House of Cards muzzles Frank Underwood, offering a closer look at the man who tore down an administration.
The Frank Underwood who waged a campaign of vengeance against former President Walker is very different from the man in the Oval Office in the third season of House of Cards
Through the first two seasons of House of Cards, we watched Frank manipulate, deceive and kill his way to the presidency, leaving destroyed political and business leaders in his wake. While he faced unexpected challenges and obstacles - both public and private - during his rise to power, he always maintained control over the political players of Washington in one way or another.
Not surprisingly, Frank's agency is restrained more than ever now that he occupies the most powerful office in the country. In order to be an effective president and secure his legacy, Frank must act judiciously and consider the consequences of every action - something he fails to do repeatedly this season. He constantly has his decisions and mistakes as president thrown in his face, ultimately leaving him more powerless than ever.
Unable to act upon others as he is used to doing, Frank is forced to restrict himself, making threats and promises he knows he can't keep. Even though he now has the largest reach in his career, his frustration must be directed inward. We are left with a formerly terrifying anti-hero who is humanized in his impotence.
This results in a more intimate story about Frank Underwood, which would be incomplete without an examination of his marriage to Claire. Their unconventional yet highly effective relationship is the chief story in House of Cards' third season. Previous seasons made very clear the strength of their connection and how dedicated they both are to their mutual pursuit of power. Claire has, on occasion, struggled to reconcile her conscience with Frank's ruthless pragmatism, but most television marriages can't hold a candle to how much they trust and depend on one another.
The third season explores the dynamics of power within their own relationship through demonstrations of how they exercise their individual power outside of their marriage as president and first lady. With their marriage more public than ever, Claire's own agency in relation to Frank is made clear, and given her strength and brilliance it comes as no surprise that she is uncomfortable with this dynamic.
Two newcomers play important yet unique roles in exploring their marriage and in humanizing Frank: novelist and video game reviewer (yeah) Tom Yates and Russian President Viktor Petrov.
Tom is hired by Frank to write his biography as a way of selling the country on his jobs program, America Works. Over the challenging months of Frank's presidency, Tom travels with him across the country, visits him in the White House at all hours and spends time with Claire.
As far as viewers are concerned, Tom functions as a therapist for Frank. He opens conversations with superficial questions, but takes opportunities to guide their talks into explorations of Frank's past, his marriage and his emotional state. Of course Frank often lies, but it's the few moments of truth that strike Tom and provide him a road map to navigate Frank and Claire's deceptions to find the story he needs to tell.
While Tom pushes Frank's internal boundaries, Viktor Petrov pressures Frank externally. Lars Mikkelson is unrecognizable from his role as Charles Magnussen in BBC's Sherlock, and his caricatured version of Vladmir Putin may easily become the image House of Cards fans associate with the actual president of Russia.
Viktor is the single individual that forces Frank's hand more than any other; he takes away Frank's agency while remaining untouchable, making him Frank's most hated adversary. Russia's homophobic laws play a large part in the conflicts throughout the season, and is a particularly poignant concept given Frank's closeted bisexuality.
A spoiler from the beginning of the first episode follows.