For the majority of the third season, Heather Dunbar has been a tertiary character. She’s made her way in and out of the Oval Office in an attempt to chat with the President about their legal defense when it comes to the case of a drone strike that killed and injured a number of civilians. The case has been present in each episode, but hardly a focus. With the fourth episode though, the case takes center stage, and so too does Heather Dunbar.
The Washington that House of Cards constructs is one where there are constant threats to one’s power, and everyone is in politics strictly for themselves. There’s very little empathy or teamwork. So as much as Frank has to work with Heather on the drone strike case, he also has to consider her a threat. That idea is cemented in this episode, as early on Seth and Remy inform Frank that the Democratic leadership is considering Dunbar for the presidential nomination in 2016. She may not have the experience, but she’s the embodiment of truth and justice in America, and that’ll go a long way with voters hoping for some sort of transparency in their government.
The beginning of the episode acts as a catalyst. Dunbar is in front of the Supreme Court defending the government’s decision to launch a drone strike against a man named Aziz. While the strike did take out Aziz, it also injured a man named Mahmoud, who lost both of his legs, and killed his entire family. Normally, the government would deny responsibility for the attack, but with Frank’s order and his declassification of certain details about the strike, Dunbar admits culpability.
It’s all part of Frank’s overarching plan to be honest with the public. Don’t get it twisted though; he’s not doing it out of the goodness of his heart. Rather, he has a long-term plan (whether he wants to admit it or not) to run for President in 2016, and this “honesty” is all part of the campaign.
As revealing as the defense is about Frank’s intentions, the scene serves a larger purpose. Justice Jacobs, who revealed that he has Alzheimer’s back in the season’s first episode, has a momentary memory lapse. “Are you asking me about drone strikes?” prompts Dunbar, to which Jacobs snaps back and continues with his line of questioning.
Jacobs, who initially wanted to retire from the Supreme Court (keep in mind, it’s a lifetime appointment), was manipulated into staying on for a few months by Frank. At that point, Frank needed him there; he couldn’t risk a new nomination only a few months into his presidency, especially as he was working to get America Works off the ground. With Dunbar an apparent candidate for the Democratic nomination though, Frank’s eager to find a place to stash her away, and a seat on the Supreme Court could be just the place.
If Frank could convince (or rather, manipulate once again) Jacobs into retiring from his post, he could appoint Dunbar and have one threat to his presidency out of the way. Dunbar is ecstatic when Frank offers her the job; he just has to convince Jacobs to let go of the position and all will be set.
Jacobs has had a change of heart though, and after a discussion with his family, has decided to live out his healthy days doing what he’s always loved, which is serving as a Justice on the Supreme Court. Frank pleads with him, telling him that he’s only trying to save him from public embarrassment, from tarnishing his legacy. Jacobs sees right through it though and won’t be manipulated again.
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