This article contains spoilers from the third season of Netflix’s “House of Cards.”

“House of Cards”

Season 3
Streaming Online

“The Presidency is the illusion of choice,” Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey, “American Beauty”) muses late into season three of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Over the first two seasons, Frank fought, lied and killed to become the leader of the free world. Now, in season three, he finds the position he sought might not have all the power he hoped for.

In the visually dark and unsaturated world of “House of Cards,” Frank works best in the shadows, but now, the harsh spotlight is on him. With his approval rating sinking, he is a character far more desperate than the cold, calculating schemer seen in the first two seasons. Spacey still delivers the cruel bravado of a Shakespearean villain even as Frank fights for a flatlining political life. Beset by attacks from both parties, Frank tells Stephen Colbert (playing his alter-ego from “The Colbert Report”), “Both parties want the same thing,” to which Colbert replies, “A new president in 2016.”

Frank is no longer able to execute the well-laid plans from previous seasons. Instead, he grasps at straws in a desperate attempt to survive, and fails more often than he succeeds. While this brings some humility to the character, it does cause the momentum of the season to break up, and is not nearly satisfying as Frank’s rise to power. The struggle to succeed places character development before moving the plot forward with mixed results.

The impeachment of President Walker (Michael Gill, “Person of Interest”) last season has blown a powder keg in D.C., and both sides are rushing for power among the wreckage. The first episodes of the season lay this landscape out well with different characters set up to challenge or work with Frank, but the series fails to capitalize on the potential. The worst failing is when Hector Mendoza (Benito Martinez, “The Shield”), a promising Republican candidate, is abruptly written out halfway through the season’s run.

Other primary characters struggle to make a mark this season. Notably, Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel, “Law & Order: SVU”), Frank’s rival for the 2016 Democratic bid, begins to sink into the shadowy morality Frank occupies until the man she hates says, “You’re finally one of us.” Dunbar is interesting because she is unaware of her growing hypocrisy, caught up in her delusions of idealism. But like many storylines this season, her relevance is inconsistent. She is important one moment, takes a backseat the next and then comes to the forefront in fits and starts.

After being nearly beaten to death by Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan, “Manhattan”), Doug Stamper’s (Michael Kelly, “Person of Interest”) survival and recovery brought forth the most engaging subplot in season three. Physically and mentally broken, Doug has to come to grips with his reality. He’s a wounded animal put out to pasture by Frank, except Doug’s not ready to quit. The character has an addictive personality, and for years has filled his life serving Frank. Now that what defines him is gone, Doug spirals into self-destruction as he relapses into alcohol addiction and obsesses over finding Rachel. But he contains an unstoppable resilience, even in his lowest state, when he drunkenly declares to Frank, “I’m not Peter Russo; I won’t go like he did.”

One of “House of Cards” ’s biggest weaknesses following its stellar first season is the absence of Russo (Corey Stoll, “The Strain”). Stoll brought forth a man trying to get his life right in order to be a better father for his children and partner for his girlfriend. His relationships and promise made his orchestrated demise by Frank the series’ greatest tragedy, and the show has struggled to create a worthy followup.

Doug’s storyline in season three, while overextended and taken slightly too far near the end, is the closest “House of Cards” has come to equaling Russo’s conflict. Kelly captures a man in flux, desperately trying to claw his way back into the world he’s been cast out of. His attempts to stabilize also bring genuine, humanizing moments to a stoic character as Doug reconnects with his brother and his family. But Doug is disturbed man by nature, and in his final arc in the last three episodes, he cements his dark path beside Frank.

As Doug tries to fall back within Frank’s good graces, the series’ second lead, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright, “The Princess Bride”) slowly begins distancing herself from Frank. Frank and Claire realize the integral role each has played in their rise, but what bound the two together soon becomes a problem for the pair. Visually striking motifs such as eggs and Buddhist sand art emphasize the fragile state of their union as Claire tells author Tom Yates (Paul Sparks, “Boardwalk Empire), “I hate how much I need us.”

Frank and Claire’s partnership is meant to be equal, but it becomes more apparent throughout the season that the end result is anything but that. Claire may be just as tactile as Frank but she possesses the flaw of humanity. It’s what makes Claire see the pair as “murderers” while Frank says, “We’re survivors.” It’s these emotions of empathy that hold Claire back from achieving what the brutal Frank has gained. Claire has sacrificed so much to put Frank in power so she would one day find herself at the top. Sadly, she sees that because of her smallest hint of decency, she will never gain her end goal. Meanwhile, Frank refuses to see or acknowledge this. In the final episode, all this comes to head in a battle of wills inside the Oval Office.

The focus on character development sets up many of the series’ main characters for promising arcs in season four. But it still feels like setup. After 13 new episodes, “House of Cards” season three did not made great strides. The acting by Spacey, Wright and Kelly, complemented by fantastic, dark cinematography, carry the season. However, the narrative feels stretched too thin, unable to fully deliver on several promising setups. Instead, it’s left waiting for another season to pick up the pieces.

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