‘House of Cards’ Needs to Read Up on Russia

"House of Cards" struggles to sustain credulity in the world of international politics.



Spoiler alert: This review includes plot details from the first six episodes of season three of House of Cards.

At the outset of House of Cards’ third season, Frank Underwood is president of the United States. After all his mischief and plotting, the time has come for Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, to do the inevitable: govern. But by focusing on the exercise of executive power, the show’s third season, which was released on Netflix Friday, Feb. 27, stumbles out of the gate in its first six episodes.

In its first two seasons, House of Cards’ biggest strength lay in its soapy portrayal of politics in Washington. Spacey’s power-hungry politician wasn’t always realistic, but the show’s sharp dialogue, melodramatic plotting, outsized characters, and heavy doses of violence and graphic sex were enough to keep Netflix subscribers binge-watching. The third season attempts to apply this formula to the foreign-policy realm, introducing the show’s characters to battles at the United Nations, over missile defense in Eastern Europe, and with an autocratic Russia. But House of Cards struggles to sustain credulity in the world of international politics.

A key plotline of the third season turns on Underwood’s confrontation with fictional Russian President Viktor Petrov, a man with an uncanny resemblance to a certain Vladimir Putin. The fictional Russian leader’s visit to Washington is met by protests against Russia’s anti-LGBT laws, and Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, playing themselves, become a focal point of the third episode when they attend a White House dinner.

But House of Cards’ portrait of Putin in the mirror is decidedly off. At the dinner, Petrov is uncharacteristically concerned about the opinions and well-being of Pussy Riot, two of whose members in real life were imprisoned for nearly two years for protesting against the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin himself.

In other instances, House of Cards’ Petrov comes across as a mere comical caricature of a Russian leader rather than as a believable adversary for Underwood. At one point, the two men reference the shirtless photo ops and manly adventures that have made Putin more meme than ruler. But then the show goes on to add to Petrov’s profile knocking back vodka, partying in dachas, and womanizing, characteristics more reminiscent of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin than Putin. A revanchist former KGB spy accused of imprisoning or killing rivals while ruthlessly consolidating power and conquering parts of neighboring countries would seem to be sufficiently exciting material in a soap opera, but the show’s creators seem to have felt the need to go even further.

In a recent interview with New Times, a Russian news site, Pussy Riot’s members said Petrov didn’t quite capture Putin’s essence. “Petrov is more of a little tsar,” Alyokhina said. “He is too jolly for Putin, of course.”

In one measure of the show’s hazy understanding of international politics, Petrov is invited to Washington for meetings on a convoluted Middle East peace plan contingent upon cooperation, and backroom deals, between Washington and Moscow. Russia — like the Soviet Union before it — has long supported Palestine, but centering a confrontation between the two superpowers on peace in the Middle East — and, not say, Russia’s meddling in eastern Ukraine — results in a distorted depiction of world politics.

As a result, the focus on Russia and the caricatured portrayal of Putin come across as a shallow attempt to tap into the zeitgeist of Russian meddling in Ukraine and fighting in that country’s east. House of Cards is still addictive to watch, but the show’s producers need to brush up on their knowledge of Russia.

Photo credit: Netflix

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan