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