Baltimore Sun media critic reviews season three of the Netflix streaming series House of Cards. (Baltimore Sun video)
After seeing the first six hours of Season 3 of "House of Cards" pretty much straight-through, the most coherent thing I can tell its fans is that it is still absolutely binge-worthy.
I was up most of last night with Claire and Frank Underwood, and if Netflix had made the second half of the new season that drops Feb. 27 available as well, I'd still be with them.
I am going to be scrupulous about avoiding spoilers in this piece, so forgive me if it is bereft of plot specifics. You'll thank me when you see it and get blown out of your seat by some of Frank's more transgressive acts or a couple of the plot turns sculpted by writer and show runner Beau Willimon.
Here are 10 quick observations on the new season.
1. Last year, I wrote about how deeply influenced "House of Cards" is by great theater. For all the talk of digital and new media generated by the series because of its mode of distribution, it is firmly rooted in the traditional theater going back to the ancient Greeks, and therein lies much of its dramatic punch.
I attributed this in the past mostly to Kevin Spacey's deep roots in and commitment to the stage, and that's accurate. But Season 3 more than either of the previous two made me realize what an outstanding playwright Willimon is – I mean, a really great American playwright.
Episode six is a play within a TV series (that's not a TV series, I know). And there were moments that reminded me of some of the great drama in the First Golden Age of TV in the 1950s – except the sensibility and discourses here are totally of the moment.
2. If there is anyone who thinks Spacey doesn't deserve to be considered the best dramatic actor on TV (despite a recent Golden Globe and SAG award saying he is), they should by the end of these six episodes.
He's onscreen at the very start of Episode 1. He instantly seizes your attention and never lets go. This is one of the most ferocious performances I have ever seen on the small screen. The closest thing I can think of is James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano or Brian Cranston as Walter White. But as spectacular as those performances were, they weren't as big and resonant as Spacey's.
3. I didn't count minutes, but it feels as though there is more Claire Underwood in Season 3, and that is a major plus. Robin Wright takes hold of the larger role and runs with it.
In some ways, she holds and commands the camera as well as Spacey – and nobody on TV does it better than him. That's one of the reasons the conceit of having Frank talk to the camera works so well.
4. The best scenes are still the ones with Claire and Frank alone at the end of the day enveloped by their dark intimacy. I did not see any one scene that compared with the moment last year that featured them sharing a cigarette and Claire asking Frank to sing to her.
But that was a transcendent moment worthy of Tennessee Williams – they don't come along every episode. Willimon clearly understands the power of having them together in their Macbeth moments, but it seems as if they are more at war in some of them this season as opposed to them against the world in the past.
5. The Washington sets are terrific. With Frank's new job, the producers had to ditch a lot of expensive sets, like the place Claire and Frank called home in the first two seasons, and build even more expensive ones on the soundstages in Harford County.
Willimon kept true to the richly textured template and palette David Fincher put in place in Season 1 as executive producer and director.
It is not easy to duplicate the White House and other trappings of the presidency in a fictional series, given how often most Americans see those settings night and day on network and cable news TV. But from the press room to Air Force One, "House of Cards" feels like the real thing.
6. The themes are still huge. One narrative thread of Season 3 takes on nothing less than The American Dream – and somehow manages to make you reconsider it despite a lifetime of cultural conditioning for most Americans to see it as God-given and inviolate.
7. Frank's comments to the camera are still a delight. They have the deeply cynical sensibility of Machiavelli, but they are structured like Benjamin Franklin bromides.
"What is the face of the coward?" Franks asks as someone exits his office after declining to sign on to his latest legislative effort. "The back of his head as he runs from the battle."
8. I love the mythic touches – far-off thunder in the night as Frank and Claire plot, or Frank standing in a cemetery framed against the sky as dawn breaks.
This, too, is legacy from Fincher whose imagery of monuments and government buildings deftly links modern-day Washington to Rome and the ancient Greeks.
9. For local viewers, there is still a lot of the Baltimore area on display in Season 3 despite Willimon and Fincher clearly favoring soundstages for the absolute control they offer filmmakers. (The Sun continues to serve as a soundstage with the producers renting space from the Tribune Company, which recently spun off its newspapers, like The Sun, into a separate company.)
10. The first episode opens with a bang, but there are stretches where I thought it got slow before closing very strong. The strong finish will make you want to click to Episode 2, which is, after all, the name of the game in streamed viewing.