What’s the most exciting thing about season three of “House of Cards”? Claire Underwood’s new hair color. Seriously. The show’s leading lady, played with steely poise by Robin Wright, flaunts deep brown tresses midway through the new season, only to return to her signature blonde hue a few episodes later. The third season of Netflix’s original series — like Claire’s return to blonde hair — is as visually striking as ever but falls just short of satisfying.
The season three premiere begins where season two left off, with one large surprise along the way. We know that Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) will assume his role as president in the wake of President Garrett Walker’s resignation. What we don’t know is that Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), the Underwood staffer presumably left for dead in the woods, is alive and recuperating. While Stamper’s survival is not nearly as ingenious as journalist Zoe Barnes’ (Kate Mara) death by locomotive in the season two premiere, the start of season three certainly tries to recapture that same slack-jawed surprise.
Take, for example, the premiere’s opening sequence, which is so over the top it comes across as halfway satirical. Our first glimpse of the newly appointed President Underwood has him urinating on his father’s grave during a visit to Gaffney, South Carolina. For a show usually so adept at teasing out the high drama of political theater, this gesture foretells the new season’s general heavy-handedness.
Season three Frank Underwood is a bloated Ares, an increasingly gray-haired god of war whose pursuit of power for power’s sake remains his primary — and perhaps only — discernible motivation. Frank is as unilateral a leader as he is a character, which is why the thrust of the season — which strays from Underwood’s political maneuverings in favor of interpersonal drama — falls flat. Narratively speaking, this move makes a certain amount of sense. Once Underwood reaches the White House, there is only so much higher he can climb. The show’s writers, perhaps recognizing this fact, have allowed the show’s focus to drift from boardroom to bedroom.
Whether the show probes the unraveling of Frank and Claire Underwood’s marriage, Doug Stamper’s obsessive pursuit of escort-turned-liability Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) or Congresswoman Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) and Remy Danton’s (Mahershala Ali) inevitable reunion, it is hard to swallow domestic strife as the season’s central pivot.
Season three does much, however, to showcase one of the strongest casts of supporting characters the series has seen thus far. Welcome additions include muckraking political journalist Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens), melancholic novelist Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) and the formidable Solicitor General Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel). But even these characters can’t reorient a season in which the political plot twists are perfunctory and the personal drama feels manufactured.
As for the actual politicking? It’s rather lackluster. On the domestic agenda is America Works, Underwood’s pet jobs program that resembles a far-right nightmare more than a tenable social program by a Democratic president. Feasibility aside, the America Works program simply isn’t that interesting. Instead, the most compelling politics of season three are the international kind, as when Claire Underwood navigates an ill-fated appointment as ambassador to the United Nations while a series of standoffs escalate between her husband and Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), a thinly-veiled Vladimir Putin stand-in. Curiously, Petrov’s diplomatic visit to Washington, D.C., features a cameo by the real-life members of Russian activist group Pussy Riot, an out-of-place attempt at topicality for a show that tends to address real-world conflicts in its own roundabout, Macbeth-meets-Machiavelli way.
This season the stake — whether moral, political or personal — feel significantly lower, and low stakes storytelling doesn’t bode well for a series that likes its politics slippery and its politicians positively wicked. As of now, a fourth season of “House of Cards” has not been confirmed, but we can hope for a return to the show’s best self: A universe in which both personal and political plotlines are put to good — which is to say entirely amoral — use.