By Phil Brown, Reporter
It was the sense of unpredictability and menace that brought life to Beau Willimon’s broadly-brushed Washington D.C in the last two seasons of House of Cards.
Veteran Kevin Spacey chewed his way through acres of polished architecture and expensive suiting in an entertaining—though sometimes a little uncomfortable—performance as the unhinged Congressman Frank Underwood in Netflix’s pioneering series. But most of what made his character enjoyable, and what excused Spacey’s overacting,seems to be missing in the early episodes of Willimon and Co.’s latest iteration.
It’s absurd to try to review this third season without spoiling a little of what went before. Without going into details about how this was accomplished, Frank Underwood has become president of the USA by the time the series starts. This is a major turning point for him—though, unfortunately, it seems to have tipped him from an interesting, volatile character to a completely empty one.
The series begins with Spacey’s Underwood in a cemetery in his home state. The new president’s first action in the series is urinating on his father’s grave. It’s cringe-worthy for all the wrong reasons and almost laughable. You get the feeling it was supposed to be a shocking moment; there’s a solemnity with which Spacey delivers the lines and the action, and a long, panning shot at the urine-soaked headstone. The scene, devoid of any build-up or reasoning, falls completely flat.
This moment is echoed a few episodes later in an even more heavy-handed and melodramatic scene. Frank goes to a church, argues in unbearable earnest tone with a priest on the meaning of morality and goes to the altar to take some time alone. He walks up to a statue of Jesus, yells at it and then spits in the statue’s face. Again, the lingering camera treats this pathetic sequence as a profound, moving moment. The statue of Jesus then falls and smashes for no reason.
It’s hard to believe after the twisting, turning plot of the first two seasons and the highly ratcheted sense of urgency that the show’s creators managed to crank up episode after episode. The sense of desperation and caged unpredictability from Spacey’s Underwood have given way to an old, delusional, megalomaniacal man alone in cemeteries and churches dripping bodily fluids on inanimate objects. I expect him to deliberately sweat on Washington Monument in an upcoming episode, and the camera to treat it as an act of epic rebellion.
The two instances I mentioned are examples, of course. But they’re examples of a very real feeling you get watching Spacey’s character in the latest series. Underwood seems completely defanged. The venom of the first season has given way to a nagging pettiness. His desperate grabs for power have subsided in favor of stubborn defenses of policies and plans, his sarcastic, witty monologues have somehow been scrapped for the whine of a spoiled child.
If there’s an upside to all this, it’s that the huge supporting cast shine brighter in the main star’s dimness. The season begins not from Frank’s perspective, but Doug Stamper’s (Michael Kelly), his former staffer now cut loose to deal with a brain injury, paralysis and crippling addictions to alcohol and politics. Kelly brings layers of pain and understanding to a once one-dimensionally creepy Stamper.
Other standouts of the first few episodes have been Lars Mikkelsen (Charles Magnussen in Sherlock),playing the Putinesque Viktor Petrov, in the stand-out third episode, where things seemed more or less to come together. Petrov’s ambassador, played by Alexander Sokovikov, also puts in work, sparring with Underwood’s First Lady and partner-in-crime, Claire, played by a sadly less interesting Robin Wright than the past seasons have boasted.
Ultimately, the third season of House of Cards isn’t yet a total failure by any stretch of the imagination. The character of Underwood, once the main draw, seems to be completely lost in the White House, and the supporting cast and detailed production, are its saving grace. It remains to be seen for this writer how the season pans out,but all 13 episodes are available on Netflix for anyone with the will–power—and the caffeine—to binge through.