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House of Cards - Season 3 Review: "Brilliant, Yet Disappointing

I knew I would be in for a year's wait for the third season of Netflix's revolutionary series, House of Cards, but 54 weeks of anticipation dissolved very quickly.

House of Cards officially went live on February 27 - for the second time - having been made live by accident a fortnight prior. The season centered largely around Frank Underwood's time as President of the United States, with the two prior seasons chronicling his rise to the Oval Office.

The expectation I had for the third season was immense. The first two seasons were stunning - it's hard to put into words how fantastic they were. I was anticipating a season in which Frank Underwood would unleash the desire for the top job he had, while making the progress he had pushed for in the previous seasons, all the while torturing and squashing those who had put blockades in his path to the top. Instead, I was greeted with a season which turned out to be a real grind to finish. I watched the first 2 seasons inside 2 days, but the turnaround for this season was a bit under 4.

This is the biggest Achilles heel of the ever-increasing phenomenon of binge watching: months of anticipation being nuked by a downward slide. The time I've spent waiting, thinking, watching and re-watching, was made virtually invalid.

So what didn't I like? Well, to put it simply, there were too many aspects of the season that just annoyed me.

I knew from the beginning that the season would require a significant change in course given Underwood is now the President. I expected foreign affairs to play a large role, and I wasn't wrong, with the influence of the Russians and a Putin-like Russian President, Victor Petrov, plaguing the season with difficult to understand subplots and agendas. With the Chinese garnering the spotlight last season, and being very well done for the most part, the creative team introduced too many cogs for me to mentally manage this time round with the Russians. The captive gay journalist and the conflicts in Jordan were designed to assume the viewer had a sound prior knowledge of American and Russian politics to interpret the various parallels with other current events. I, for one, found them very hard to follow.

The first two seasons built an outstanding subplot around the three reporters, Zoe Barnes, Lucas Goodwin, and Janine Skorsky. Though their role in the second season was reduced, the storyline chronicling the death of Zoe and Lucas and Janine's response was one of my favorite parts of the season. Sadly, all three were done away with permanently in season 3, and two new characters in the form of journalist Kate Baldwin and author Thomas Yates. The only thing I enjoyed of these two was their romance. Baldwin didn't stir up anything worth mentioning, and Yates's book came to nothing apart from a single chapter despite months of exclusive access tailing Underwood. The only journalist who offered some resistance was Ayla Sayyad, but her presence didn't extend beyond a third of the way through the season as she was sacked from the press room.

Closely tied to the Russian affairs was Frank's wife, Claire, who took a big step up in this season to become far more than an ordinary First Lady. She won the position of US Ambassador to the United Nations, but had to try a second time after failing to convince the senate on the first occasion. While we saw Claire fail under embarrassing circumstances the first time round, a time jump - one of many throughout the season - saw to it that her successful attempt was left up to the viewer's imagination.

One of the aspects of House of Cards that has gained it considerable critical acclaim is the breaking of the fourth wall by Underwood. It's one of my favorite aspects of the series, and was again used to great effect this season, but it wasn't executed with the same level of elegance or effectiveness seen in the past seasons.

Seasons 1 and 2 saw Underwood addressing the audience in a moment where there was no one else within earshot or sight the vast majority of the time. It was beautiful to watch, and always an amazing tool for storytelling, but in season 3, the majority of those moments occurred with others present - as if the world was supposed to suddenly pause while Underwood made his address. It didn't resonate with me at all. I loved the covert, intimate way it was done in the first 2 seasons, but in this season, I never felt as if what Underwood was saying was "our little secret". On one occasion in Chapter 30, Underwood was seen and heard talking to the audience, but nothing came of it. Unfortunately I can only imagine how epic that scene could have been.

The most poorly handled subplot of them all was the triangle between former Chief of Staff Doug Stamper, his prostitute and private obsession, Rachel Posner, and computer hacker Gavin Orsay. In the closing moments of season 2, Rachel escaped from Doug's car. Doug tried to find her in the forest, but Rachel knocked him out with a rock and left him for dead.

Amazingly, Doug survived, and was the primary focus of the season 3 premiere. Doug's recovery through physiotherapy and the help he received from his brother saw ample screen time, but his continued obsession with Rachel was frustratingly underdone. Doug enlisted Gavin to find Rachel, but confirmation Rachel was actually alive came far too late in the season. This subplot could have morphed into a fascinating chase over several episodes, but Rachel and Doug met for the first and only time in the season in the finale, where Doug ended up killing Rachel and burying her in the middle of nowhere.

The sad thing is that Rachel was a fantastic character - one that had been beautifully crafted from day one with her relationship with Peter Russo in the series' first season. Rachel Brosnahan is also a big talent, and it was a shame that her only appearance in the season - the finale - turned out to be her finest performance in her time with the series.

While there are several more negative aspects of season 3 that warrant discussion, I'll leave that for now and focus on the good stuff. That, of course, must start with the cast, who absolutely shone despite the poor storylines.

Kevin Spacey was awarded a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his performance as Frank Underwood in House of Cards' second season last month. Frankly, there's a darn good chance he will go back to back in 2016, because he was even better in season 3. While the character may have been somewhat muted despite his newfound power, Spacey's portrayal of a man with rapidly changing emotions and many things going on at once was just superb.

Spacey's co-star, Robin Wright, was equally stunning. Claire has never been a character I've had a lot of time for, but that is exactly how the character is designed. Wright successfully brought her character into a new dimension as Claire Underwood became more powerful and less likable, culminating in her leaving her husband in the final scene of the season. Wright also directed two of the season's episodes, and won a Golden Globe award for Best Actress in 2014 for her performance in season 1. She has a good shot at taking the trophy again in 2016.

The supporting cast underwent a significant change-up. In addition to the missing journalists, many politicians were unseen this season, instead replaced largely by Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp, played by Elizabeth Marvel and Molly Parker respectively. Pitting two women against Underwood in the race for Iowa was a genius move, and made for some fantastic scenes, particularly during the live debate. Jayne Atkinson chipped in too, with a fine innings as Catherine Durant, continuing the season's trend of featuring women in high ranking roles.

But it's Michael Kelly who delivered the finest performance among the supporting cast. His character, Doug Stamper, had a rough time and hardly likable subplot with Rachel, but Kelly was faultless throughout the season. Though he should have returned to the Chief of Staff position earlier than he did, Stamper's use of his time was well crafted as he embedded himself into Heather Dunbar's campaign staff. I'd be amazed if he doesn't receive a nomination during the 2016 awards season.

The writing was on the wall by the halfway mark of the third season that the Underwood's marriage would be in dire straits come the season finale. It was the natural progression for the power couple who have been rock solid until now, but the way the bond was gradually frayed, then broken, was a joy to watch.

Throughout the season we learned, in particular from Claire, the details of the marriage, with Frank revealing he didn't think he was worthy of Claire, and Claire admitting to reconsidering the relationship every seven years. The couple have been married for 28 years, and they renewed their vows shortly after their first rift following the events in Russia. Also worthy of mentioning is the fact that the couple rarely slept in the same bed together for the entire third season. What may go down as one of television's most unorthodox sex scenes also took place in Chapter 28, with a dejected and blubbering Frank given sex by Claire on the floor of his office.

The technical prowess of the creative team behind House of Cards remained as good as it has been since day 1. The directing was elegant and sophisticated, and beautiful to watch on the whole. The reduced number of long takes and complex sets was something I noticed though. The directors made less use of moving dolly shots than in previous seasons, but the angles they used instead canceled out the difference. The costumes - in particular those for Claire Underwood and Jackie Sharp - were noticeably better, and the original scores by composer Jeff Beal were outstanding, with the title theme music subtly refined further, though the timelapse photography hasn't changed between seasons.

So, like the bad stuff, there's also a heap of great stuff about this third season of House of Cards. You could sum it up by saying that everything but the storyline and subplots were as good as they've ever been. It's a bizarre feeling, compounded by the fact that the series set such a high standard in season 1, and comfortably bettered that in season 2, yet had ample opportunity in its third season to take things to another level once more, but numerous wrong turns have been taken by the creative team somewhere along the line. It has been a brilliant, but disappointing season.

Since it debuted, I believed House of Cards was the finest television series currently airing, but now I'm not so sure. I've recommended it to dozens of people, but from now on I'd probably tell them to skip season 3. There's been no talk of a fourth season, and while it's never too late to bring a series like House of Cards back thanks to its distribution model, a fourth season could be a good or bad thing. My anticipation levels won't be through the roof beforehand, but seeing Frank Underwood run for re-election, and the fallout from Claire's decision to leave would be something well worth watching.

On the other hand, some things just have to end, and even after three short seasons, maybe the time has come. And of course, a deck has 52 cards in it - a fourth season of 13 episodes would bring the series total to 52.

So that's my thoughts on Netflix's third season of House of Cards. My list of notes was massively long, and to save you from spending potentially months reading a review, I've left a lot out and kept it brief! As always, do share your own thought and theories in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

About the Author - Jimmy Ryan
Jimmy Ryan lives in New Zealand, and works in the IT industry. He is an avid follower of drama television and has a keen interest for television ratings and statistics. Some of his favorite shows right now are Person of Interest, Scandal, House of Cards, Orphan Black, The Blacklist, The 100, How To Get Away With Murder, Elementary and Castle. You can visit his television ratings website, www.seriesmonitor.com or follow him on Twitter, @SeriesMonitor.
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