The first half of season 3 of House of Cards has felt largely haphazard in a way the previous seasons haven’t. Even the relatively sloppy second season boasted a clear narrative that the audience could latch on to. Frank’s goal was to become President, and the entirety of season 2 built to him doing just that. House of Cards lives and dies by its adversaries, and there’s a perverted thrill in watching Frank and Claire devour anyone who stands in their way, but there also needs to be some balance, some more nuanced, emotional moments.
While the first portion of this season has felt somewhat free of substantial conflict, the last few episodes have signaled a welcome change in the show. While larger international issues fill out the narrative in compelling ways, it’s the more human touches that are proving to be of great interest in season 3. Episode 10 further dives into the human toll of Frank and Claire’s decisions and continues to pick apart the now-unstable foundation of their relationship.
The through line of this episode is Frank dealing with the fallout of the IED blast in the Jordan Valley that killed eight Russian troops, as well as the political implications of the aborted covert operation that Frank approved. The major issue is that Israel has now instated a no-fly zone for the Russians, threatening to shoot down any supply planes that might attempt to make a drop to the troops. This, in turn, is increasing the tension between Israel and Palestine and is threatening the entire peacekeeping mission.
Claire’s main goal is to keep the resolution alive, but Frank doesn’t see it the same way. He’s prepared to go to the Jordan Valley and meet with Petrov while knowing full well that the Russian President will want to stop the peacekeeping mission and also see a scaling back of the United States’ missile defense system.
Despite Claire’s protestations, Frank decides to head to the Jordan Valley to meet with Petrov. Predictably, the meeting is heated, taking place inside a barely-fortified bunker. Petrov does his best to intimidate Frank, telling him about the time he spent in ditches as part of the KGB and how he’s killed a man with his bare hands. He doesn’t know that Frank is a killer too, but that’s not something Frank can admit right now. Instead, they negotiate what it would take for Russia to relinquish its hold on the area.
Just as Frank assumed, Petrov wants the peacekeeping resolution to be aborted and the missile defense to be scaled back. He has one more demand though that Frank didn’t predict: He wants Claire to step down as the U.N. Ambassador. He tells Frank that she was never qualified for the position, and that she’s clouding his judgment. Frank doesn’t understand why Claire means so much to Petrov, to which he replies, “because she means so much to you.”
Frank initially refuses to let Claire go, but when Petrov reveals that Claire was played, that Alexei and Petrov wanted Claire to believe the Russians killed their own men, that they wanted to see a covert operation happen in order to gain the political upper hand and destroy the peacekeeping mission, Frank realizes that Claire perhaps has been distracting him.
The idea that Frank isn’t his clear-eyed, ruthless self anymore because he’s too focused on keeping his wife happy is an interesting one. Frank and Claire have always been a team, but this is perhaps the first time they’ve come across a political landscape that doesn’t benefit from a cooperative effort. Frank needs to have control of his foreign policy, along with many other things, in order to continue to gain power and eventually win the election in 2016. Keeping Claire in a position of power has been a distraction all season, and her insistence that the Russians killed their own men prevented him from seeing that the U.S. was being duped, and there’s few things the Frank hates more than being fooled.
NEXT: Doug Stamper starts to put his life back together[pagebreak]
While Frank is mulling over what to do about Claire’s position as the ambassador, two other relationships are going through some changes. First, there’s Doug Stamper, who’s back in his meetings and seemingly going without any alcohol. His brother Gary is back in town helping him take care of himself, and the closeness of family seems to inspire something in Doug. He says that he wants his brother’s family to visit, a moment of genuine warmth that Doug doesn’t get too often.
When Gary’s kids and wife come to visit, we get to see Doug in a way that we never have before. His whole life has been dedicated to work, but he doesn’t have that anymore. And with Rachel now entirely out of his life, he has nothing to latch on to, nothing to feel good about. He talks with his brother about how he likes his freedom and that he can’t imagine settling down with a wife and kids, but his brother quickly rebukes that claim.
He tells Doug that being alone doesn’t mean he has freedom. He sees Doug as trapped by his motivations, by his loyalty to Frank. Doug doesn’t want to hear it, but the look on his face suggests there’s some truth there. As I mentioned above, House of Cards has slowly morphed into a show about personal relations this season, and Doug’s a good example of that shift in focus. Rachel’s death acts as a catalyst for introspection, and now Doug is examining the life he has chosen and whether or not isolating himself from others has truly been worth it.
Remy and Jackie are going through similar motions. Remy, ashamed that he put Jackie in a tough position by kissing her in the previous episode, lays his feelings out there. He tells her it’s been hard to see her get married, but that he understands their circumstances just didn’t match up and allow them to explore a long, committed relationship. In some ways, both Jackie and Remy are searching for meaning the way Doug is. Remy is wondering what defines him outside of his position in the White House, and Jackie is exploring how her political desires can be balanced with her new marriage and role as a mother.
Speaking of balancing roles, Frank has decided that having Claire as the ambassador is too much to handle. He must agree to Petrov’s demands and begin to focus not on the Jordan Valley, but on his campaign to get elected in 2016. He tells Claire that she has to resign from the position, and she does so, if only to support her husband.
Supporting her husband comes with consequences though. It’s heartbreaking, in the episode’s final moments, to see Claire reduced to merely an object in Frank’s campaign, as his campaign manager talks to her about changing her hair color back to blonde because the voters seem to like that more. Claire, only moments earlier, was a proud player on an international stage. Now she’s just another piece in Frank’s larger game. There’s little comfort in that for Claire, and it’s clear that her diminished role could leave her questioning the choices she has made to get to where she is.
What results is a distance between Claire and Frank, and it’s a distance best exemplified by the conversation, one filled with sexual tension, between Frank and Yates near the end of the episode. Yates shares more about his writing of Scorpio, admitting that he was turning tricks before he became a best-selling author. He also tells Frank that while many times he was just having sex with men, there were plenty of times when they just talked. Yates says that he became addicted to the stories, to hearing about the lives of the people who were hiring him for sexual purposes. It’s part of what’s drawn him to Frank; he’s interested in the man and his story.
The two chat about how they wish they could escape their identities from time to time, to be outside of themselves. There’s a burden in constructing an identity, and that’s what Frank is dealing with. He’s reckoning with the fact that he betrayed Claire. What’s interesting is that it’s not necessarily the betrayal that upsets him, but rather the fact that betraying people is part of who he is. Frank has always been one to toss people aside for his own gains, but for the first time, that discarded person is his wife, someone he’s supposed to love and cherish. What does he owe her for her years of loyalty? Has he done the right thing by asking her to resign? These are questions that will, with any luck, eat at Frank for the rest of the season and give us some compelling thematic work to chew on.