By James Poniewozik
February 19, 2015

The greatest trick Frank Underwood ever pulled was convincing the world that he was Tony Soprano. House of Cards arrived on Netflix two years ago with the fanfare of being TV’s next Big Ambitious Drama, with a big star, a big budget, a big director (David Fincher) and big themes.

What it was missing was the small stuff–the nuances, shadings and complications that distinguish the HBO series that it challenged. As Underwood, Kevin Spacey was lustily mendacious, but his villainy had no layers; it was demons all the way down. He was surrounded by self-serving political operators, distinguished only by their levels of competence or weakness. Its worldview was cynical and popular in a nonpartisan way–they’re all bastards in Washington!–but what it wasn’t was surprising. Its sensibility was summed up by the title sequence, whose scenes of the capital were glossy, thrumming with activity, but devoid of actual people. The show had chess pieces, not characters; it had blood but no pulse.

If House of Cards was not a great TV drama, it had potential as a not-great TV drama–a brassy potboiler with a strong cast, full of twists and delicious betrayals, fully committed to cruel spectacle. Seen that way, season 1 was a good time, a high-class laundry-folder made for bingeing, simple and meaty as a plate of the juicy barbecue that then-Congressman Underwood favored. But as Underwood connived his way to the Vice Presidency, it ran into trouble–namely, that Frank didn’t run into enough meaningful trouble. His inexorable march to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was more like a saunter. His triumphs in season 2 came too easy, as he flattened obstacles and adversaries like that Metro train flattened poor Zoe Barnes.

Season 3, in the six episodes I’ve seen (the full season goes online Feb. 27), does not give Frank better enemies or challenges than season 2 did. But it gives him a lot more of them, and that helps.

They say in politics that becoming President is the easy part; it’s being President that’s the killer. As we rejoin Frank, it’s been six months since he engineered the resignation of President Walker. Unemployment is raging, his poll numbers diving. His ambitious jobs bill is languishing in Congress. The Russian president, Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen, in a deft Putin near-imitation), is frustrating his international efforts. A sharp new reporter on the White House beat (Kim Dickens) is scoring damaging leaks. His own Democratic party, sensing a rout in 2016, is rebelling. And his attempts to set up First Lady Claire (Robin Wright) to eventually continue the dynasty are thwarted.

(On the bright side: It’s spring 2015 but Stephen Colbert is still on The Colbert Report in this universe–it’s one of scads of media-star cameos in the season–so the Underwood Administration is doing something right!)

Somehow it turns out more effective to have Underwood nibbled by ducks than to have him slash through a succession of paper tigers. It makes House of Cards a bit of a different show, much more process-oriented, and maybe some fans will wish for the old days, when Frank was pushing people in front of trains, not pushing around FEMA appropriations.

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But the series needed a change-up and season 3 provides one, a bit; Frank is not fighting to get somewhere but to stay where he is, and his enemy is not so much a single Big Bad as it is the processes of government and diplomacy. When he’s off-balance, we are, and that makes the plot turns more interesting.

Other things haven’t changed: the series’ long arc–the coverup of Underwood’s murder of Peter Russo during his rise to power–is still rolling slowly along. And the show is still self-serious, didactic and risibly melodramatic. The first scene of the new season has Frank visiting his father’s grave; he hated the old man, Frank tells us in a trademark aside to the camera, but “you have to be a little human when you’re the president.” Then, in case that was too subtle, he urinates on the headstone–underlining the point, as it were, with his Presidential pen. (Later, there’s an even more goofily histrionic church scene, which plays like The West Wing‘s “Two Cathedrals” episode if President Bartlet were possessed by the devil.)

But there’s something new mixed in among the mustache-twirling and predictable iconoclasm: a strain of earnestness, especially as the storyline becomes more involved in real-world issues like the persecution of gay Russians. It’s not always a good fit, and it results in some draggy, speechy storylines. But it’s a change, and that’s something House of Cards can use. Frank finds himself genuinely weighed down by the responsibilities of the office, and as Claire takes a prominent foreign policy role, she begins to feel a call to do good for people not surnamed Underwood, which brings her in conflict with her own husband. (Wright continues to be the show’s MVP, giving her character more shading than House of Cards‘ limited set of charcoals usually permits.)

All this suggests a potentially potent enemy for Frank Underwood: conscience. Three seasons in, I can binge on the plot of House of Cards while recognizing the show doesn’t have the stuff of greatness. But it could at least keep things interesting by giving Frank a brush with goodness.

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