If you were worried that Frank Underwood’s new position as President of the United States would somehow change the dynamic of House of Cards, the first few moments of the third season must surely quell those feelings. He may be president, but this is the same old Francis “Frank” Underwood, and this is the same old over-the-top House of Cards—which is not a bad thing. In the opening scene, Frank goes to visit his father’s grave. His motorcade passes a little shop with a prominent sign that says “Feed Store,” a perhaps suitably ridiculous visual metaphor for the way Frank has climbed the ranks of the United States government. Moments later, he’s standing at his father’s grave, taking his time not to mourn, but to piss all over the headstone. Oh yeah, Frank Underwood is back and nothing has changed.
Frank isn’t interested in honoring his father, perhaps because he was a bad man, but more likely it’s because the Underwoods never focus on the past. Their entire life philosophy is about looking forward, about setting goals and doing whatever’s necessary (like murder or threesomes) to attain them. When Frank says he’s visiting the grave site because it “makes me seem more human” it’s a sly joke, but it’s also indicative of Frank’s nature; he’s a machine, cold and clinical, and built with a single purpose, which is the continuous gathering of power.
The first episode of the season suggests that the fleeting nature of power will be an ever-present theme. Frank’s only been president for six months, but he’s already suffering from terrible approval ratings. With an election only 18 months away, it’s a bad first sign for the Underwoods.
Things are, relatively speaking, looking up for another member of the Underwood administration. Doug Stamper, who was last seen lying in the woods with his eyes wide open after Rachel Posner, the prostitute he’s been hiding since the first season, hit him over the head with a rock. Doug’s alive, but he’s on a long road to recovery. His physical state is introduced in a series of hazy shots, where Doug, bruised and hooked up to a bevy of machines, is scrubbed and prodded by a host of nurses.
It’s clear that this isn’t the same man that held so much sway throughout the first two seasons, and these first few moments, and much of this episode, let us know that Doug’s arc this season will largely revolve around him trying to get back to the place of power that he once held.
For Doug, this is going to be a journey of desperation. By the time the episode comes to a close, we’ve seen Doug go through intense physical therapy, and all without the aid of painkillers, considering that he’s a former addict. We’ve seen him agree, in a conversation with Claire, to create a carjacking story that will explain his injuries without risking any unwanted attention; and we see him hire a prostitute to squirt bourbon into his mouth with a syringe–seriously, you can’t make this stuff up! When he falls in the shower and breaks his arm near the end of the episode, and subsequently crafts a homemade splint out of wooden spoons and duct tape, it’s a move of desperation because he’s on his way to see Frank at the White House, and he doesn’t want to lose the opportunity to get his job back.
Doug isn’t given his job back though (at least not yet), and it’s unclear whether that’s because Frank wants Doug to focus on his health, or because Seth Grayson and Remy Danton have been doing a fine job in his place. There’s also the lingering problem of Rachel, who’s still missing and holds a lot of incriminating evidence against Frank. Frank assures Doug that he doesn’t hold a grudge for his handling (or mishandling) of Rachel, and yet, it’s hard not to assume that the ruthless Francis Underwood isn’t in some way angry about it. After all, he’s in power now, and any threat to that has to be eliminated. It’s his nature as a power-hungry machine.
If there’s one thing troubling about Doug’s story line in this first episode, it’s that it comes close to mirroring that of Peter Russo’s in the first season. Like Peter, Doug is an addict who’s trying to stay away from pills (he’s given some Percocets to deal with his arm pain after he doesn’t tell the doctor about his addictive past) while also struggling with the notion that he may not hold the same professional standing he once did. Hopefully the storyline doesn’t hit all the same beats from the first season and finds a way to refreshingly tackle addiction in a way that’s unique to Doug’s character.
NEXT: Frank details his plan for America Works