The Uncanny Valley of House of Cards Season Three

The Underwoods' world is close enough to our own to provoke both fascination and revulsion.


House of Cards/Facebook

Season three of House of Cards debuted on Netflix last weekend. I'm four episodes in, and so far the show has tackled a lot of timely political topics, from U.S. relations with Russia to the morality of American drone strikes in the Middle East to the fledgling manueverings of 2016 presidential candidates.

Of course, in House of Cards the 2016 presidential candidates are all fictional and the Vladimir Putin-esque Russian president is known as Victor Petrov (though the band Pussy Riot gets real-name checked and makes a cameo in episode three).

Folks in D.C. like to fault House of Cards for being a fantasy of government competency and cunning, and this season's start is no aberration. Yet the show's protagonists, Frank and Claire Underwood—now ensconced in the White House (though not comfortably)—aren't having their standard levels of manipulative success so far. Claire is struggling to find meaningful endeavors outside of the commemorative Easter Egg selection and such that comes with being First Lady. Frank—minor spoilers from here on out alert—faces a congress dominated by the opposing party, leaders of his own party opposed to him running for re-election, difficulties negotiating with the Russian president, an American economy still not delivering enough jobs, and the no-win (politically, at least) task of authorizing drone strikes. 

Obviously not all of these things ring true to reality circa March 2015, but there are enough similarities to make watching the show a little eerie. So far this season suffers from a slight "uncanny valley" effect, with the Underwoods' America is close enough to our own and yet unreal enough also to provoke both fascination and revulsion, or at least anxiety. 

The beginning of House of Cards season three also treads into West Wing-style political wish-fulfillment territory at times. Try not to get a little wistful as Frank, a Democrat, gives an eloquent speech about the necessity of decimating entitlement programs, or decides not to use the "state secrets" defense in a drone strike case where an American civilian was wounded. [Sure, both are ultimately self-serving moves for Underwood, but let's not nitpick.]

Yet moments of moral clarity and compassion are short-lived on this series, which is what sets it apart from political soap predecessors (and makes it an appealing antidote to their government-knows-best framework). In episode four, for instance, Frank meets with Kaseem Mahmoud, the civilian victim of a U.S. drone strike that killed his family and took his legs. When Mahmoud refuses to accept Frank's apology—telling him instead that he wants reform of the drone program, which kills far more civilians that are being reported—Frank has a genuine, if brief, crisis of confidence about the rightness of his "tough choices" rhetoric. But after suffering a political setback soon after, Frank chalks it up to the fact that Mahmoud's words made him temporarily "soft." His perfectly House of Cards takeaway? A moral compass only makes you weak in Washington. 

NEXT: Shikha Dalmia on the Misplaced Feminist Outrage Against Patricia Arquette

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  1. I’m four episodes in, and so far the show has tackled a lot of timely political topics

    Which is why season 3 sucks. We didn’t watch House of Cards to find out what Underwood’s take on policy would be. We watched to see him destroy people in his quest for power.

    1. Keep watching…

      1. NO SPOILERS

    2. Funnily enough, one of the people he’s destroyed in his quest for power is himself.

      He’s gotten the top slot, had no plan on what he’d do once there, and is now facing opposition from not only his opposition but from his own party.

      You guys saying HoC is a fantasy about ultra-competent but ruthless characters is way off base – *none* of those people are competent, *non* of them have a game plan beyond ‘more power’.

      They have no long-term view, Frank does whatever’s expedient to climb the next greasy rung – the only reason he’s gotten as far as he has is *luck*, no-one’s discovered *his* ‘indiscretions’ yet (capitalizing on *others* is both how he’s climbed so far and responsible for all those burned bridges that make it impossible for him to do anything in his current position).

      1. That’s pretty close to what happened in the original series. I wonder if this season will end like the original. I hope it does.

        Anyone know if there is going to be a 4th season? Yes or no answers, please.

    1. Vikings is better.

      1. Vikings lacks tits.

        1. Do you really need to see Lagertha’s tits to find her attractive?

          1. No. One just needs to see her tits, period.

  2. Claire is struggling to find meaningful endeavors outside of the commemorative Easter Egg selection and such that comes with being First Lady.

    We need to get back to a time when the First Partner didn’t become a de facto legislator, shoving all kinds of health and safety regulations down the throats of 360,000,000.

    1. Yeah. We don’t need a queen. Just the title “first lady” is annoying.

  3. the rightness of his “touch choices” rhetoric. But after suffering a political setback soon after, Frank chalks it up to the fact that Mahmoud’s words made him temporarily “soft.”

    They’re really doubling down on Frank’s peculiar sexuality this season.

    1. I’m getting a bit tired of how shows these days will inorganically force a gay character into every damn show. I was watching that new Amazon show Bosch and there’s a scene in the final episode where show the captain of the LAPD hosting a party with her lesbian partner. It adds no character development and is otherwise completely irrelevent to the storyline. It’s merely a continued and sustained effort by the media to push a narrative in a propogandistic method.

      1. Admit it. You watch Glee.

        1. I don’t have cable.

          1. It’s over the air, on Fox.

            1. I don’t even have the OTA converted box.

              1. Ahahahahaaha, I’ve never even considered that as an option for TV. I mean, in my head, the choice is “No cable, just internet” or “cable tv.” I don’t identify any option between the two.

                1. This. Although I did once consider getting the converter box simply to watch live sports. Then I realized that as a Chiefs fan living in L.A., there’s no point since I’ll never get my teams games locally televised. And there’s a bar right downstairs.

                  Although I’m looking forward to potentially getting murdered attending a Chiefs game at the new Raiders stadium in Carson.

              2. Then how do you watch NFL live? Streaming?

                1. What is this NFL live you speak of?

                2. The NFL is your tax dollars at work.

                  1. ok, I laughed

          2. That was an interesting non-denial.

            1. I don’t watch Glee. Closest I ever came to watching something of that nature was that I watched The Voice while I was married.

              Having not watched Glee though, I find it hard to believe they force the gay character in such an inorganic manner. And I obviously don’t have any issue with gay, aside from a preference that Liz Warren secure the Democratic nomination. I have an issue with screen writing that is intended to push an agenda and sacrifices the aura of believability in an otherwise enjoyable show solely to advance said agenda.

      2. Well in this case it’s not irrelevant, as it does add a nice wrinkle to Frank and the Underwood marriage. (and is interesting in that it’s Spacey…)

        I agree that there are times when introducing a gay character feels like it’s checking off a box in the PC checklist. On the other hand, it usually doesn’t matter if a person is gay, so its irrelevancy really should be… irrelevant.

        1. In season 1, the reveal seemed forced and a non-sequiter. There was already ample wrinkles in the marriage concerning Frank’s relationship with Zoe Barnes and his wife knowing about it.

          They built upon it in season 2, but that may have been directly the result of so many people feeling it awkwardly forced in the first season.

          1. I disagree. At least in my experience, that college episode was considered one of the best of the season, and an example of the kind of episode the show should create if it wants to be a “serious drama.” His homosexuality emphasizes what he gives up for his political ambition and suggests some regret.

      3. Hmmm, I havn’t seen any gay characters on Vikings yet.

        1. It’s all subtextual in Vikings. The guy with the eye shadow? Come on. Everyone else carries off women from raids, he carries off their clothes.

        2. Didn’t the hero offer his manservant to join him in sexy time with his wife?

      4. I wouldn’t call Frank gay, really.

        If there is no point at all to a scene besides making you aware that a character is gay, I see what you are saying. But to include more characters who happen to be gay seems like a good thing.

  4. The more people tell me I absolutely have to watch ‘House of Cards’ the less appeal it has to me.

    Especially since Kevin Spacey played his character for the DC elite at the White House Press Corrospondents’ Dinner.

    1. Season 1 was really good, Season 2 was pretty good and I haven’t started Season 3 yet but I assume it will just be good. As mentioned above, the best part of the show is Frank’s quest for power.

      1. the best part of the show is Frank’s quest for power.

        Funny, it’s the best part of Hillary Clinton, too.

        1. The best part is the gaffes.

      2. I loved Season 1, thought Season 2 was meh, and have been enjoying Season 3.

        1. I don’t doubt it’s good, but this feels like Breaking Bad all over again where I didn’t feel like getting into it until just before the final season.

          But since it’s Netfix at least catching up will be easy.

        2. Same, I blew through season 1 and then stalled out during season 2 and never finished it.

          Perhaps I will attempt to restart watching season 2 from the beginning.

      3. He’s in power come season 3. Without spoiling, I’d say that Season 3 is about the effects of having and trying to secure that power.

    2. I recommend the original BBC show. I like it better in many ways. And it takes a lot less time to watch, 12 hours for all 3 series.

      Then watch the American one. If you want to. It is interesting to see where they sort of followed the original and where they went completely their own way.

      1. I recommend the original BBC show

        You’re talking about In the Thick of It?

  5. West Wing with sex and profanity. Disappointed with season 3 thus far.

  6. Try not to get a little wistful as Frank, a Democrat, gives an eloquent speech about the necessity of decimating entitlement programs

    The second I saw a democrat talking about significant and substanstive entitlement reform (even if his intention of using the savings was for a jobs program with the unachievable goal of “full employment”), I knew this was a work of fiction. At least we can hope that maybe the legions of daily show fanbois that watch the show will maybe begin considering entitlement reform as a sexy new political cause.

    1. Try not to get a little wistful as Frank, a Democrat, gives an eloquent speech about the necessity of decimating entitlement programs

      Sounds like a ruse. Frank’s supposed to be evil… so the evil guy suggests reforming entitlements. See where that’s going?

    2. I’m pretty sure no one ever doubted that it was a work of fiction. Perhaps it was a mistake to set it in basically contemporary, but fictionalized reality. But it’s not as if Democrats have never used that kind of rhetoric.

      I think they actually do a very good job dealing with actual political issues. Making it about Democrats was a very good move. Since the whole show is about evil and cynical politicians and how fucked up politics is, they couldn’t make it into a story about how great Deocrats are. And making the protagonists Republicans would have made it too easy to just fall into the usual tropes about rich old white men and all that.

  7. Am I the only one that hates his fake southern accent?

    1. A bit. It seems like he listened to Foghorn Leghorn before filming in order to get his accent right.

      But if he really wanted to tap into the appropriate accent for a gay North Carolina pol, he should just watch Lindsay Graham recite talking points.

      1. I think you mean South Carolina. :p

        Overall, North Carolina South Carolina although John Edwards set NC back a bit.

        1. Damn you html tags. NC greaterthan SC

    2. If by ‘hate’ you mean mildly aroused. . . . .

  8. You “netflix neutrality” people need to watch regular TeeVee and quit slowin’ down my internet.

    1. They’re parasites, one and all.

  9. Bah! I still say he’s no Francis Urquhart. I don’t want my villain protagonists complex. They should delight in their evil.

    1. Urquhart also had a class to him that Spacey attempts but just isn’t capable of.

  10. fault House of Cards for being a fantasy of government competency and cunning

    I haven’t watched it, but it’s this reputation that has completely torpedoed any interest I’ve had. I’m sure it’s good, but–like I can’t watch police procedurals because of their fantasy of utter police competence and integrity–the idea of a show about hyper-competent politicians (even if they’re mostly competent at getting power) just leaves me cold and uninterested.

    Which is why I like Veep so much.

    1. I imagine IRL politics much more like Black Sheep.

    2. Pretty much this. And like I said above I was really turned off by Kevin Spacey’s intro video at the WHCD where he mingled with the scum of Earth like Bloomberg and Pelosi in an attempt to humanize them.

      Plus I prefer to only watch a handful of shows in their first-run. Right now it’s The Americans, Black Sails, Veep, Game of Thrones (running out of patience on that one) and Hannibal (running out of patience with NBC for jerking it around on the timeslotting and air dates).

      1. Game of Thrones (running out of patience on that one)

        Read the damn books. Much better.

      2. At this point I’m almost watching GoT more to see how it deviates absurdly from the books, and how badly they will do it, than for the entertainment I got from it in earlier seasons.

        Oh well. If you were honest with yourself you had to know this was coming. They couldn’t match the seasons to the books, Martin isn’t writing them fast enough, and the kid actors are growing up, and basically there was no way they could keep to the books and the books’ schedule.

        1. It’s definitely getting to Robert Jordan levels.

          1. Oh, I don’t agree with that at all. Martin is writing a lot of pages, but he’s not insanely redundant and derivative like Jordan. Dance with Dragons was really, really good. Feast for Crows was a tough read when I first bought it after it came out, and I stopped about a quarter in. But then when DwD came I out I went back and reread books 2 and 3 again and then when I restarted FfC, I breezed through it and quite enjoyed it.

            Jordan was a ridiculous hack who just copied and pasted the same shit chapter after chapter to get people to buy more shitty books (I stopped at about book 4, by the way, I couldn’t take that shit any more). Martin is a vastly better writer, and he may be taking way too long, but what he delivers is still excellent.

            And the show’s writers just can’t match that when they deviate.

            1. Feast for Crows was a tough read when I first bought it after it came out, and I stopped about a quarter in. But then when DwD came I out I went back and reread books 2 and 3 again and then when I restarted FfC, I breezed through it and quite enjoyed it.

              This describes my experience with FfC almost exactly, other than I only read them a few years ago. I’m re-reading FfC right now and wondering why it bored me so much the first time through that I stopped at nearly the same place as you.

              If the show has pissed me off in any way, it’s that I suspect GRRM’s involvement with the show has delayed his writing and releasing Winds of Winter.

            2. I can understand that. Yes, Minister showed an intelligent bureaucrat, but it was watchable because he was so open about deceiving the public in regard to what the bureaucracy was doing. They often made the point that what was good for the bureaucracy and what would be good for the public were vastly different.

              1. My 12:35 should have been a reply to Episiarch’s first comment.

            3. I am slogging through A Feast for Crows right now. It definitely feels less coherent than the earlier books, but i am aware that that’s just because it and A Dance with Dragons were supposed to be a single book until they got too damn long.

              Still, it would have been nice if they’d been re-edited back together for the e-book.

        2. I’m more optimistic about season 5 since they’re cutting out Bran. So I’ll only have to tolerate Jon Snow and his punchable face, which will be in part made easier by having Stannis and Mance at the Wall.

          And I’m guessing bad stuff will start to happen to Dany, whom I also can’t stand.

          1. See, this is one thing I see as a failure in the show. In the books, Dany and Jon and even Bran are all very likable characters, to the point where some of them are beloved to many readers. But in the show they annoy the shit out of a lot of people. That’s pretty much a failure to bring the characters over from the books.

            I’m not optimistic about this season at all, because the degree to which they started deviating from the books in season 4 was…significant. And they don’t do it well. The more they deviate, the more stupid their deviations seem. And since they have deviated so much that they’re almost completely rewriting the story at this point, and since they’ve shown themselves to suck at doing that, I don’t have high hopes for this new season.

            1. In the books, Dany and Jon and even Bran are all very likable characters, to the point where some of them are beloved to many readers.

              Dany was at times annoying in the books too, though it was brief and primarily in the second book.

            2. Eh, I think some of this is also age related. In the books, when Dany does childish or rash things (i.e. freeing the slaves without really having a plan, her personal relationship drama) it’s a lot more understandable because she basically is a child for most of her development. In the tv show you expect a much more mature person because of the actress’ age.

            3. I dunno, I find Dany likable in the show, and often tiresome in the books. Maybe it’s just that I like looking at/listening to Emilia Clarke.

              Same for Bran: he can be annoying in both book and show. I’d say that Bran was at his best in season 2 of the show: he was smart and decisive but still vulnerable. In the book, he mostly sulks, plays with his wolf and pesters the Reeds with questions.

              I only read books 2-5 last year, and I was stunned at how competent Jon is. That’s the glaring difference. Jon is competent and confident in the books, while he appears perpetually confused in the show. I don’t know how they hope to pull off his season 5 story. He was mostly good for that battle at Castle Black, but his leadership there felt like it came out of nowhere.

          2. Honestly, given Martin’s habit of trying to do the reverse of what everyone expects (i.e. the constant murdering of Starks) I’m going to be really disappointed if he elevates Dany to some kind of Dragon Jesus in the books. I’m just waiting for him to pull the rug out from under her.

            1. Martin has proven extremely adept at doing very unexpected things. I completely disagree with the idea that he’s just trying to do the reverse of what everyone expects. He’s trying to make the story “real”, in that anything can happen to any character at any time. He’s deliberately defying the common convention of the “main” characters being mostly untouchable until the climax. And he does it extremely well.

              I’m sure he has some curve balls in store for Dany and many of the characters.

              1. I can’t remember the exact interview but I’m basing that off of some of Martin’s statements. In one interview he was talking about how once he killed off Ned he thought about what people would expect, which is Robb getting his revenge, and so he planned to axe him for that reason. ‘Unexpected’ is probably a better descriptor than ‘reverse’.

      3. You need to start watching Vikings.

        It’s got plenty of period epic costumes and sets, a good amount of intrigue, and a lot more battle scenes than Game of Thrones.

        I think it’s the best thing on TV right now.

        1. A qualifier: Vikings is pretty good, but if you’re a history buff about the period there’s a bunch of stuff that might make you seriously irritated if historical inaccuracy bugs you.

          1. It takes place in the 700-1000 A.D. time period and is based on Norse legends, so history is going to be innacurate.
            Did Ragnar even exist? I’m pretty sure his wife wasn’t the daughter of a Valkyrie.

            1. Ragnar’s historicity is a bit up in the air, but his sons are pretty solidly historical. He’s mythologized enough that you can mess around with it a bit.

              I’m more referencing to stuff like in Season 1, where the Vikings don’t know that the British Isles exist (when in reality there was constant trade between England and Scandavania since the Roman period) and the Jarls relationship with his people (Vikings lived in semi-democratic, constantly shifting societies, not some feudal noble model). There’s also some design stuff that’s questionable (too much biker leather on Vikings and not enough helmets) along with some weird dates (King Alfred of Wessex was like ten when he’s a full grown man in the series).

              At the same time, they’ve clearly done their research on other parts of the show. The temple at Uppsala is basically designed exactly like it was described by Adam of Bremen.

              1. I assumed that Ragnar was coming from Norway, given that the town seems to be in a fjord – and then he builds his ship secretly in the next fjord over.

                The costumes I agree are ahistorical, but I just feel like, at least Vikings spends their money on battle scenes.
                GoT can’t seem to get their act together and have one decent large-scale battle scene. Oh, but the costumes and sets are really pretty. Priorities.

        2. Vikings is pretty good, but as John says there are historical inaccuracies (which is fine, it’s just TV), and while I like the show I don’t find it particularly compelling. GoT (the books) are so compelling that GoT (the show) holds a much greater interest for me than it would otherwise.

          1. How much have you watched? Season one was pretty good, but IMO, Season 2 was great, and Season 3 is off to a great start as well.

            I find it very interesting in part because it portrays a time period and a set of myths that don’t get a lot of film treatment. Never heard of Ragnar Lothbrok or Bjorn before this show. Now I know a little bit about Norse legends.

  11. Kevin Spacey….is not only a flaming leftist, but this guy is so gay. I mean….sheesh….hugely gay.

    1. And that is relevant or interesting why?

  12. My favorite parts of the series thus far have been when Maddow, anyone on MSNBC, Colbert, etc. are actually, substantially critical of the administration, which has been Democratic throughout the series thus far.

    Heath Ledger holed up while he created a terrifying Joker, and seemed to lose his mind. DeNiro gained nearly 100 pounds for Raging Bull. Pfft. Mere child’s play compared to what Maddow and co. must have done to prepare for their roles on this show.

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  14. I find the behavior of Underwood this season beyond implausible for a president in his position.

    His “AmWorks” proposal – to defund social security and replace it with a full employment jobs program – is laughably inept. Underwood is the lamest of lame ducks – never elected, ratings in the toilet, 18 months to the election – and he wants to gut Social Security to finance a socialistic full employment program?



    1. Oh, and then he invites Pussy Riot to a state dinner with Vladimir Putin (er “Victor Petrov”).

      Yeah, right!!

      And then he goes on live TV and publicly insults the Russian President in the most undiplomatic manner.

      Totally unrealistic.

      1. The details may be unbelievable, but the idea of a Democratic president that no one likes thoroughly fucking up every single issue that crosses his desk seems a woefully realistic depiction of the times.

        1. Except Underwood isn’t being portrayed as a fuck-up. He’s supposed to be a highly astute master manipulator.

    2. Agree. Every episode portrays something that no sensible person would do. It started with President Underwood pissing on his father’s grave. There is absolutely no way the guy would do that for fear of a photographer with telephoto lens. Goes downhill from there. Just watched 5 & 6 last night. Claire’s little speech was absurd … I know the gays are important to Democrats, but you don’t go about taunting a nuclear-armed bear for light and transient reasons.

      1. Huh. Somehow I missed that he was pissing on the grave.

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