House of Cards returns: Let the war between Frank and Claire Underwood begin

Frank Underwood is getting older. As season 3 of “House of Cards” progresses, one carefully framed and neutrally toned shot after another, it becomes more and more obvious: his dark hair is graying, his erect stature is beginning to sag and stoop. It’s the show’s canny nod to the visual palette of Washington, D.C., a landscape it is in love with and in the business of reproducing. Politicians wear black, gray, blue and occasionally red; offices are painted and outfitted in tastefully muted furnishings. And a commander in chief’s hair goes gray.

Next to him, in stark contrast, blooms Claire Underwood — somehow increasingly beautiful with age, every blonde hair perfectly in place. She has, from the pilot of “House of Cards,” been Frank’s enigmatic arm candy; he shares his strategies and observations with us, the audience, but she keeps her own inscrutable counsel. She’s flirted with the ruthlessness that Frank employs regularly; she’s also evidenced, now and again, a conscience less hardened than his. Claire is just as bad as Frank, nine days out of 10; on the 10th, she feels a slight fluttering of conscience. (Those last-minute reminders from her moral compass are usually dropped into the storytelling of “House of Cards” to propel the story forward.)

Up until now, “House of Cards” has used the considerable talents of its leads Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright to shape the Underwoods as an asymmetrically appealing force to be reckoned with. Frank, the lifelong politician, played a game to be reckoned with; Claire, a lifelong aristocrat, was sent along afterwards to soften the blow. They were both seduced by the siren call of power, and found it was most effective working in tandem, two halves of a war machine.

In season 3 of “House of Cards,” the show turns away from their effectiveness together — and their sociopathic inability to feel compassion for anyone around them — to focus instead on the mechanics of the marriage of these two people, especially now that Frank Underwood has ascended to the highest office in the land. The problem with spending your whole life working toward just one thing is that once you get it, it’s hard to know exactly what to do with yourself; season 3 is about Frank and Claire finally being at the top of the mountain and coping with the fact that there aren’t too many more mountains to climb. I encourage you to stop reading here if you don’t want to know any more plot details about the third season, which went live at midnight this morning.