I've never been the biggest fan of House of Cards in the first place, so when this new season can't even clear my, admittedly very low bar, you know there's a problem. And the problem was clear from the very first episode of the season, when we open on the disappointing discovery that Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), the world's most boring character on a show filled with extraneous ones, is still alive, after having been bashed in the head with a rock at the end of the last season, my expectations sunk still further. When we then go on to spend, and I'm not kidding, 90% of the first episode on his slow recovery in the hospital, barely bothering to check in with anyone else on the series, I started getting distracted by the temptation to actually do other things while watching a TV show (something that I never consider doing when I'm binge-ing a season).
Eventually we do get back to the power scheming of Frank and Claire Underwood, but that temptation resurfaced many, many times this season, and that's because so much of it was spent on incredibly dull, obvious time-wasting filler, occasionally checking in with characters no one cares about (and way, way too much time spent watching Doug stare at the walls in his apartment). So, Frank and Claire are in the White House, and that immediately puts a big damper on the entire premise of the show, which is watching them crush every bug in their way in their inevitable rise to power. So, now that they're there, what happens? Well, real world politics happens. Frank has to deal with international crises and the fact that Congress does not roll over for his domestic agenda the way he often forced them to when he was in the legislative branch, while Claire attempts to find some role for herself besides simply being the First Lady, which grows more and more unsatisfying to her over the course of the season.
But here's the thing. None of the actual sausage-making is interesting, at all. Figuring out how to push Frank's "America Works" program (something that resembles nothing no Democrat or Republican would ever propose- how the hell is this man a Democrat?) through Congress is like watching paint dry. Dealing with the Vladimir Putin stand-in Victor Petrov (Lars Mikkelson) as he threatens relations between the U.S. and Russia over a UN peacekeeping mission, asks you to make some completely and utterly ridiculous lapses in logic, especially if you know anything about foreign policy whatsoever (yes, I know this is an alternate universe, but the show takes itself SO seriously that you're essentially asked to believe all this could really happen, and there's just no motherfucking way any of this is plausible). Finally, when Frank has to battle for the primary nomination in the next election against two female candidates it gets kind of interesting again, but that doesn't really kick in until the last few episodes. And to get there we're saddled with a really awful subplot involving a journalist Frank hires to write a book about him, and this guy is played by an unappealing actor named Paul Sparks, who suddenly gets so much screentime and means so much to Frank that you'd think he'd known him since childhood, and the truth is we just. don't. care.
The bright spot of the season is Robin Wright, who finally gets more screentime than she's ever had, while she wrangles her way into becoming Ambassador to the UN, and then proceeds to make a muck of everything she touches, and while it doesn't make a lot of sense for Claire to spend thirty years at Frank's side to only now realize she doesn't want to be the "woman behind the man," at least it gives Wright a chance to shine and be given more emotions to play as she finally decides to leave Frank in the season finale. But really, everything else this year screamed that the season is placeholder only, until everything around Frank comes crashing down, as I assume it's going to, right? I didn't figure that they'd change the ending of the original British miniseries (which this has already lasted longer than) to the point where Frank ultimately wins, but now I'm starting to wonder if the show likes his character too much to want him to face his fate. As entertaining as Kevin Spacey is, I'd like nothing more than for Frank to go down in flames (Claire too for that matter- I don't really care at all about her crisis of conscience, the woman's sanctioned murder and needs to pay), and that's pretty much the only reason I'm still watching at this point. But the truth is, this is by far the most hollow and empty of the original Netflix shows to premiere in the last couple years, and as classy as it looks and feels, at its core there's not a whole lot there. And someone needs to tell me where Beau Willimon took his civics courses, because I honestly think I have a stronger grasp on the American political system and international foreign politics than he does. I can only imagine the howling that goes on in the real White House when they watch this at night.