Feb 27, 2015 · 3 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 38″

If it weren’t for the words of former male prostitute novelist and a suburban housewife who fantasizes about suffocating her baby, Frank and Claire Underwood might still be together.

Okay, it’s possible that I’ve spoken too soon. But judging by the crescendo of tensions between the couple and various bits of foreshadowing over the past two episodes, television’s ultimate power couple is about to call it quits.

“We’ve been lying for a long time, Francis,” Claire says at the end of Season 3’s penultimate episode.

“Of course we have,” Frank agrees. “Imagine what the voters would think if we started telling the truth.”

“Not to them. To each other.”

So why, after decades spent amassing power and prosperity together, is Claire considering leaving Frank? And why now?

I’m sure the final episode — which I expect to be the most devastating hour of breakup television this side of The Sopranos’ “Whitecaps” — will shine a beacon on these mysteries. In the meantime, we can look to two scenes from this most recent episode that, while probably not the chief factors that led to Claire’s “we-need-to-talk” face, perhaps pushed her over the edge.

The first occurs when novelist Tom Yates delivers the first chapter of the book Frank commissioned him to write. What began in Frank’s mind as a propaganda project supporting his AmericaWorks initiative, later morphed into a presidential biography before the author settled on writing a harrowing work of literature documenting the disintegration of Frank and Claire’s relationship. (This is why you never — or always? — hire an artist to do PR).

“Here’s a woman,” Yates writes, “who describes her vows as a suicide flirting with a bridge’s edge, and a man who wears his wedding ring as a badge of shame, for the debutante deserved more. But truly, what more could she desire? Together, they rule an empire without heirs. Legacy is their only child.”

If somebody described my marriage like that, I’d probably make a run for it, too. Of course the subtext here is far simpler than the heavy verbiage in which it’s shrouded: Frank Underwood is gay. And while he is capable of having sex with his wife and enjoying it, he prefers men.

Claire had obviously been made aware of Frank’s sexual preferences decades prior to reading this passage. But the notion that the woman “deserved more,” juxtaposed against the exquisite loneliness of the phrase, “empire without heirs,” truly drives home the weight of these wasted years that threatens to crush Claire if she doesn’t escape.

The second epiphany for Claire comes when she knocks on the door of a house whose frontyard is littered with Underwood 2016 signs. The woman inside is actually a Dunbar supporter, but that’s not the strangest thing about this encounter. Apropos of nothing, the woman tells Claire that she often fantasizes about suffocating her baby — the child being the only thing that keeps her from leaving her husband.

The woman insists she’s not serious, but Claire is left feeling deeply disturbed by these idle daydreams. Frank never wanted children and insisted that Claire undergo an abortion on three separate occasions. The young woman’s flippant attitude toward her own child is therefore understandably upsetting to Claire. But there may be an even deeper reason why the woman’s fantasy of killing her baby and leaving her husband affects Claire so profoundly. For Claire, having a child would make it easier, not harder, to leave Frank. Frank is the only family she has. He is far from an ideal husband, but staying with him is preferable to being alone. In the previous episode, she tells Tom, “What I hate is… how much I need us.” Presumably the “us” she refers to is her and Frank. But if she had given birth to a son or daughter, could that child have filled this empty space in her heart that she reluctantly lets Frank inhabit?

It’s a sad realization but one she’s probably known instinctively for years. “We’ve been lying for a long time, Francis,” she says, before adding, “To each other.”

What she didn’t mention is that they have also been lying to themselves, which is the saddest deceit of all.

Grade: B+

[illustration by Brad Jonas]