Spoilers: 'House of Cards' Season 3 takes daring, hard-eyed look at presidency

The office of president doesn't change Frank Underwood's transgressive character

If you have not seen all 13 episodes of Season 3 of “House of Cards,” stop reading now. This piece is full of spoilers. Really, go away and come back after you’ve seen the full season at Netflix.

One pot of home-brewed Starbucks expresso and two bags of Skinny Pop popcorn, and I was done with Season 3 of “House of Cards” at 10:05 a.m (ET) Friday - just over seven hours after it dropped.

I had an edge: Netflix let me screen the first six hours for a column without spoilers that appeared last Sunday in The Sun.

My only major reservation based on seeing the first half of the season was that screenwriter Beau Willimon spent too much time in the first episode focused on Doug Stamper’s (Michael Kelly) climb back from the near-dead.  

There’s Spoiler #1: Doug isn’t dead.

And even as the time spent with Doug in Episode 1 started feeling a little grim and tedious, I decided after two seasons to trust that Willimon was spending those extra beats with Doug for a dramatic reason that would pay off down the road.

By Episode 12 Friday, I was rewarded for my faith – though, I know there are going to be some folks thinking there is just too much Doug in Season 3. I believe the last two hours totally justify the extra time spent establishing what a dark, dangerous and unpredictable force he still is.

Nothing blew me away in Episode 1, though, like Frank Underwood urinating on his father’s grave at the three-minute mark – an overture of transgression from President Underwood and a promise from Willimon that the highest office in the land was not going to change the man who now occupied it.

I highlight that act by Frank in his hometown graveyard in Gaffney, S.C., not to shock, but because it is so much like the overture at a Broadway musical, sounding some of the major themes of the play before it properly begins.  It’s my belief that Willimon, the showrunner on “House of Cards” and author of the play “Farragut North,” is one of our finest playwrights, and it is the power of the stage that separates his writing and Spacey’s performance from almost anything else on TV.

And just when the rhythm of transgression feels like it is starting to flag, along comes Episode 4 with Frank in a church looking for spiritual guidance. But instead, he winds up spitting in the face of a near-life-size Christ on the cross.

And then, he knocks the huge crucifix off the altar.

This is scene that I expect will simply be too much for some more religious religious viewers. I wonder what Rush Limbaugh will do with it on his radio show.

But art pushes such boundaries – and “House of Cards” is as much art as anything hanging on the walls of the Baltimore Museum of Art. And it is a work of art that speaks to the issues of the day and the existential crisis of American political life like nothing else I can think of on TV.

Some of the themes that get in-depth treatment this season are family, marriage, Russian-U.S. relations, human rights and the Middle East.

The Russian story line soars thanks in part to the presence of Pussy Riot in one episode and the fiery performance of Lars Mikkelsen as a Putin-like Russian leader in several as well. Mikkelsen can stand toe-to-toe with Spacey and co-star Robin Wright, which puts him in the highest ranks of TV or film actors for my money.

Mikkelsen lights up an episode set at a summit in Washington. A scene featuring him and Frank smoking Cuban cigars in the basement of the White House is a dazzler. But Mikkelsen absolutely stops the show in Episode 6 when the Underwoods reciprocate with a Russian visit.

The question is: Who’s more evil, Frank or this former KGB officer? By the time the two meet in a bunker in the Middle East, it will be impossible to tell.  (It isn’t quite Michael Dukakis, but one of Frank’s worst moments appearance-wise comes with him in combat gear in a Humvee on the way to the meeting. But once he gets there, Spacey’s performance makes us forget how Frank looked a few moments before.)

And, by the way, as fine as Mikkelsen’s work is in the sixth hour, Wright in that episode takes Claire Underwood to a level of intensity not previously seen.

The White House basement scene and the entire sixth hour are representative of how much this series draws its energy, inspiration, structure and power from the theater.  Episode 6 is a play within a TV series, and the climax of the hour will make you gasp – really, gasp out loud in your house as you watch. Trust me.

There’s no shortage of gasp-able moments – several of them involving Frank and Claire alone at night, the dramatic heartbeat of this series as far as I am concerned.

This season, it is less “Macbeth” and more an intimate study of two smart and aging adults trying to balance their professional and personal aspirations as they come under harsh political fire from without and mounting self-doubt from within. Professional couples will savor this exploration of the near impossibility of both parties finding the same levels of success and fulfillment.

When Claire tries to be ambassador to the U.N. and is rejected by the Senate, she demands a recess appointment from her husband – and gets it. But almost no one thinks she’s worthy of the job, and even fans of Claire will wonder if she is after seeing some of the setbacks she suffers.

Two story lines kept me addictively clicking through the episodes: the unraveling of the Underwoods’ marriage during a nasty primary battle in Iowa, and Doug Stamper’s hunt to finish the very dirty work he left undone. That storyline ends on a lonely road in New Mexico where it seems as if Doug loses the last chance he had to save his soul after getting sober.

The final 10 minutes of the season involves one last, great scene between Frank and Claire where all the tensions in their 28-year marriage and entwined professional lives explode in one epic blast of pent-up resentment, sorrow, pity, pain, fear and anger.

If you’ve never seen Spacey onstage and think there might be some Hollywood hype involved in the reverential talk from critics like me about his work in “Richard III,” pay close attention to the howling speech he makes to Claire in their last Oval Office moments together.

The rage he spews is titanic, and he is only an inch or so from Claire’s face with his hand around her throat. Wright’s poise and power of concentration in the scene as he rails is almost as impressive as the raw and primordial anger Spacey thunders in her face.

“House of Cards” dares to imagine the worst of our presidency – and in 13 hours this season, manages to seriously challenge centuries of false pieties and platitudes about the kind of men we elect to hold our highest office.

Even if it weren’t so addictive, engaging and consistently shocking, that alone would make it the best drama on television.

 

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
27°