Doug finally comes face-to-face with Rachel, while Claire makes a decision with massive implications for the Underwoods' future.
Credit: Netflix

It had to end this way. Another season of House of Cards couldn’t have ended with Frank getting exactly what he wants. We’ve seen that story already, and as (occasionally) satisfying as it is to watch Frank circle his prey and then devour them bit by bit, there had to be something to repel him, some sort of obstacle that could weather his attacks and dole them out with equal fury.

There’s only ever been one person who can match Frank’s clinical ruthlessness. It’s not Doug Stamper, or Heather Dunbar, or Jackie Sharp, and it’s certainly not Donald Blythe (sorry, it’s hard to resist a solid jab at that poor sap). No, the only equal Frank has ever had, the only one who can compete with him, is his wife, Claire. She’s just as ruthless and unforgiving, but she has something that Frank doesn’t: a real sense of compassion and empathy.

Claire hasn’t had much opportunity to show off those qualities as Frank has climbed the ladder in Washington, but those moments have been there. They were there during her affair with the photographer, or her time spent alone with Yates. The Underwoods have always been performers, but whereas Frank has been performing for the voting public, Claire has been putting on a performance for her husband. The “real” Claire seems to come out in those moments mentioned above, when she’s removed from Frank.

For an episode that’s all about Claire–and make no mistake, she’s the protagonist now, the one we should be cheering for—the show spends a lot (and I mean a lot) of time tying up one of the season’s most exhausting and dramatically uninteresting story lines. The entire Rachel/Doug/Gavin storyline seems to suggest that audiences enjoy characters popping up by surprise, that killing off a character and then revealing that they’re alive is somehow enough to keep us interested in a story that’s otherwise dead in the water.

First of all, the story line doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s pretty clear that Rachel, who has just received a new identity and plans to leave the small town she’s in and disappear to somewhere where she can be left alone, has no interest in revealing any of the incriminatory details she has in regards to the President. She’s kept quiet this long and seems genuinely interested in just getting on with her life. So why is Doug so adamant about finding her?

The obvious answer is that he has an emotional connection to her, and so he needs to find her and see if there’s anything between them. That theory is thrown out as soon as Doug tracks her down though, right after he beats the information out of Gavin, who’s been living in Puerto la Cruz. Doug shows up in the tiny town where Rachel lives and spends some time buying bleach and a shovel before spending a ton more time sitting in a van that’s run-down and rusted exterior screams “Do Not Approach: murderer inside.”

After getting a sense of Rachel’s routine—she cleans up a bar in the mornings and often works a double-shift at a grocery store at night—he stakes out the grocery store’s parking lot, kidnapping her and bringing her to a secluded area where he can bury her. During the drive, Rachel knows she’s going to die, and Doug knows that he’s going to kill her. Theoretically, that should call for some real emotions, but because this story line is like a black hole that sucks in any and all meaningful tension or feelings, the narrative beats never really connect. Maybe that’s because we already accepted that Rachel was dead, but that’s a flimsy theory at best. Rather, there’s little to care about in terms of the two characters.

As bad as I feel for Rachel—who convinces Doug to let her go after he’s spent hours digging a grave for her, only to have him drive back down the road and kill her anyway—the story line lacks any emotional punch because it feels so removed from the rest of the narrative. Doug and Rachel’s story really only ties into events from the first season, and at this point, it’s a distant memory. What are the consequences now? Why does Rachel need to die? Frank already assumes she’s dead, and she seems to have no interest in revealing anything she knows, so what’s the point? There isn’t one, and for the season finale to focus so vehemently on this—it accounts for practically half of the episode’s running time—is seriously misguided.

NEXT: Claire finally comes to her senses

The third season finale would probably be one of the more powerful episodes of House of Cards if it weren’t for all the focus on Doug and Rachel, because with Claire, the show has finally found someone for us to root for, someone for us to empathize with. It’s the first time since Peter Russo that I’ve felt a connection with a character.

It’s kind of staggering how the show has moved from a weird, exaggerated political soap opera, to a weird, exaggerated, soap opera about married life. This season has largely been a mess, but there’s a significantly compelling undercurrent throughout, and that’s the corroding Underwood marriage. With this finale, the show is working harder than ever to establish Claire as the viable threat to Frank. In that sense, the Rachel story line is somewhat redeemable, in that Frank and Doug are so focused on permanently silencing Rachel that they don’t even take the time to tend to Frank’s biggest threat: his own wife.

The finale is, admittedly, a little blunt in how it forces us to empathize with Claire. She’s the one standing under the “Underwood 2016” sign when the crowd cheers the loudest, and she’s the one that slams the doors shut and cuts out the campaign noise in a brilliant use of sound editing. She’s the one sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office, and damn if she doesn’t look good back there.

She’s the one who takes the rowing machine, the one she bought for Frank back in the first season in order to keep him in shape and motivated. Now she’s rowing. Now she’s thinking about the campaign. She’s a storm gathering force with some serious speed, and for the first time in awhile, it feels like Frank has a credible threat to his power. When Frank loses it on her in the Oval Office, when he takes control the way he wouldn’t sexually earlier in the episode, it’s the sign of a man not reclaiming authority, but a man potentially on his last legs clinging to the last bit of power that he has.

When he sees her the next day, after he’s won the Iowa caucus and is headed to New Hampshire to continue his campaign, he assumes he’s back on top. Claire tells him that she’s not going to New Hampshire, to which he replies, “Yes, you are. I’ll see you in the car.” He’s still failing to adapt to the situation, to recognize what his wife is feeling.

His ignorance makes the ensuing interaction all the more satisfying. Claire stands firm and tells him, no, she’s not going to New Hampshire. In fact, she’s leaving him. All Frank can do is stare and call her name, Frank fading into the background of the shot, just a blurry mass of a man, as Claire remains clear and in the foreground. Claire Underwood 2016.

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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