It’s a shame that most of the third season of House of Cards has been spent on storylines and policy issues that don’t really have any meat to them. American Works? Not a lot to dig into there. The Jordan Valley? Foreign policy is only so interesting, and that story spun its wheels for far too many episodes. Doug’s search for Rachel and Gavin’s attempts to help? That’s a storyline that would have been better left isolated in season 2.
I say it’s a shame because it’s not until recently, until the very last episodes of the season, that the show has found its footing. With no big overarching narrative (Frank’s bid to be elected in 2016 hardly counts as a grand narrative) to ground all the other tangential stories, this season has struggled to find significant tension. Frank’s done away with everyone that stands in his way, and his path to being elected in 2016, while not without obstacles, doesn’t have the same stakes as his other plans from the previous seasons.
With these past few episodes though, House of Cards has hit its stride, and found hefty conflict in the increasingly significant gap between Frank and Claire. The Democratic Presidential Debate is the main narrative focus of the episode–it has the most impact on the political aspirations of Frank, Heather, and Jackie–but it’s really Frank and Claire’s relationship that’s explored best here.
That’s why the episode opens with Claire talking about marriage to a room full of women. At the end of the previous episode, it was established that Claire is now just an object in Frank’s campaign, a woman who needs to dye her hair back to blonde because it polls better with the voting public. Now Claire is out promoting her husband, her own goals and dreams taking a back seat to Frank’s run for election.
It’s fitting, then, that one of the women she’s speaking to says that, while Claire is charming, she has trouble imagining that Frank really cares about people. Claire immediately rebukes her and speaks highly of her husband’s character, but from what we understand about Claire and her recent disconnect from Frank, she may be feeling the same way as that woman.
Claire seems unsure about whether or not Frank cares for her anymore. Perhaps more importantly, she might be questioning whether she even cares for him anymore. Frank’s ascent in politics has always been because of his partnership with Claire. They always talk about how they’re a team; Frank even says to Yates that without Claire there would never have been a White House for him. And yet, Frank no longer seems to value Claire’s input in his political decisions, nor does he seem even remotely connected to her on an emotional level.
Sure, the Underwoods have always had a very clinical relationship, but their recent divide is more than just the result of pairing two stubbornly independent people together. No, this relationship is now crumbling from the inside. The Underwoods’ relationship has always been codependent in the sense that they enable each other’s need to gain power socially and politically. But now that Frank is at the top, he’s discarded Claire. Does he really need her anymore? A relationship built on such fleeting ideas of status and mutual gain is bound to fail once everything is gained, and this episode examines the very first moments of the aftermath.
NEXT: The Democratic Presidential Debate is way more fun than it sounds[pagebreak]
Claire’s disillusion is best exemplified during the Democratic Presidential Debate. While it’s a showcase for the three candidates, and allows us to understand how the dynamic between the three candidates is shifting, the debate is really central to our understanding of Claire, who’s quickly turning into a protagonist of sorts.
Like much of House of Cards, the debate is an amplified and exaggerated version of the politics we see in real life. There are personal jabs and purposely-evasive language, and all of it feels rather meaningless. Most people have probably already decided who they’re voting for; even those listed as “undecided” in the polls know who they’ll vote for and are just playing hard to get.
The debate is packed with consequential moments. There’s Jackie’s shot at Dunbar for being sexist, a reference to Dunbar’s critique of Claire’s role as Ambassador, which was a line concocted by Frank that she was initially hesitant to say. Then she brings Dunbar’s kids into the mix, telling her that because she sends her kids to private school with money she inherited, she couldn’t possibly understand the plight of the average American.
Jackie makes some valid points, but she’s heated and steps over the line, leaving herself vulnerable. She tells Dunbar that by sending her kids to private school, maybe she just didn’t want to raise them. Dunbar fires back that Jackie’s own comments are sexist; she insists that there’s no way Jackie would ever ask a male politician about their children or their parenting abilities. That leaves the door open for Frank to take a swing too, as he lays into Jackie for the fact that she has stepkids who attend private school. It’s information that Jackie shared privately with Frank because they’re supposed to be on the same team, but he throws her under the bus without hesitation.
It’s that reckless attitude, that perspective that Frank holds where everyone in his path is disposable, that’s bothering Claire. She walks out of the campaign office where she’s watching the debate, then, when she’s watching the last bit of it from home, she has a look of disgust on her face. She knows that Frank has pit these women against each other, and that he’s manipulated Jackie to go against her best interests.
Make no mistake: Claire has always known who Frank is and what he’s capable of. But Frank has always shown great interest in her desires, and now that he’s doing things his own way, and with only his goals in mind, Claire feels trapped. When she’s giving blood and having a hazy conversation with Yates, she’s musing on the idea of feeling trapped and isolated. She doesn’t explicitly say that her marriage is a sham, but she insinuates it. She talks about re-evaluating the marriage every seven years, and that she promised herself to get out if it ever got worse.
That kind of emotional, existential interrogation is the most compelling aspect of this season, and it’s a shame that it’s been relegated to the final few episodes (though that does bode well for another season).
NEXT: Doug’s fascination with Rachel isn’t finished just yet[pagebreak]
Essentially, as the season nears its end, everything is falling apart. Claire is questioning her marriage. Jackie, livid after being thrown under the bus by Frank, announces the end of her campaign and publicly supports Heather Dunbar. Remy, angry over the way Jackie was treated throughout the campaign, and still frustrated by his role on Frank’s team, gives his Presidential pin to Seth, and will either go support Dunbar or perhaps live out his days as a lumberjack à la Dexter Morgan.
At the very least, Doug Stamper seems to have his life together. Sure, it was just revealed to him by Gavin that Rachel is alive, that he lied about her being dead because he needed that travel lock on his passport lifted. And sure, Gavin is blackmailing him into getting one of his hacker buddies exonerated, but hey, at least he’s not drinking. He’s even telling his brother that he loves him! Doug has feelings, which is good, but I’d be lying if I said I’m excited to see that the Rachel storyline isn’t actually coming to an end.
There’s the suggestion at the end of the episode that maybe everything isn’t falling apart. Frank unexpectedly shows up to a kindergarten classroom reading that Claire is leading, part of her endless campaign in support of her husband. Yates told him earlier that she needs her husband, and perhaps he’s finally listening. After all, when Claire looks up, she smiles. Is that smile meant for Frank, though? Yates is standing right beside him, and considering their conversation from earlier, and Yates’ seemingly innate ability to be empathetic–something Claire never receives from Frank–it wouldn’t be farfetched to assume she’s smiling at him.
There might only be two more episodes left in the season, but really, we’re just getting to the most intriguing stuff.