Heather Dunbar makes a desperate move, and it sends Frank into a fit of rage.

By Kyle Fowle
March 06, 2015 at 05:47 AM EST
Credit: Netflix
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The penultimate episode of season 3 of House of Cards begins with a terrible, wooden news segment, but for what it’s worth, it gets the necessary information across. House of Cards has a bad habit of jumping ahead in its narrative and then relying on exposition to fill the audience in on everything that they didn’t see. The most glaring example from earlier this season was when Claire mentioned the recess appointment to Frank at the end of an episode, and then suddenly she was the U.N. Ambassador by the start of the next episode. Such moves rob the show of dramatic tension, and give it a rushed, hurried feel.

That can work from time to time, though. While the opening news segment here is far too heavy on exposition, telling us the Dunbar is currently ahead in the polls, the rest of the episode boasts a blistering pace that suits the show well. Watching the Underwoods scramble to efficiently navigate the twists and turns of the campaign trail, all while their marriage is seemingly falling apart, is a lot of fun. Frank and Claire are at their most magnetic when they’re backed into a corner, and this episode exploits that magnetism to rewarding ends.

The frantic nature of the episode mostly boils down to two main storylines: Is the Underwoods’ marriage back on track, and will Heather Dunbar use the ace up her sleeve that is the doctor’s journal in order to secure her nomination? Those two questions are central to the drama here, and it’s some of the best stuff this season has to offer.

As I’ve already established, Claire has become nothing but an object in Frank’s campaign to secure the Democratic nomination. It’s a point that’s really driven home in this episode. While Frank’s approval numbers are okay, it’s clear that the voting public loves Claire. The campaign team is hoping to use that to their advantage, asking Claire to speak first at their campaign stops in order to give a bump to Frank.

That decision creates an interesting dynamic, one that sees Claire holding only a symbolic place within the team despite her evident charisma and intelligence. She may have the hearts and ears of America, but she doesn’t hold any real power. Frank can talk all he wants about how the White House is the product of their hard work as a couple, but Claire is starting to understand that only one of them boasts any real power and influence.

That knowledge is only underscored by the first chapter of Yates’ book, which he shares with both Frank and Claire, hoping to get their approval before writing the rest of the book. He sees this as a book about their marriage, not Frank and America Works. Frank immediately refuses Yates’ creative direction, but clearly Claire is intrigued. It’s not so much that she wants the intimate details of her marriage written about, but rather that Yates’ perspective on their marriage has led her to question how she understands her life and her choices.

Yates writes that the Underwoods are equals, that they’re two great independent forces, and that “legacy is their only child.” Again, this suggests that the two of them come together to create this one great force, but Claire is feeling an imbalance in power. When, in the previous episode, she was giving blood and told Yates that she hated how her and Frank needed each other, what she meant was that she hated how she needed him.

NEXT: Abortion, blackmail, and more!

But does Claire need Frank? There are some heavy suggestions in this episode that Claire could break out on her own and begin her own career in politics. It’s insinuated that she should be the Underwood seeking out the Democratic nomination. These are only hints though, and who knows if there will be any follow-through. For now though, it’s intriguing to wonder about the dramatic possibilities that would come with Claire going up against her husband.

Claire might not be free just yet though, because Dunbar—recognizing that Claire is single-handedly winning the nomination for Frank—wants to finally use the journal Doug’s been holding on to. The journal shows that Claire lied publicly about having an abortion due to rape, and such a reveal would certainly derail any chance the Underwoods would have at keeping the White House in 2016.

Such backdoor blackmail makes for some of the juiciest drama we’ve seen this season. For instance, when a secret meeting is set up between Dunbar and Frank in the same stairwell where he and Petrov shared cigars, Dunbar enters the stairwell in the pitch black. Frank turns on the light, and from up above, says, “Hello, Heather” in the most menacing way possible. Spacey is at his best when he’s hamming it up, and that’s exactly what he does here.

He’s a full-on villain, especially when Dunbar threatens to take down Claire with the journal. He turns to the camera and says he’ll slit her throat in broad daylight—and he may have used an expletive in there, too. This is House of Cards going into full soap opera mode, and it’s the best version of the show. No gentle musings on foreign policy or discussing the nuances of creating jobs; just fake abortions, blackmail, death threats, wartime secrets, and bribery. That’s the stuff we want.

Mixed in with all of this blackmail is the question of Doug’s loyalty. He offered up the journal to Dunbar, but it would seem it was just a plan to get back in Frank’s good graces. He meets with the President and burns the incriminating page in the journal, turning down Dunbar’s offer of $2 million for the evidence. What does Doug want in return? To be Frank’s Chief of Staff now that Remy has left.

Frank agrees, and it’s intriguing in the sense that Doug and Frank, not Claire and Frank, may be the real ruthless partnership that has allowed Underwood to take the White House. Claire has now been pushed even further to the margins, and she takes Frank to task for it. She’s furious that he hired back someone who used her as a bargaining chip, and didn’t even consult her first. “I’m starting to question all of it,” she says. That’s an explosive statement, and one that surely sets up a finale filled with confrontation.

So where do we go from here? Could this really be the end of the Underwoods? Claire does say that they’ve been lying to each other for a while now. What about Doug? Is he truly trustworthy? Time to buckle up for the finale, folks.

Episode Recaps

House of Cards

Ballots, betrayal, and barbecue combine in Netflix’s original drama, which stars Kevin Spacey as cunning congressman Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his equally ruthless Lady Macbeth. Based on a 1990 BBC serial of the same name.

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