House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood gets his fair share of Macbeth comparisons, but the show is something of a tragic figure in its own right. It simply doesn’t know what it wants to be: is it a slick, cynical look at Washington — The West Wing, with pessimism? Or is it a shamelessly over-the-top melodrama that just happens to be set in and around the White House — Scandal, with swearing? House of Cards’ greatest weakness has always been that it tries to be both, and even when it commits to one vision over the other, it’s bound to sacrifice some of its core appeal.
In the case of Season 3, or at least the four episodes your correspondent watched for this review, that means prioritizing the former over the latter. Now that Frank occupies the Oval Office, there’s a whole slew of things on his agenda, only one of which carries even a hint of the illicit. An ambitious job program called America Works has to squeeze through Congress; a Supreme Court justice wants to resign due to illness; Claire wants to become UN Ambassador; and Rachel, the obsession of the — spoiler alert! — very much alive Doug Stamper, needs to be found before she can say anything to the press. Notice how only one of those was exciting enough to require a spoiler alert?
It’s a steep comedown from the murder, murder cover-up, and murder-again intrigue that began late in the first season and continued through the second, and therein lies the problem. There’s nothing wrong with House of Cards being a beautifully shot, mildly scathing show about political intrigue. But once it’s raised the stakes to murder, adultery, or even the clash of the titans between Frank and Raymond Tusk, it can’t easily walk itself back. And as hard as it is to stay engaged when the show dials back the threesomes in favor of diplomatic summits, it’s even harder to take seriously when it tries to take a stand on actual political issues like drone strikes or censorship in Russia. (The latter does, however, give an excuse for a great cameo, the surprise of which I’ll attempt to preserve.)
The confusion over tone hits protagonist Frank Underwood especially hard, because now that he’s the President, it’s never been more obvious that House of Cards has no idea what he wants. Power, as we’re endlessly reminded, yes — but there are other ways of holding power, and with far fewer checks, than the presidency. And if it’s not clear why Frank wants to be Commander-in-Chief in the first place, it’s doubly unclear why he wants to remain in charge. Underwood’s disdain for democracy has always been apparent — he tells the show’s not-Putin Putin that he’s jealous of his absolute power — and yet he’s consumed by his desire to win an actual election. Why?
The absence of crazy-town plot twists may change as the season goes on, but the fundamental nonsense of Frank’s motivation remains. As President, Frank finally has the opportunity to do something, except he’s never wanted to do anything except climb his way to the top. Which is problematic when your primary job description is running the country. Frank pushes for jobs (controversial!) and a few thousand troops in the Jordan Valley (important!), but the closest he comes to articulating what he actually wants to do with the nation he’s leading is a speech that’s cleverly shot to look like one of his famous asides to the camera. “You are entitled to nothing,” he tells the country. If you want the American dream, go get it yourself. Just like he did.
The first two seasons of House of Cards seem like an awful lot of fuss in the service of providing Frank with the chance to tell America to pull up its bootstraps like the committed, um, Democrat he is. Of course, there’s still plenty of camp to gloss over this issue: Kevin Spacey gets his fair share of proverbs (“What is the face of a coward? The back of his head as he runs through the battle”), Robin Wright’s ice remains unthawed, and a few sacred items get desecrated, among them Underwood Senior’s own grave. With every successive season, though, the fun of House of Cards gets worse and worse at covering the gaping plot hole at the center of the show — making that “next episode” button look less and less enticing.