"Do what you have to do." It's a phrase uttered multiple times over the course of House of Cards' third "volume." Season three of Netflix's flagship series addresses this dictum to many characters grappling with tough choices, but the core subject of these thirteen chapters, like the 26 preceding ones, is the marriage of Frank and Claire Underwood. Creator Beau Willimon whips up a stormy season and dashes this power couple on the rocks.
Now President of the United States, the never-elected Frank (Kevin Spacey) must make a case to his own party, and the American people at large, that he deserves their votes during the coming election cycle. Claire (Robin Wright) has her own ambitions to protect and serve, and cashes in chips to become the United States Ambassador to the United Nations with her husband's endorsement. All the while, they must contend with the day-to-day crises of the country Frank runs, but certain unilateral decisions by each player threaten their partnership: ultimately, one of them is the most powerful person in the world and one isn't, putting a team once united by unrelenting, vaulting ambition—the common goal of winning the White House—into acidic contention. Season Three isn't so much about getting power; it's about grasping to maintain it, and what that does to the state of the Underwoods' union.
The West Wing-style element of the show largely hinges on Frank's bold (and legally dubious) AmericaWorks jobs initiative and thinly veils Vladimir Putin under the guise of Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), a formidable adversary for both Frank and Claire in a series of foreign-policy crises (including one involving, gay rights and, in a cameo appearance, Pussy Riot). Through it all, Underwood angles to put the Democratic presidential nominees at a disadvantage and himself at a strategic advantage, even as he maintains (as long as he can) the lie that he has no intention to run. But each obstacle that rises in Frank's path—and even, in most cases, each ally—has a funny way of exacerbating tensions with Claire.
The leading performances (a reptilian Richard III—complete with asides—from Spacey, an ice-queeny Lady Macbeth from Wright) continue to impress, though the supporting characters stagnate in Volume Three. The on-again, off-again shenanigans of White House Chief of Staff Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) and Democratic U.S. Representative from California Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) don't generate much interest, though the latter strikes sparks when sparring with Underwood over her role as a spoiler in the Democratic primary. As a Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren-esque wild card, Presidential candidate Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) makes another fine adversary for Frank by refusing to fall for his lines. Somewhere in the middle is Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood's once (and future?) Chief of Staff: exiled, Doug spends the season trying to overcome his demons and tie up the loose end of Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) in an attempt to worm his way back into the Underwoods' good graces.
In smaller but compelling roles, three fine actors work the edges of the story: Doug's uneasy partner-in-crime Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), shady Presidential biographer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks of Boardwalk Empire), and tenacious journalist Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens). Their professional and sexual peccadillos make for good drama, and though the shoe hasn't dropped with Secret Service agent Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) for quite some time, his ongoing presence adds consistency and an unspoken tension to many a scene. The series' sleekly cinematic look (helped by feature directors like Agnieska Holland, James Foley, and John Dahl) pulls us in, and if the writing shepherded by Willimon falters some in Season Three, the upheaving cliffhanger at which the season arrives leaves us hungry for a swift return.
It's hard to beat Sony in the A/V department, even with a show as visually challenging as House of Cards. The Fincherian look of the show features low light, muddy contrast, and muted hues, but the HD transfers here handle it all with technical aplomb that turns potential disaster into a laundry list of virtues. Black level is key at anchoring the picture quality, and the transfers excel in this regard while yielding plenty of fine detail and texture. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mixes prove equal to the images in sharpness and depth. Surround channels are engaged nicely for ambience throughout the season, though the bigger impressions are made by always articulate dialogue and pulsing scoring, with LFE thrumming convincingly when needed.
Aside from the option to view recaps for each episode, the set only offers two bonus features, on Disc Four, but both are excellent, in-depth featurettes. The first, "Backstage Politics: On the Set of House of Cards" (24:59, HD), is a behind-the-scenes doc with extensive set footage and talent interviews that address how the show is written and executed, with examples going back to Season One. "A Death in New Mexico" (17:01, HD) focuses in on one of the season's most spoiler-y plot points. Blu-ray remains the best way to enjoy this sharply written, sharp-looking, cinematic series.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
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Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
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