking for a gripping drama, with GREAT acting, and something that feels like a more primordial version of The West Wing, then you’ve come to the right place. My recommendation? Take tomorrow off and watch it.