Feb 27, 2015 · 4 minutes

When Netflix flipped the switch on the third season of House of Cards Friday morning at 3 am, I was up — bleary-eyed but game — to watch and recap each episode. You can read all thirteen recaps from my sleepless marathon in one article here, but for convenience’s sake we also split them up into individual reviews, all of which you can find right here.

“Chapter 39″

I know there’s only been three seasons of House of Cards, but nevertheless this third season feels like a major departure from the others. While the plots of the first two accomplished their fair share of meandering and detours, the broad strokes of their season-long plot arcs were obvious after only a few scenes. Viewers didn’t quite know how, but they knew this Frank Underwood character would spend each season ascending and ascending to ever-higher positions of power, destroying everyone in his path.

But what happens when Underwood is already at the top, like he is at the beginning of Season 3?

Before the season began, I expected its arc to involve a litany of attempts to rip this power away from Underwood, who in turn would destroy these opponents with the same zeal he brought to his ascent. This is partially true of Season 3’s narrative: Early on, the Democratic Party, eager to distant itself from the corrupt Walker administration, all but demands that Underwood not run for reelection in 2016.

But nobody, not the audience nor the show’s extended cast of characters, really believes Underwood will heed that demand. A couple high-ranking Democrats in Congress can’t tell Frank nothing. Furthermore, a narrative that placed Underhood in the crosshairs of a bunch of manipulative aspiring Frank Jrs would be as unrealistic as it would be predictable. After impeaching one President, the American Public is generally good on impeachments for a while.

So what, then, was the narrative thrust of Season 3?

To be honest, it was difficult for me to identify this arc until the last two or three episodes. (I admit that sleep deprivation may have played a role in that confusion).

Was the storyline about securing the Democratic nomination? In part, yes. But the audience could more-or-less take for granted that Underwood would bag the nomination; the Oval Office brings with it too much irresistible drama for the writers to keep Underwood out of it. And in a calculated effort to underscore just how secondary this narrative was to the season at large, the writers avoided any kind of suspenseful build-up surrounding the vote-counting in the crucial yet ultimately anti-climactic Iowa caucus. We only discover Frank has won when the show jump-cuts from an unrelated scene halfway across the country to Dunbar delivering her concession speech.

The rest of the plot arcs, from Petrov the mad Russian to Underwood’s job initiatives, were run-on-the-mill B-storylines. Sure, Stamper’s hunt for Rachel had some fire under it, but this arc barely involved Underwood.

No, the overarching narrative of Season 3 was this: the disintegration of Frank and Claire’s marriage. And while that doesn’t become clear until around Episode 10 or 11, in retrospect it’s a little more obvious from the start. If you look at the season-long narrative in its entirety — which on first viewing felt unfocused and meandering — many of the subplots served to underscore the ever-growing distance between Frank and Claire. If it doesn’t seem obvious to first-time viewers, it’s only because the couple has become so adept at keeping up appearances.

In this way, Season 3 of House of Cards’ closest cultural relative is Season 4 of The Sopranos. That too is considered by many to be unfocused and schizophrenic in its storytelling. It’s also considered by many to be the worst season of The Sopranos. It isn’t until the explosive finale, “Whitecaps,” in which Tony and Carmela decide to separate, that the season-long arc reveals itself to be about the disintegration of a relationship as opposed to a problematic mob captain like in every other season.

I would argue, however, that House of Cards Season 3 had nothing to lose by focusing more on the disintegrating relationship early on. Beyond Frank’s political schemes, which he barely puts to use in Season 3, the interplay between Frank and Claire is the most interesting thing about the show. As such, the first two-thirds of the season often felt like a disconnected string of sub-caliber B-storylines. What I loved about the first two seasons were how over-the-top and ridiculous Underwood’s machinations were. Absent those, the third season, which seemed to aim for greater restraint, was merely boring at times.

That said, the season ends on a high note as Frank and Claire’s relationship suffers an epic meltdown. It’s hardly an essential 13 hours of television; Season 3 does little to justify House of Cards’ precarious position in the modern canon of great television. But there are enough tensions in place to set up an explosive Season 4. And while as a supposedly sophisticated television consumer, I should be lobbying for more great storytelling and character development, House of Cards is at its best when its focus is on Frank behaving badly. And with Claire’s stabilizing force out of his life, I wouldn’t mind seeing Frank spin out-of-control in a flurry of drugs, alcohol, and sex. And would it kill him to murder a few more people on subway tracks?

Grade: B+

[illustration by Brad Jonas]