Season Recap

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS

We’ve all got people in our lives that takes great pride and pleasure in informing the rest of us that they don’t watch television. For those of you who keep the set off, please allow me to inform you that you’re doing yourself a great disservice. We’re living in a Platinum-Age of the medium with series emanating from a variety of sources, that’s helping to redefine television. One of those series at the top of the freshman class was the USA Network Original Drama “Mr. Robot,” that concluded its first season on Wednesday night, leaving viewers chomping at the bit for the show to return next summer.

Series Creator and Show-Runner Sam Esmail created a universe eerily like our own, complete with a stock-market reeling from vast fluctuations and the Ashley Madison scandal. (When the site that existed only to aid people in committing adultery got mentioned, I wondered if the scene between Gloria Reuben and Armand Shultz had recently been re-shot.) We left Esmail’s universe in complete chaos, mainly due to the efforts of a brilliant but deeply damaged computer programmer named Elliot Alderson. Elliot and his rag-tag band of fellow hackers, along with the assistance of a Chinese group known as the Dark Army, destroyed the global-economic-system. The moves of “f_society,” erased all debt and grounded commerce to a halt. The world became a cash-only system, as credit-cards were rendered useless.

That’s the big-picture view, but this is a story that examined the seemingly innocuous, unimportant, people that sent the planet on a downward spiral. Although Elliot Alderson’s our central character and anti-hero, he was just one of the incredible characters we met along this journey. We met lots of bad folks over the course of ten-weeks, some who hailed from the streets to those at the top of the economic and power structures of our world. However, we never met one person that could qualify as being truly good, even with the most sympathetic characters, we saw the darkness inside them and the demons they battle daily.

We’ve got to remember that we’ve viewed this universe mainly through the eyes of Elliot, so any conclusions we come to at the end of season one, could be refuted early next season. Even with that being stated, I think we can safely assume that the scenes revolving around Angela, the Wellicks and E-Corp were indeed real, including that mind-blowing segment after the credits rolled in the season finale. That reveal’s pretty mind-blowing, as we watch White Rose dressed in male-attire talking with E-Corp Chairman Phillip Price, we realize that everything’s indeed connected. That the person who pats you on the back with one hand, could easily be sticking a shiv into your belly with the other seconds later.

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

BD Wong the actor that portrayed the transgender character White Rose, only appeared on the screen for a precious few minutes during the ten episode run, but perhaps no other character in the series could make our collective draws drop during that conversation with Price in the final scene of the season. White Rose talks of Nero playing a lyre while Rome burned, then compares that anecdote to the harpist playing “Nearer My God To Thee,” for the One Percent in the room they’re in, the same song that played as the Titanic went down. We saw White Rose speaking for the Dark Army for three-minutes in episode seven wearing women’s clothes as she spoke with Elliot about his planned hack of E-Corp’s servers, telling Alderson that while he hacked people, White Rose hacks time. The connection became complete, when White Rose’s watch alarm sounded in the middle of her conversation with Price, letting us know that White Rose works both sides of the street in her business dealings.

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

Many of us figured out early on that Mr. Robot was actually an extension of Elliot, personified in the form of his late father Edward who died in 1995. He took on the role that Elliot couldn’t handle, being the Alpha-Male Leader and devising a plan to destroy the company that killed his father, while saving the world. What we didn’t realize until the series progressed, was just how mentally unbalance Elliot actually is, forgetting that Darlene’s his sister and realizing he’s blacked out the memories of the previous three days in the season finale. He’s got no memory of putting the hack into motion and perhaps more unnervingly, he’s clueless about the whereabouts and welfare of Tyrell Wellick. The former E-Corp executive paid Alderson a surprise visit and forced him to reveal his plans in the previous episode. Did Elliot shoot Wellick with the pistol stored in the popcorn machine?

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

Alderson did speak with Wellick’s wife Joanna about Tyrell and she said she hadn’t seen him in the last three days. She asked Elliot his identity and relationship with her husband. He responded that he worked with her husband as a consultant and told her his name’s Ollie, stealing the moniker of his friend Angela’s former boyfriend. During their conversation she suddenly spoke in what sounded like her native Dutch, but neither we or Elliot understood what she was saying. Does she secretly hope that Tyrell’s dead as he’s unable to fix the mistakes he made?

Elliot decides that the only way he can fill in the gaps in his memory, is to summon back Mr. Robot. After screaming for him to appear, Elliot forces the issue by dialing 911 and saying he wanted to make a confession. Suddenly we see Mr. Robot hanging up the land line, although he fails to offer any answers to his son. We finally get to view what it looks like to an outsider watching Elliot interacting with Mr. Robot. Although I imagined the scenario many times in my head over the past ten weeks, it looked even more chilling on the screen.

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

The one character that seemed to stick to her principles in order to gain justice Angela Moss, finally succumbed to the dark side in the season finale. Angela sacrificed her reputation and career in the tech industry to make a deal with Terry Colby so that he’d testify that E-Corp held responsibility for her mother and Elliot’s father’s death among others. However Colby convinced her to take a job in the public relations department of E-Corp, leading her to being present at a horrific event as E-Corp executive James Plouffe took a pistol from his suitcase and shot himself in the mouth during a nationally televised interview. Most times in those situations, we’ll see the character put a pistol in their mouth and the camera pans to a wall, that wasn’t the case with Plouffe as we saw the results of his actions.

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

A while later, we see Angela approached by Phillip Price who tells her she can feel free to go home after witnessing Plouffe’s suicide, but then he realizes who she is. She says they’re holding a press conference later that day and suggests she attend. Flustered by his seemingly callous suggestion, she says she thinks not, he proceeds to pull a bankroll out of his pocket and slams some bills down on the table in front of them. He says that she needs new shoes, as the ones she’s wearing are stained by Plouffe’s blood.

Courtesy Of USA Network

Courtesy Of USA Network

Instead of heading home Angela heads to a shoe store, where the shoe salesman figures out she just came from the room Plouffe shot himself in and asks her what she’s doing there and then asks how can she work for E-Corp. She starts to explain herself, but stops and then tells the salesman she’ll try on the Prada’s next. She’s become Terry Colby, getting drunk and eating shrimp-cocktail, while talking about sentencing Angela’s mother and others to death.

She returns to E-Corp for the press conference and Price’s glad to see her and lets her see the man behind the curtain. She tells Moss that in reality, he’s glad Plouffe killed himself and he thinks the world’s a better place now that he’s left it. He then excuses himself to take the podium and asks those in attendance to bow their heads in a moment of silence for their lost friend and colleague.

While the rest of  “f_society,” hosts a party in their headquarters so they can obscure their fingerprints in an investigation, Elliot heads down to Times Square and witnesses a sea of humanity standing together all wearing Mr. Robot masks. He suddenly realizes he’s got some uninvited company as well, not only his father but his mother and the eight-year-old version of his self. Little Elliot tells his adult counterpart that the three of them will stay with Elliot from here on out.

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

Photo Courtesy Of USA Network

Elliot tries to block out all the sights and sounds so he can think, he holds his hands to his ears and suddenly he’s the only person in Times Square and it’s totally silent. That’s until he sees his family up on the Jumbotron that dominates Times Square. His father tells him to get on the subway, go home and sit behind his laptops and revel in the chaos he caused. Which he does until a knock at the door interrupts him, we’ll find out next summer whose knocking.

Photo Courtesy Of TNT

Photo Courtesy Of TNT

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Over the last few years the TNT Network’s created original programming, resulting in some surprisingly good shows, that can hold their own against most series presented on broadcast networks. Tuesday night marked the conclusion of the first season of “Proof,” a medical drama with a twist starring Jennifer Beals who stole American’s hearts in the movie “Flashdance” back in the early eighties. Her character Dr. Caroline Tyler’s a highly respected heart-surgeon, who’s just gone through the toughest year of her life. Tyler survived a car accident, that took the life of her teenage son Will and she blames herself for his loss. Soon after Caroline survived a plane crash and had what is known as a “Near-Death-Experience.”

The crash caused Tyler’s heart to stop briefly and while her life hung in the balance, she saw her son Will near her and tried to grab his hand. She also recognized someone else in her vision, an elderly woman with short gray hair, wearing a green scarf. Caroline got revived before she had a chance to talk to her son or the woman, but the vision’s haunted her ever since she had it.

Tyler’s estranged from her husband Dr. Len Barliss, portrayed by veteran TV actor David Sutcliffe and both doctors work in the same hospital. We’re under the impression that their marriage fell apart due to Caroline’s accident, that killed their son, but we find out the reasons are far more complicated than that. They have a teenage daughter named Sophie (Annie Thurman,) whom like most teenage girls can be both adorable and incredibly frustrating, depending on her mood.

The stars from the Eighties keep arriving as Caroline’s life gets altered forever when she meets Billionaire Industrialist Ivan Turing. Matthew Modine, who as a young man starred in the movies “Vision Quest” and “Full Metal Jacket,” as well as a score of other films, takes on the role of the brilliant visionary diagnosed with terminal cancer. Wanting to find out what, if anything awaits us on the other side, he offers to build a new wing for Tyler’s hospital if she consents to help him in his research.

Yet another actor who came of age in the eighties, Joe Morton who portrayed “The Brother From Another Planet,” plays Dr. Charles Richmond, who encourages Tyler to work with Turing, so the hospital can get the new wing, but he’s unaware of the nature of their research. Caroline enlists the help of a young doctor Zed Badawi (Edi Gathegi) a young man from Kenya that Tyler’s taken under her wing and expresses passion for the project.

Throughout the series ten-episode run, the show explored topics such as reincarnation, receiving messages from the dead and in one episode, a young woman who woke from a coma without any memories of her own had distinct memories from the lives of the other patients she shared the coma ward with. Although the series left open the possibility, that there could indeed be an afterlife, they also presented the full spectrum explaining that there could be very logical reasons, behind the seemingly paranormal events.

The characters are empathetic, the writing’s strong and the episodes seem to pass quickly, all benchmarks of mine for an enjoyable viewing experience. TNT has yet to announce whether Proof will get brought back for a second season next summer, but the finale ended in a way that gave the viewers closure, while leaving open the possibility for another season. TNT’s currently streaming the show on its website, it’s a show worth checking out.

Photo: Courtesy Of FOX

Photo: Courtesy Of FOX

Warning: Spoiler Alert

 The FOX Network concluded their ten-part miniseries “Wayward Pines,” with an episode that’s kept social-media-sites buzzing, over the last few days. The finale divided fans of the series into two camps, those who think the show ended on a brilliant note, while others simply hated it. During the last few minutes of the finale, the show-runners pulled a “bait and switch” maneuver, altering the optimistic ending that got set-up during the hour, to a much darker conclusion. While many viewers enjoyed the twist in the final minutes, many fans got confused or disgusted with the ending.

Although I’ve yet to read any of the Wayward Pines trilogy of novels, written by author Blake Crouch, I’m aware that the miniseries ended differently than the first novel did. I’m also aware that a plot-device used in the TV show “The First Generation Of Wayward Pines,” wasn’t utilized in Crouch’s books. The fact that the mini-series used the youngsters prominently and they figured into the conclusion, has many friends of mine that read the novels, besides themselves in consternation. We’ve seen Hollywood reconfigure some incredible novels, into films that were barely recognizable to the book’s fans for decades. So we’re going to leave that subject alone, in this article and just deal with the perspective of fans who didn’t read the books.

The series and its final episode are recapped elsewhere on this site, so we’re going to concentrate on just the final scenes of Thursday’s finale. The creator of Wayward Pines, David Pilcher got shot to death by his disillusioned sister Pam, earlier in the evening. The show’s protagonist, former Secret Service Agent turned Wayward Pines Sheriff Ethan Burke, sacrificed his life to save the rest of the residents. Burke connected four bombs to a detonator and when the Abbies began to attack the elevator car he rode in, he blew them and himself up. The elevator exploded into a ball of flame and then dropped like a stone to the bottom of the shaft.

Hearing the explosion, Ethan’s son Ben stuck his head inside the shaft, looking and calling for his father. However, his search didn’t last long as a piece of debris hit him in the head and knocked him out cold.

A while later, things have calmed down in Wayward Pines, as the power’s restored, the people are safe and they’ve had a chance to catch their collective breath. Pam and Kate Balinger, Ethan’s former partner in the Secret Service, knock down all the barriers that have come between them for the last 12-years and level with each other. We see a pact formed between the two women, to help run the town and end all the secrets and lies that David insisted on using. Things appear to be taking an optimistic turn as the women attempt to put humanity in the year 4028, back on the right path. Then the screen goes blank for a few seconds, something doesn’t feel right, it seems unfinished. We soon find out that’s indeed the case.

When the picture returns we hear a female voice asking how are you feeling Mr. Burke? Ben’s in a hospital bed and Amy’s wearing a nurse’s uniform, he asks what’s going on and Amy says his doctor will be there shortly and explain everything. Ben asks her why she’s dressed like that and she replies she’s a nurse and graduated two weeks ago.

Ben soon finds out he’s been in suspension for the last three-years and four-months, along with all the adults from Group B. The First Generation Of Wayward Pines, overpowered the adults and after putting them all back to sleep, took over operation of the town. The fear and ignorance are back in full force, emphasized by corpses hanging on light-poles on Main Street, one having a sign around his neck reading “Do Not Try To Leave.”

Judging by the posts I’ve encountered on Social-Media-Sites, a sizable portion of the viewers were confused by the ending. They failed to realize that Pam, Kate, Theresa Burke and the rest of the adults from Wayward Pines, were back in their cryogenic tubes in suspended animation. Many also failed to grasp that the dozens of students that rode out the storm in the supply room of Wayward Pines Academy, had taken control of the town and running it just as the man they refer to as their Savior, David Pilcher kept things in order.

Another segment of the audience, believes that the last-minute twist was the perfect conclusion for the miniseries. Many felt that an optimistic ending, with all holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” would have felt false and forced. This was after all the story of a psychotic genius, who kidnapped hundreds of people over a 15-year period, ripping them away from their lives and loved ones, so that Pilcher could restore humanity in the distant future. The optimistic conversation between Pam and Kate, was in fact just a mirage. A momentary feeling that they could reshape their society.

The last segment of the audience, simply hated the conclusion. They didn’t like the fact that Ethan Burke died and got more upset when they realized his death was in vain. The open and free society, that Burke envisioned never came about and in fact many folks got punished just for learning the truth. They didn’t play an active role into finding out what their circumstances were, but just by getting informed they got put back in suspension.

There were some published reports last week emanating from Internet-Based TV Sites that FOX had decided against bringing back Wayward Pines for a second season. However as of this writing, the network’s been mum on the series fate and no mainstream publication such as Entertainment Weekly, or USA Today have gone with the story running on the Internet sites. So as far as this writer’s concerned, the decision whether to bring back Wayward Pines next summer’s a 50/50 proposition and the controversy over the finale, helps the chances of FOX renewing the show.

As far as this writer’s opinion on the finale, it was far from being a satisfying episode. Had we flashed ahead and witnessed a teary-eyed Theresa, Ben and Amy at the dedication of a statue to the town’s hero Ethan Burke, for sacrificing his life to save Wayward Pines and all the residents were happy, that would have been a true “warm-and-fuzzy” moment. But the “bait and switch” conclusion, may have been the best fit. It was a dark-ending for a dark-series and 48-hours after being broadcast on the East Coast it’s still causing a buzz.

This analysis of the lessons learned in the Justified series finale puts a bow on the Season 6 coverage, co-branded between this site and The FDH Lounge.

This is the review for Season 1 of Breaking Bad, focusing on the biggest revelations of the first 10 episodes of the series.

House of Cards Season 3

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Warning: Spoiler Alert

As was detailed in the spoiler-free analysis of House of Cards Season 3, this run of episodes – 27 through 39 in the series – represented the sharpest break yet for viewers.  While Francis Urquhart served as Prime Minister for two-thirds of the BBC original, Frank Underwood (inhabited by the excellent Kevin Spacey) took until the end of the second season to become president – and had never been without his most trusted aide and henchman, Doug Stamper, until that point.  The journey from the start of Season One – with Frank, seething at having been passed over for Secretary of State by new President Walker, deciding to use his post as House Minority Whip to secretly take his revenge – through to Season Two’s adventures as Vice President and up to the actual seizure of the Oval Office at the end of it all – seemed to indicate that there was nothing that Frank and his equally cunning wife Claire (portrayed in fascinating fashion by Robin Wright) could not do.  As such, the presidency itself should be a breeze, right?

Oh, dead wrong.

Why was Frank’s journey in Season 3 so fitful?  It would be cynical to spend too much time analyzing the meta angle about Beau Willimon’s crew needing to maintain the intrigue by making Frank suddenly seem fallible.  After all, there should have been plenty of warning signs about the actualization of the goal being more perilous than the amazing journey to attain it … and some of these elements may actually have been conceptualized by the writing staff!

1 The difference between Urquhart’s and Underwood’s difficulties at the top can be explained by the difference between the UK and American electorates.  The real president compared most often to Underwood is, of course, Richard Nixon – who, in typical awkward fashion, was known to remark that, unlike other politicians, he was not a “personality kid.”  Well, neither is Underwood, although he’s better at faking it enough to get by than Tricky Dick, who was undone not only by scandal but by a complete lack of a safety net in the form of public affection.  Meanwhile, in the UK, Gordon Brown lasted three years as prime minister despite possessing the magnetism of a fat-free, unsalted potato chip.  Francis Urquhart ruling Britain with an iron fist despite an unlovable persona made sense: over there, if the public perceives you as delivering for them, you don’t have to be a baby-kisser.  Did showrunner Beau Willimon take this difference into account when fashioning Season 3?  Candidly, it doesn’t seem likely, but it was brilliant if he did.

2 An egotistical man on his best days – witness his smug asides to the camera – Frank’s cockiness was bound to grow out of control and undermine him when he achieved his ultimate prize.  Realistically, attaining the Oval Office itself was Frank’s only goal once he put his revenge plans into motion at the start of the series.  American society views the office with Godlike awe, reflective of the reality that less than 50 men in the 239-year history of the country have ever held the office.  When you become the president, there are few if any opposing voices in your inner circle grounding you as there might have been previously.  So with all of this taken into account and with Frank’s journey to the top of government probably more difficult and unlikely than any in actual US history, how was Frank possibly going to keep his ego in check and prepare for the very real daggers being sent his way?  He couldn’t possibly muster the necessary humility to make those adjustments.

3 As noted at the end of the season, there’s only one chair behind the desk in the Oval Office and at some point after achieving the goal, Frank and Claire were going to have to come to grips with all of the glory being his.  Again, for Frank and Claire, the journey to the White House was all-consuming.  They both knew that they were consumed with the prize, but when it arrived, Frank’s “equal partner” wanted more than he could deliver – and when the grievances hit the light of day, Frank alienated her just as he had Jackie (played by Molly Parker) and Remy (played by Mahershala Ali) earlier.

4 Frank’s skill set seems suited to working in the shadows, rather than the broad daylight of the presidency.  Like the British “FU,” Frank’s talents for backstabbing, leaking, undermining and outright murder were unmatched.  However, none of those abilities are nearly as useful in the 24-7 bright spotlight of the presidency.  It was surprising how often his adversaries – such as Vladimir Putin knockoff Viktor Petrov (played by Lars Mikkelsen), Supreme Court Justice Jacobs (played by Jonathan Hogan) and Solicitor General-turned-rival candidate Heather Dunbar (played by Elizabeth Marvel) – saw right through manipulations that would have easily succeeded in the first two seasons.  When you don’t get to use your core skills at all times, they can get rusty.  Frank Underwood: Peter Principle prototype?

5 Even Frank didn’t realize just how indispensable that Doug was to his successful schemes over the years.  Clearly, Frank knew that Doug the henchman accomplished a great deal for him over the years, and as such, he should have been alarmed at the prospect of serving in the presidency without him.  But he wasn’t and it took Doug’s stunt late in the season, offering to sell Claire’s most sensitive secrets to Heather, for Frank to realize just how vital Doug was to his success.  Seth Grayson (played by Derrick Cecil) is no Doug Stamper.

Having proven that he was, by a large amount, the most duplicitous and untouchable predator in D.C. on his way up the ladder, Frank’s lack of footing in the Oval Office proved confusing and even greatly disappointing to many critics and fans.  And an even more controversial angle involved Frank’s earnest pursuit of actual public policy initiatives: the America Works program at home that would aim to ensure full employment and the plan for international peacekeepers in the Jordan Valley to (somehow???) bring about peace in the Middle East.  Some commentators have been so cynical (in true Frank Underwood fashion, fittingly!) as to refer to Prez FU as a cut-rate Jed Bartlet, the liberal idealist chief executive from the West Wing.

The latter criticism is patently unfair.  Sure, it’s jarring to see the human embodiment of selfishness pushing a public policy agenda not aimed directly at personal enrichment or power – but there is in fact a bit of the pursuit of power in the plans.  After all, Frank believes that these policies, if implemented, will be successful – and that could allow him, questionable public personality and all, to be re-elected as a man who “gets things done.”  And Frank also alluded during the season to his legacy.  Mere attainment of the presidency brings with it a form of immortality, but a successful, two-term presidency?  That’s true immortality and what could be more important to a narcissist like Frank Underwood?  Remember, in the aftermath of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, his aides used to joke about doing opposition research on his predecessors so that history might remember him more kindly relative to his peers.  Having become president, Frank Underwood wants to be known for the rest of his life and well beyond that as one of the all-time greats.  So watching him push his programs – no matter how ill-conceived they are in the real world – is entirely consistent with his persona.  Those who don’t understand this point simply don’t understand his new role.

As noted above, Frank was forced to navigate the presidency without Stamper at his side until his stunt at the end of the season.  Prior to that, extensive surgery and rehabilitation was necessary for Doug to regain his faculties.  At the end of his training with his female therapist, a passionate encounter took place between the two, leaving red-blooded males everywhere to wonder why they don’t have more inclusive health insurance.  Doug kept making efforts to get back into the inner circle, but Frank – not trusting his effectiveness because of the lack of decisiveness in dealing with loose end Rachel Posner (played by Rachel Brosnahan) – kept putting him off with the “sure, pal, once you’re 100%, we’ll talk” rap.  Through it all, Doug struggled with backsliding into substance abuse before getting clean with the great help of his brother.  In connecting for the first time with his brother’s family and appearing to understand that there is life outside the corridors of power, Doug appeared to become a fully redeemable human being.  But then he spotted the opportunity to betray Heather, get appointed as Frank’s chief of staff – replacing Remy, who had replaced him – and the true relapse, to becoming a scumbag yet again, was underway.  Having tracked down hacker Gavin Orsay (played by the always-awesome Jimmi Simpson) in South America, Doug used the information that he obtained there to track down Rachel yet again.  It’s clear that she posed no threat whatsoever; she was a scared, helpless little puppy who wanted to live off the grid, away from the power circles she once inhabited as a call girl.  And when he caught up with her, Doug appeared to accept this – until he changed his mind, murdering her in cold blood after he initially set her free.  Doug, you’re going to Hell, dude.

And while four of the five reasons identified above for Frank’s struggles in the presidency didn’t involve Doug, one wonders how he might have made a difference for the chief executive had he had the opportunity – and how he might be able to weave his magic in Season 4.  In his absence, Frank’s America Works program perished nastily in Congress, leaving Frank’s former colleagues in the party leadership from those chambers to withdraw their support for his re-election.  Borrowing a page from LBJ, Frank gave a nationally-televised address to announce his withdrawal from the 2016 race so that he might devote all of his efforts to the passage of the program.  But unlike LBJ, who stayed out of the 1968 race despite rumors that he might reenter at some point, Frank’s statement was a ruse that he always intended to abandon later.  With his efforts still flailing, he relied on a highly dubious interpretation of the Stafford Act to provide the legal authority for him to raid FEMA funds.  When the mayor of Washington, D.C., at his instigation, requested federal emergency relief for rampant unemployment, Frank put $1 billion worth of FEMA’s dwindling cash reserves at his disposal in the pursuit of full employment in the capital.  The leadership of both parties screamed and howled, but they were powerless – until, inevitably, a Sandy-like superstorm headed straight for the East Coast.  The authorization that was passed ahead of time included a poison pill for any future FEMA participation in America Works.  Frank’s feverish study of weather patterns did not give him confidence that the storm would veer away, so he capitulated.  But the storm did, in fact, hook back around to sea, leaving the predictions of catastrophe unfulfilled and depositing Frank’s hopes and dreams for first-term America Works success somewhere out in the Atlantic as well.  But the forced abandonment of the program, just when joblessness in D.C. was plummeting – providing even old rib-cooker Freddy Armstrong (played by Reg E. Cathey) a job, although House of Cards of course doesn’t reveal the cost-benefit analysis behind the public sector’s massive investment – provided him the excuse he needed to “get back into the race” so that he might obtain a public mandate for a second-term America Works push.

But he was still trailing Heather in the polls (perhaps voters intuited that he was the kind of man to urinate on his father’s grave and spit on a hanging crucifix, both of which he did this season – in cowardly secret fashion, of course).  She had resigned as his solicitor general to take him on, enraged that he acted on rumors that she was interested in the race by “subtly” threatening Jacobs with the public revelation of his dementia, so that he might clear his seat for her.  Frank’s divide-and-conquer tactic, pushing Jackie into the race with the plan of putting her on the ticket when she dropped out, backfired when he greeted her dissatisfaction with the implementation of the plan with arrogant attempts at intimidation.  Notwithstanding the fact that Heather wouldn’t promise her anything for her support, Jackie quit the race and endorsed Heather completely out of spite.  This debacle caused Remy, who remained closer than he should be to the now-married Jackie, to resign his post.

Frank, however, gained ground in Iowa thanks to his star surrogate, Claire.  The story of how she ended up there, however, was another major plot point for the season, covering her ill-fated stint as UN Ambassador.  The nomination process was, of course, fraught with accusations of nepotism, but Claire appeared to have neutralized perhaps her most powerful potential opponent, Republican Senate Majority Leader Hector Mendoza (played by Benito Martinez).  However, his promise of not actively opposing her nomination was merely a ploy to lull her to sleep so that he might ambush her in the hearings.  Her clumsy response doomed the vote, but she badgered Frank successfully for a recess appointment.  While she was demagogued in fairly stupid fashion, the “No” votes turned out to be correct about her aptitude for the position.  Understandably, Secretary of State Catherine Durant (played by Jayne Atkinson) was uneasy about having an ostensible subordinate who was sleeping with the president.  Well, Frank and Claire don’t do much of that – with the exception of one notable scene this season – but that’s the assumption about them, anyway.  Claire’s sole triumph in the position consisted of winning over Catherine after a state dinner with the Russian president by – believe it or not – tanking a game of beer pong with her.  Statecraft in 2015, ladies and gentlemen!

But Claire’s relations with the rest of the world were far more challenging.  She struggled to whip the Israelis and Palestinians in line with Frank’s Jordan Valley peacekeeping initiative, but really had her hands full with Petrov.  Having started on a bad note with the Russian strongman at the aforementioned banquet – it didn’t help matters when Petrov spoke to Frank of killing a man with his bare hands and the president stayed silent, aware that he was a coward in terms of how he executed his two murders – she and Frank became sidetracked in their pursuit of his support for the Middle East plan by Heather’s traction in the polls on the issue of Russia’s jailing of American gay activist Michael Corrigan (played by Christian Camargo).  She and Frank flew to Moscow to obtain his release, only to learn that he wouldn’t sign a statement that basically renounced all of his beliefs.  Arguing with him in his prison cell while Frank sat through an uncomfortable meeting with Petrov – so much for the supposition that an American president “more like theirs” would be more successful in dealing with them – she succumbed to sleep only to awaken to the discovery that he had hung himself.  Having a rare attack of conscience, she made an impromptu decision at the joint press conference to attack Petrov for his cynical scapegoating of minorities.  Of course, this caused a complete breakdown in US-Russian relations and she and Frank had a vicious fight on Air Force One as they returned home.

This rupture coincided with the window that she and Frank had established every seven years when they always renewed their wedding vows – with the understanding that either party could end the marriage at that time.  Working their way through the rubble once Russia (apparently) reconsidered and sent troops for the peacekeeping force to the Jordan Valley, Frank and Claire followed through with the vows, only to confront more problems in the form of her worst failure yet.  Gaslighted by Petrov’s operatives, she became convinced that an attack on Russian forces in the region was a false flag instigated by their own government.  When Frank sent in special forces to penetrate the area ruled off-limits by the Russians for an investigation, a firefight ensued and an American casualty resulted.  Flying to the Jordan Valley for an emergency summit with Petrov, Frank was devastated to learn that his wife had been set up and he had compromised himself by being persuaded by her.  Petrov was willing to make nice, but the price for his support on any geopolitical issues would involve Claire’s head on a stick.  Pointing out that she was needed in Iowa anyway, Frank told her to announce her resignation with that face-saving excuse handy.  During her door-to-door campaigning, she encountered an Iowa housewife dealing with the same kind of double standards that she increasingly saw Frank as imposing upon her.  She imposed a “sit-down strike” of sorts, claiming ill health as an excuse to stay in the White House over the last few days of the campaign while Frank barnstormed the state.  In the end, his victory was narrow, but it was all he needed to survive to New Hampshire.  With his ego fueled by what resembled a “Truman-in-‘48” comeback and his anger at Claire’s sudden resistance to going along with the program, the two had another vicious fight that resulted in her delivering the season-ending cliffhanger: she was leaving him.

Other loose ends involved Gavin on the loose in Venezuela with the capacity to become a Snowden-like thorn in the administration’s side (or possibly much worse, considering that Snowden apparently does not possess any dirt on President Obama or his inner circle personally) and star novelist Thomas Yates (played by Paul Sparks), who was enlisted by Frank to write a hagiographic book about Frank/America Works to aid in the 2016 election, only to have a falling-out after Frank and Claire confided many sensitive details about themselves.

Other returning characters for the season included Vice-President (!) Donald Blythe (played by Reed Birney), Edward Meechum (played by Nathan Darrow), Lisa Williams (played by Kate Lyn Sheil), Ayla Sayyad (played by Mozhan Marno), and the wonderfully greasy Bob Birch (played by Larry Pine).  Another cast addition was decorated aggressive journalist Kate Baldwin (played by Kim Dickens).

The season was very compelling and entertaining on the whole.  In terms of the execution of public policy and geopolitics, House of Cards is easily picked apart by political junkies, but the target audience is far wider than that – and this season’s plotlines were no more unrealistic than those of the first two.  It’s a program that’s always going to wallow in some soapiness, like Magic City, but not as often as some critics allege.  While Frank’s various missteps throughout the season are jarring given what was shown of him in the first two seasons – and do not really ring true in terms of him ultimately avoiding all consequences in Iowa, a turnaround that is never explained – the widely-circulated conventional wisdom that this season represents a dramatic departure is extremely overwrought.  President Frank Underwood, especially shorn of his essential right-hand man, Doug Stamper, was always going to be traveling a tougher road than Future President Underwood.  Remember that old saying about airplanes, that passengers in first class hit the mountain first when there’s a crash?  Well, when you’re riding Air Force One, the entire plane is first class.

 

House of Cards Frank Claire Petrov

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

NOTE: This is the spoiler-free analysis of House of Cards, Season 3, but with Season 1 and 2 spoilers.

As with any “based on the BBC original” series, the American version of House of Cards veered from the original a bit in the first two seasons.  Some of this discrepancy owes to the difference between the British parliamentary system and the American “three branches” structure.  It would have seemed strange for Francis Urquhart to take more than one season to rise to Prime Minister from whip; however, with the separation of powers across the pond, Frank Underwood (played so memorably by the great Kevin Spacey) must traverse the Gerald Ford path, hopping to the executive branch when the vice presidency is vacated at the end of Season 1 and taking the promotion to the Oval Office at the end of Season 2 when he secretly instigates the scandal that eliminates the man above him.

So while two of the three British seasons of the program featured the antihero protagonist dispensing with rivals while on top, everything that we’ve seen until now on the Netflix version saw the bad guy still working his way up the ladder.  As such, with Frank Underwood now at the head of government (“God help us,” as he memorably intones to the camera midway through Season 3 at the thought of a lesser hack succeeding him in office), Season 3 was set up to be something completely different from what we’ve seen.

The other most important feature distinguishing this season from those that came before involves the absence from Frank’s side of his most important aide/henchman, Doug Stamper (played by Michael Kelly).  When we last saw this indispensable creeper, he was being pounded with a rock in the head by onetime call girl Rachel Posner (played by Rachel Brosnahan), who feared for her life at his hands.  In the spirit of keeping this column spoiler-free, let it be noted that Kelly reappears this season, but whether that’s in ghost, flashback or “real” form won’t be revealed here.  But all fans of the show know that, like Frank and Doug, the program doesn’t tolerate loose ends – so Rachel’s heart-rending attempts to escape the consequences of her actions are intense indeed.

Frank’s curious lack of mojo as Commander-in-Chief, at least relative to his peerless string-pulling in the first two seasons, demonstrates how badly he misses having Stamper by his side.  Of course, the arrogance in him that keeps growing exponentially during his young presidency blinds him to the need for a Stamper-like presence – until a dramatic reversal late in the season.  But before that point, he alienates two key allies and suffers setbacks in his dealings with Vladimir Putin knockoff Viktor Petrov (played by Lars Mikkelsen) and even his own wife Claire (once again played in alternating icy and passionate manners by Robin Wright).

Jockeying with the Russian president on different fronts occupies the primary foreign policy subplot for the season, while the domestic issue du jour is Frank’s large-scale jobs bill, America Works.  The reluctance of Congress to move the measure forward causes him to take extreme measures to get at least part of it in place – with consequences invariably following.  Additionally, Frank tries to maneuver a potential Supreme Court opening into the sidelining of a potential rival in his re-election efforts.  And his attempt to persuade an author to write an admiring portrait of him for the 2016 race ends up injecting tension into a marriage that Claire’s new job as UN Ambassador has already larded with trouble.  A series of other incidents – an ill-fated special forces mission in the Jordan Valley, the ultimate decision made by a jailed gay American activist in Moscow, Frank’s fateful early-season address to the nation and an Iowa debate for the ages – help to shape a season crackling with consequences.

Returning characters include Seth Grayson (played by Derrick Cecil), Vice-President (!) Donald Blythe (played by Reed Birney), former rib-cooker Freddy Armstrong (played by Reg E. Cathey), Edward Meechum (played by Nathan Darrow), Gavin Orsay (played by the always-awesome Jimmi Simpson), Remy Danton (played by Mahershala Ali), Jackie Sharp (played by Molly Parker), Lisa Williams (played by Kate Lyn Sheil), Catherine Durant (played by Jayne Atkinson), Heather Dunbar (played by Elizabeth Marvel), Ayla Sayyad (played by Mozhan Marno), Hector Mendoza (played by Benito Martinez) and the wonderfully greasy Bob Birch (played by Larry Pine).  The most prominent cast additions are star novelist Thomas Yates (played by Paul Sparks) and the decorated aggressive journalist Kate Baldwin (played by Kim Dickens).

Overall, this is a season that doesn’t require as much suspension of disbelief in terms of machinations like Frank’s murder plots, but it does take some in terms of the workings of the political system.  Nevertheless, this has never been a program that has promised C-SPAN-like fidelity to the realities of American civics, so it’s not fair to grade it in large part on that basis.  While it’s hard to pick which of the three seasons of House of Cards has been the best, it’s reasonable to argue Season 3 for that designation – which is why you need to see it quickly if you’re a fan of the show and haven’t yet begun to watch it.