Warning: this will contain mild spoilers
As the Machiavellian Frank Underwood has become the leader of the free world, the pursuit of power continues.
One of the most prevailing clichés in politics today is Lord Acton’s, often slightly incorrectly quoted, pronouncement that: ”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But as we followed the ambitious South Carolina congressman’s journey to the White House during the first two seasons of ”House of Cards”, it was clear that Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) could barely have been more corrupt to begin with. Loyal viewers will already be well-acquainted with Congressman Underwood’s ruthlessness, which in previous seasons included murder, adultery, bribery, betrayal of colleagues and old friends, and then some.
Unrealistic, you say? Well, at least Mr Spacey seemed to think that after having observed last presidential election cycle, their ”storylines are not that crazy.” This is at a time when the approval ratings of the US congress are at historical lows, occasionally flirting with the single digits. While the current 113th congress is the second least productive such in history, one-upped only by its immediate predecessor, polarization, suspicious financial campaign contributions, and congressional obstructivism are sources of the public’s contempt of both politics – and politicians.
Yet the presidency’s officeholder is at worst polarizing, but not close to being nearly universally despised, as the legislators are. So as Frank Underwood gets elevated to the highest office, whatever similarities with reality that were there before are now gone. The power hungry man becomes a study in his own right. As the third season begins he finds himself in a position, similar to that Gerald Ford faced during his short time in the office. President Underwood replaces a hugely unpopular predecessor whose horrendous approval ratings he inherits and which are further lowered when Underwood like Ford decided to pardon his former boss. Ford was confronted with attacks from both within his own and the oppositional party, and subsequently failed to get re-elected.
Sure enough, President Underwood revisits his toolbox of heinous methods to avoid Ford’s fate. Much like previously, he isn’t alone in his struggle. Bill Clinton liked to say during his 1992 campaign, by voting for him they would get ”two for the price of one”, and while no one voted for Frank to begin with, his wife Claire, was also part of what they got. Having been involved previously, this time she is dissatisfied with merely being first lady and displays beyond Clintonian ambition by launching a separate career of her own, outside the White House. At the international stage a Russian president, who is identical to Mr. Putin in everything but name and looks, takes a main role, a part of the plot that yet again is loosely connected to recent events.
The quality of the script is uneven. The season had barely begun before Mr. Underwood urinates on his father’s grave, for no other discernible reason than making the show live up to its reputation; but to their credit, being secure in the knowledge that many of the shows viewers will binge-watch the series. The plot is for the most part allowed to develop without rush and free from unnecessary cliff hangers in between the episodes.
All in all, the season suffers not from failed attempts to mirror the reality, but rather that it’s at times completely detached from what could be tangentially so. Laws may be bended, but fundamental political truths cannot. Case in point: few things are off the table in debates among American politicians. Ad hominems are fine. If you want to talk about how your opponent hired undocumented lawn mowers, you can do so. If you want use your opponent’s children as political weaponry, then you are deluded and will be booted out of office quicker than you can say ”family values”. And you’re more than welcome to use vague terms like ”big government” derogatively; but if you want to dismantle large welfare programs, you can’t be explicit about it – especially if you’re a democrat. This doesn’t seem to have crossed the screenwriter’s minds.
Yet despite this, the show remains highly entertaining, if possibly slightly less so than the first two seasons. Yours truly still has yet to figure out what the end goal is for the cutthroat careerist Underwoods, hopefully season IV will give us some insight to that.
By: Pär Nyrén
Image source: David Giesbrecht/Netflix – http://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/daily/vulture/2015/02/26/26-house-of-cards-3.w529.h352.jpg