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[pagebreak]
While Doug’s on the road to recovery (hopefully), Frank is only digging himself into a deeper hole. He’s spearheading a jobs program called America Works, which hopes to create 10 million jobs. The budget for such a surge is $500 billion, a huge cost that no one anticipates getting through Congress. This is Frank Underwood though, and he’s steadfast in his dedication to the program. He wants to cut entitlements and discuss changing Social Security in order to fund the program.
Just as in previous seasons, and as with the Education Bill, Frank is dedicating himself to one big, revolutionary piece of legislation, and anyone who opposes him will be removed from his team. He threatens to remove two staffers from the team for speaking to journalists about disagreements in terms of writing the legislation, and he straight-up fires another when he’s too vocal and vehement about his opposition to the bill.
Frank, in order to get word out about the program, makes an appearance on The Colbert Report. It’s an odd scene in that it feels very out of place within the show. Sure, it serves its purpose fine by making Underwood look unexperienced and really driving home how bad his approval ratings are. For anyone who’s watched Colbert’s show though, the segment rings false. It’s too scathing, boasting a tone that’s incongruous with the real-life Colbert Report (may it rest in peace), and feels like a misguided attempt at verisimilitude, as if the show is saying that real life politicians visit late night shows all the time, and so do our fictional ones! But House of Cards is at its best when it shuns reality, when it turns the mundanity and the viciousness of politics and amps up drama to an absurd level. House of Cards should never feel grounded in reality; it works better as an uncanny fantasy.
Despite Frank’s dwindling popularity, Claire remains vigilant about accomplishing her own goals. She wants to be positioned not just as the First Lady, but as the Ambassador to the United Nations. It’s going to be a tough road ahead. She has the Underwood name behind her, but she’s inexperienced for the job, at least in the eyes of many in the government.
Frank wants her to understand just how hard the battle to get nominated is going to be, and because House of Cards isn’t a subtle show, Frank’s way of showing her what it takes to make it in Washington involves clearing her security access so that she can be present in the war room when Frank makes a call to assassinate an Abdullah in Yemen. There will be other causalities, but this may be the only opportunity the government has to strike. Frank makes the call and Claire witnesses it. As they leave the war room, Claire says, “I still want it.” Frank agrees to push her nomination, and they walk hand-in-hand back to their room. The Underwoods may have a lot of power, but surely they can take even more? When the Underwoods want something, they take it, and that could have a whole lot of consequences as the season gets underway.