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.