THE SULTAN OF SLEAZE

House of Cards’ Boozy, Bureaucratic Season 3: Frank Underwood Has Met His Match

The stakes are higher in the third season of Netflix’s flagship series as Frank and Claire Underwood immerse themselves in 21st-century statecraft with a host of hostile nations.

House of Cards’ third season opens in appropriately seedy fashion.

Frank Underwood, the deliciously depraved Southern Democrat played by Kevin Spacey, stands in front of his father’s gravestone. The late Calvin T. Underwood, you see, succumbed to a Loman-esque fate—unloved and unremarkable, with none but Frank there to bid him adieu. And here he is again, by himself, paying his respects. Or not.

“Oh, I wouldn’t be here if I had a choice, but I have to do these sort of things now,” says Underwood in that extravagant Southern accent. “It makes me seem more human. And you have to be a little human when you’re the president.”

He pauses. “I’ll tell you this though, Pop. When they bury me, it won’t be in my backyard. And when they come to pay their respects, they’ll have to wait in line.” And with that, he whips it out and douses his father’s gravestone in urine.

Yes, the Sultan of Sleaze is back.

Creator Beau Willimon’s saga of political wheeling-and-dealing last saw Underwood having, through a series of increasingly nefarious schemes, successfully orchestrated the impeachment of President Walker. He’d toppled all those who stood in his way, and achieved the highest office in all the land—that of the President of the United States. But what will happen now that Underwood and his Lady Macbeth, Claire (Robin Wright), hold all the cards?

Members of the press were gifted the first six episodes of Season 3, which premieres on February 27, accompanied by a disclaimer promising not to divulge any crucial plot points in pre-premiere reviews—including a very juicy first episode twist—so please forgive the broad strokes.

The action opens in December 2014. After just six months in office, President Underwood’s approval rating has plummeted. His education and campaign finance reform measures failed to pass, unemployment is way up—10 million people are out of work—and the Republican-controlled Congress, led by Senate Majority Leader Hector Mendoza (Benito Martinez), won’t allow a single bill to be pushed through, in what Claire describes as “the blind leading the stupid.” Because of this, President Underwood has racked up an inordinate amount of vetoes.

With just 18 months to go before re-election, Underwood must resort to drastic measures: a new $500 billion jobs program called “America Works” whose aim is to end unemployment in two years by slashing entitlements across the board. He tells Colbert about “America Works” in an appearance on The Colbert Report, to which the host replies, “Oh, so it’s a fantasy novel?”

Meanwhile, the immaculately-coiffed Claire—in a very Hillary Clinton-esque subplot—has become bored with the position of First Lady and yearns for a more prestige position, not only to assuage her ennui but also to beef up her resume for a future office run. “I’m almost 50 years old,” Claire says. “I’ve been in the passenger seat for decades. I need to get behind the wheel now.” And Claire, whether she’s riding an inebriated Frank like Seabiscuit or throwing down in a game of beer pong, does exhibit some of that killer instinct we’ve come to know and love.

But things aren’t as easy for the Underwoods as they were in seasons past. No. The stakes are higher now that they’ve ascended to the Oval Office, and they find their foes, whether it’s a leadership coalition within their party putting the screws to Frank or the icy, vodka-swilling Russian President Petrov (a clone of Vladimir Putin), much tougher to topple.

So the question posed to audiences in Season 3, at least through the first six episodes, is whether they like to see their Underwoods in a more vulnerable, compromised state versus the take-no-prisoners assassins from coups past.

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Historically, it’s during the third season that TV shows tend to go off the rails. Friends morphed from a chaotic, cutesy comedy into a boring series of romcom clichés. The Office followed up its wonderful “Casino Night” kiss by excommunicating Jim to Stamford. And True Blood’s fall from grace can be summed up with the line, “I’m a fucking fairy?”

Given that House of Cards is a series designed to be binge-watched in its entirety, it’s too early to tell whether or not it too has fallen victim to the third season curse. But the White House walls are closing in on the Underwoods, and we’re left hoping—nay, praying—that our favorite shady politicians have more than a few tricks up their sleeves.