|As House of Cards enters its third season, the bloodletting Underwoods show a softer side in private.|
There is a scene in 1999's American Beauty where Kevin Spacey's character, Lester Burnham, masturbates in bed beside his wife, the bloodless materialist Carolyn Burnham. When she catches him in the act of 'saying hello to his monster' she yells, "that's disgusting!" To which he issues the pointed retort: "At least some of us still have blood pumping through our veins!"
This scene from one of Kevin Spacey's early, career defining films is a good jumping point to leap into Season 3 of Netflix's House of Cards. For the show's first two seasons Frank and Claire Underwood stopped at nothing to discredit or kill anyone who threatened Frank's rise to the Oval Office. To be such cold and evil protagonists they had to shed most recognizable human feelings — their ambition and cold as day realism matched the show's colour palette — all cold stone greys, polished marble floors, and dark shadows.
Now that Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) are in the White House, we get to see that they, too, have blood pumping through their veins. The Frank and Claire dynamic has always been central to the series — each driving the other, and offering a comforting shoulder when it's needed. Witness the much talked about threesome between Frank, Claire, and their Secret Service bodyguard Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) in Season 2. The energy and sexual tension are believable as Meechum, a trusted member of the Underwoods' inner circle, is elevated into another level of trust and confidence.
Or witness the second episode of Season 3, when Claire returns from an evening jog to find Frank in tears because he can't find political support for a re-election bid. You will see how much these two characters need each other, support each other, and give each other strength.
This trust and confidence the Underwoods share is what starts to fall apart in Season 3. As Frank intones in the trailer, "You want to know what takes real courage? Holding it all together when the stakes are this high."
As President, Frank is confronted with all the messiness of governing — Congress wants to kill his jobs plan, America Works, because the program uses funds earmarked for FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Agency) to a bullying Russian President, Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), a barely disguised Vladimir Putin. Petrov's anti-gay laws cause conflict with Claire when the First Couple visits Russia to secure the release of a gay rights activist jailed for demonstrating.
If this wasn't enough pressure to cause cracks in the most solid of marriages, Claire lobbies Frank early in Season 3 to make her Ambassador to the United Nations. In keeping with his 'win at any cost' style Frank appoints her to the job when Congress and the Senate are on a recess. Claire soon learns to be careful what she wishes for when she comes up against fellow diplomats who don't take her seriously, viewing Ambassador Underwood as a mouthpiece for Frank's agenda.
Surface cracks turn into a full-blown rupture when Claire publicly denounces Petrov at a joint press conference inside the Kremlin. This after the gay rights activist hangs himself inside his cell with Claire sleeping just feet away. Of course the easiest way to cause a rift within a Power Couple would be to take some of that power away.
The ice cold looks and physical distance increases right away — Frank and Claire begin to sleep in separate bedrooms. Episode 7 brings a change with the Underwoods renewing their vows and trying to deepen the connection they share once more. It's perhaps the most moving episode of the season; when Claire snuggles up to Frank at the end of this episode you get a sense of how far each would go for the other.
Peace for the First Couple is a fleeting thing as Frank's inevitable re-election bid, ruthlessness, and unwillingness to take advice other than his own creates a new, deeper rift between them. This culminates in a monologue delivered by Frank inside the Oval Office where he vows to 'take charge' since there is only one chair in the Oval Office, and that chair belongs to him. When Claire leaves him it seems, more than anything, that lack of love isn't what makes her go, it's the lack of power she feels — with Frank as President, he makes all the decisions, including the giving of, and later taking away, of Claire's U.N. ambassadorship.
This American remake of House of Cards had a Shakespearean flavour from the beginning. Frank's undoing and fall from power are all but inevitable. Season 3 shows that fall starts with losing the person he loves most.