Feb 27, 2015 · 38 minutes

We also gave each review its own separate article page. To browse through those, click here.

Netflix just flipped the switch on Season Three of House of Cards, and with a pot of coffee brewing and a freezer full of popsicles (nothing but the coldest snacks for the coldest show on television) I'm staying up all night to watch it. Follow all the outrageous political machinations here (and on my Twitter feed) as I recap each episode.

Note: This isn't a live blog like the one at the Verge which, with Ross Miller at the helm, is sure to be fantastic. Instead I'll be writing recaps like the ones I wrote for The Newsroom and Silicon Valley.

"Chapter 27"

For a show that kills off characters without mercy, I must admit I'm a little disappointed that Doug Stamper is still alive.

At the end of last season, Stamper was driving poor Rachel -- the final loose end in Frank Underwood's bloody rise to power -- who finally becomes fed up with living in fear of the Underwood Murder Machine. So she takes matters into her own hands and murders Stamper with a rock in the woods -- or so we thought. Early on in "Chapter 27" we see recovering addict Stamper hospitalized and eventually rehabilitated, sent packing home with pills and morphine. And while I'm sure that will lead to plenty of drama, this show is much better at keeping viewers on their toes than it is as a character study on the human condition. In other words, kill 'em all.

(As an aside, Stamper comes home to a refrigerator stocked by Frank and Claire with a perfect smattering of essentials to help him readjust after his injury. It calls to mind another scene from Fincher's body of work when the refrigerator belonging to Edward Norton in Fight Club, full of little more than condiments, is a reflection of the character's empty existence which lacks any real substance. Is this a recurring theme in Fincher's work? For Stamper, the fridge might as well be full of mustard and mayonnaise, as he's subsisting largely on a diet of bourbon and painkillers).

But why are we talking about Doug Stamper's refrigerator? House of Cards is all about Frank, and as much fun as he was to watch as a homicidal Congressman and a homicidal Vice President, now he's the homicidal leader of the free world.

So what do we make of President Frank Underwood?

With nowhere else to ascend to, and with his status as the most powerful person in the world officially codified instead of existing in a de facto state, the man actually has to do some governing. And as a leader, Underwood serves as a canny commentary on how far to the Right the Democratic Party and the country as a whole has shifted. Underwood goes about cutting entitlement programs and whatever still exists of the social safety net -- that is, when he's not greenlighting assassinations on the other side of the world. Underwood is a Reaganite in sheep's clothing, going about the business of being President with the same ruthlessness that put him in the Oval Office.

In short, America under Frank Underwood is probably not going to be a very happy place for senior citizens and those living in poverty. Of course this is what happens when we live in a country that allows a man with so few scruples like Underwood to ascend to the highest ranks. For two seasons, we've watched this man ruin the lives of a litany of political insiders. Now his insidiousness is affecting everyday Americans, and what's always been a relentlessly cynical show is even more dispiriting and depressing. Welcome back, House of Cards. And fuck you, America.

Grade: B+

"Chapter 28"

It looks like Frank Underwood is as much Gerald Ford as he is Ronald Reagan.

In the first episode, we learned that Underwood is in many ways a ruthless Republican in Democrats' clothing -- a sly commentary on how far right the Party has shifted since Jimmy Carter. But he's also vulnerable -- not because of his politics but because, like Gerald Ford, he's taken over for a leader who resigned in disgrace and thus is political poison to his Party.

That's bad news for Underwood but good news for viewers, who get to see Kevin Spacey totally lose his mind, breaking down in tears after a string of failed phone calls to rally support and cash behind his 2016 presidential bid. Then, in a scene that acts as a total litmus test for whether a viewer is able to stomach the over-the-top ridiculousness of this show, Claire approaches, coldly removes her pants, and mounts Frank without a word. It's probably the most joyless sex scene anyone ever bothered to film, but that's kind of the point. To Frank, a gay man, sex with a woman isn't about pleasure, but it is about pride. And there's something -- maybe in Frank's upbringing or maybe it's due to some kind of societal pressure, who knows -- that allows him to tap into hidden reserves of power by knowing he's capable of fucking his wife.

So the next day, Underwood pulls the same clever trick he always pulls when faced with almost certain ruin -- he makes his opponents believe he's given up. Like when he offers to take the fall for President Walker at the end of Season 2, Underwood tells his Party's leadership he will not seek reelection. Addressing the country, Underwood says the same. But here's the trick: In giving up any hope of securing a second term, he's able to put on a show of how courageous and bold he's capable of being during his remaining year in office. This is his "Bulworth" moment, for lack of a better cultural reference. Underwood announces a total overhaul of social security, Medicare, and welfare programs, which he claims will somehow lead to ten million new jobs. The details are hazy, but that's not the point. This is America, where the only thing better than actually creating ten million jobs is promising to do it in a rousing speech.

"You are entitled to nothing," Underwood tells the country, before repeating it. "You are entitled to nothing. America was built on the spirit of industry. You build your future. It isn't handed to you."

Underwood's game is clear: Become so popular by appealing to hardworking, self-reliant voters -- or, more importantly, Americans who view themselves as hardworking, self-reliant voters -- so that his Party, which has always struggled to gain favor among these voters, will have no choice but to hand him the nomination in 2016. It appears that staying President will require just as much clever maneuvering as becoming President. And let's hope -- in service of the show's delicious outrageousness -- it requires a few subway murders along the way, too.

Grade: A-

"Chapter 29"

I know I've already written that, beyond the two leads, it's difficult to care about these characters as much more than pawns in Underwood's political chess match. But I had to smile when I saw weirdo hacker Gavin Orsay (played by Jimmi Simpson, who lovingly creeped out viewers as one of the awful and incestuous McPoyle brothers in Always Sunny) make his first appearance of the season. Orsay finds an uneasy ally in Stamper who, having been cut out of Underwood's inner circle, wants the hacker's help in locating Rachel and getting back in the President's good graces.

The meat of the episode, however, concerns a boozy dinner where Underwood is beset by his most dangerous adversary yet: The Putin-esque Russian President Petrov. The competition is innocent enough at first: Petrov seeks to out-drink and out-sing his American counterpart at every turn -- that is, when he's not mercilessly hitting on Claire. Underwood naturally hates him.

But Petrov wants more than a sexy night with the First Lady. He bullies Underwood into backing down on a US-led campaign to install a UN peacekeeping operation in the Middle East. These are uncharted waters for Underwood. He understands the procedures and pathologies of the United States, but is adrift when speaking to a foreign head of state -- particularly one as paranoid and powerful as Petrov. It's downright painful to watch Underwood respond to the Russian President by -- in the word used by Claire -- "cowering." And so with his own Lady Macbeth urging him forward, Underwood ultimately stands up to Petrov.

To be honest, this narrative -- Underwood feels in over his head, Claire gives him strength (interestingly enough it's always either through sex or personal disparagement), and then the President fights back -- is getting a little tired. Nevertheless, the introduction of Petrov could prove to be one of the show's most exciting subplots yet. Sure, the Russian could be all talk, but I suspect he's more treacherous and more powerful than any opponent Underwood has encountered. And what I love most about House of Cards is that, the show's writers are so ridiculous, they wouldn't bat an eye at launching World War III.

Grade: B

"Chapter 30"

Another episode, another formidable enemy for Underwood.

This time it's Solicitor General Heather Dunbar, a woman who possesses both scruples and ambitions -- a dangerous combination for Underwood. The President had aimed to neutralize Dunbar by offering her a seat on the Supreme Court, one that would be vacant as soon as the President's people leak that one of the sitting Justices has Alzheimer's. But his gambit backfired, emboldening Dunbar to announce her own candidacy for president in an effort to bring "honor" back to the Oval Office. These adversaries are piling up quick, and with them so too are Underwood's anxieties.

To make matters worse, it's proving to be more difficult than expected for Underwood to keep up the ruse that he isn't running for president. After an American citizen in Russia speaks up about gay rights, he is jailed by Russian authorities -- likely as an act of retaliation against the US after the Underwoods chose to sidestep Petrov and move forward on the UN peacekeeping initiative in the Middle East. This gives the press an opening to pressure Underwood over his vague stance on gay rights. When he refuses to take the bait, it raises the question: Why is a man who isn't running for reelection so hesitant to voice a potentially controversial opinion?

Underwood is flailing around in panic as he struggles to stay afloat. But just as he's done in the past three chapters, the President ultimately adopts a measure of resolve in the episode's final moments after conferring with his wife. As I wrote in the previous recap, this narrative is beginning to grow stale, and I sincerely hope that House of Cards finds some fresher ways to telegraph Underwood's struggles and personal reaffirmations.

That said, the final scene here is totally bonkers in the best way possible. After debating with a pastor about the merits of ruling with fear versus ruling with love, Underwood approaches a giant crucifix at the head of the church. And because he's Frank Underwood and why the hell not, he spits on it. Underwood immediately feels a pang of guilt, but as he leans in to clean the saliva off Jesus' face the whole crucifix falls to the floor and shatters.

Is the lesson, "Don't spit on Jesus' face?" Not a chance.

The message is clear: No half-measures, no guilt, no scruples. If you're going to spit on Jesus' face, spit on Jesus' face without remorse. Now apply this to the action of the episode: Sure, Underwood's attempt to take down Dunbar didn't work. But his attempt to manipulate her -- to "rule-by-fear" -- was only ineffective because Dunbar is that rare bird in Washington who operates with some semblance of ethics. Does that mean he should try to make things right? Soften his strategy with her? Clean up the spit?

No. The rules of the game are the same, even if Dunbar refuses to play. And that, I suspect, will be her undoing. After all, among the many cynical themes proffered by House of Cards is the notion that people don't ascend to positions of real power without getting her hands dirty. She'll either stay clean and fail in her ambitions, or bring herself down to Underwood's level, giving him the opportunity to destroy her.

Grade: B

"Chapter 31"

The other great political series of our time, The West Wing, existed in large part to educate viewers about the biggest political issues of the day. House of Cards, however, uses policy issues as sources of conflict and storytelling but little else. And as a result, the writers need not concern themselves with the details of these policies. Which is fine -- except when the central issues of the plot too closely resemble real life.

For most of House of Cards' run, the individual issues that move the plot forward have been sufficiently vague, and therefore did not require much research from the writers beyond skimming a few Wikipedia articles. But Season 3 has been different. It began in "Chapter 29" when the politically-charged Russian punk band Pussy Riot made an appearance.

But these attempts at verisimilitude are more clearly displayed than ever in "Chapter 31" as tensions rise between Russia and the US. Last year, after violence broke out in Ukraine, and Russia launched a military intervention annexing Crimea, many mainstream media outlets attempted to frame the war as somehow being tied into a larger conflict between the US and Russia. Human beings -- and especially Americans -- are narcissistic, and so it's easier to convince stateside news consumers to care about Ukraine if they believe Putin was motivated by either fear or aggression toward the United States.

But as Pando's Mark Ames wrote last May, this invented narrative simply isn't true. Vladimir Putin's actions and attitudes toward Ukraine are the result of local political dynamics in Russia and little else. According to Ames, Putin's aim with regard to Ukraine is "shoring up his new political base" -- and last I checked Americans don't vote in Russian elections.

That's why my ears pricked up when I heard one House of Cards character suggests that Russia's arrest of an American activist protesting on behalf of gay rights was not related to local politics at all, but was in fact a retaliatory move against the United States. While this suggestion is true in the fictional context of the episode, it mirrors the same false narrative perpetuated by many American journalists when reporting on the Ukraine crisis.

Again though, even when the show's narratives sound familiar to viewers who read the news, House of Cards is a proud work of fiction, and its writers should not be held to the same standards as journalists. And beyond this curious scene, "Chapter 31" is one of the better episodes of the season. Instead of relying on the same facile narrative I bemoaned in the last two recaps, this episode employs a far more clever metaphorical device to illustrate how Underwood's approach has evolved since becoming President.

During the first two seasons, one of the most memorable character traits of Frank Underwood was his obsession with first-person shooters like Call of Duty. Kill, kill, kill everything in one's path is how the game is played, which of course calls to mind Underwood's own political strategy.

But this season he's found a new gaming obsession: Monument Valley, an iPad game where players solve puzzles to help guide a princess through abstract architectural structures. Instead of requiring violent yet precise reflexes, Monument Valley calls for a more cerebral approach. As President, Underwood can no longer rampage through the halls of Congress and the White House, metaphorically mowing down everybody in his path. He needs to operate more slowly and carefully. That said, while Monument Valley is about princesses and minimalist art, and while Underwood has taken a less aggressive approach to his manipulations, he's still participating in a game meant to be played -- and won -- at all costs.

Grade: B+

"Chapter 32"

Each season of House of Cards includes at least one episode in which the principal characters leave Washington and the action slows down. "Chapter 32" is Season 3's contribution to the "bottle episode" format and, like other episodes of its kind, it's sophisticated, powerful, and quietly devastating in ways this show rarely achieves.

The central conflict of the episode concerns Frank and Claire as they travel to Moscow to negotiate the release of an American prisoner arrested for protesting on behalf of gay rights. Before Russia will agree to the release, however, the prisoner must read a statement of apology. Unsurprisingly, the prisoner refuses to admit wrongdoing which jeopardizes not only his release, but also the terms of the UN peacekeeping initiative that the US wants to install in the Middle East. While Underwood tries to convince President Petrov of Russia to change the wording of the statement, Claire works on the prisoner, pleading with him to swallow his pride and apologize so he can return home to his partner.

As I wrote in the last recap, the previous episode mischaracterized US-Russia relations by suggesting that Russia's military ambitions and its hard-line on social equality are somehow motivated by fear or aggression toward the United States. But here, the writers are far more in tune with the domestic political dynamics that underscore Putin's antipathy toward gay rights. Petrov is playing to his electoral base, and by releasing the prisoner without an apology, it would cost the Russian leader much ill-gotten political capital.

Despite these obstacles, Underwood convinces Petrov to allow Underwood himself to read the statement, but it's too late. While Claire is asleep in his cell, the prisoner hangs himself with her scarf. Everyone is shocked by the tragedy, but none more than Claire, who publicly denounces Petrov for driving the man to suicide, thus destroying the UN peacekeeping deal.

"I should've never made you ambassador," Frank says.

"I should've never made you president," Claire says back.

The cracks that had been growing all season long in Frank and Claire's relationship finally split open at the end of this episode -- an outcome made even more poignant thanks to Claire's pleas with the prisoner to return home to be with the man he loves. Frank and Claire may be horrible people, but as a couple they are downright inspiring in their grace, in their humility, and in their patience with one another. And watching their relationship detonate provokes a kind of deep and profound sadness that is rare for any television series.

Grade: A-

"Chapter 33"

Frank and Claire have fought in the past, but even Frank admits in this episode that none of those fights compared to what occurred in the aftermath of their ill-fated Moscow trip. Claire's "I should've never made you president" line cut the deepest; because despite how enamored Frank is with his own "self-made man" narrative, he knows somewhere deep in his charcoal soul that he would never have become president without her. Hell, he may never have even become a Congressman without her. TV critics don't call her Lady Macbeth for nothing.

But when the couple Frank and Claire bear the closest resemblance to are the black-hearted Macbeths, it raises a legitimate question: Why should we root for this pair of evil assholes to get back together?

It's because, despite the fact that Frank and Claire inevitably make anybody who wanders into their sphere of influence hopelessly miserable, they complete each other in a way that would be corny, if the two weren't so darkly cynical about everything and everyone else. Like Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers, their loyalty to one another is a model for all couples, even if the rest of their behavior is deplorable. So it hurts to watch this episode and see Frank eviscerate his wife in a staff meeting for bringing a less-than-perfect idea to the table; and it hurts to see Claire, who normally brings a sense of cool and calm with her wherever she goes, be reduced to pettiness and spite toward her husband.

"Chapter 33" isn't the most eventful House of Cards episode -- not of this season nor any other. But viewers may appreciate a come-down episode after the high-burning emotional intensity of what happened in Moscow. And more importantly, the show needed a whole episode to bring Frank and Claire back into each other's arms. Anything less would have felt rushed or rang false. And if there's one component of House of Cards that never feels dishonest, it's their strange love affair.

Grade: B-

"Chapter 34"

With Claire and Frank on good terms again, it's back to business for the Underwoods.

And the reunion arrives not a moment too soon: The instant Frank took the controversial step earlier this season to appropriate FEMA funds for his AmericaWorks job initiative, audiences had been watching the clock, waiting for a devastating natural disaster to compel Frank to either return the cash or risk being responsible for the deaths and displacement of thousands of Americans. Now that day has come, as Hurricane Faith threatens to make landfall on the Eastern Seaboard.

Meanwhile, reporter Kate Baldwin is writing a feature on the man she calls "Hurricane Francis," labelling Underwood a "tyrant" for repeatedly going behind Congress' back to push his own initiatives against the will of the legislature.

Not that this is an entirely bad thing. The AmericaWorks initiative, which delivered Underwood's only shot at winning the 2016 nomination, turned out to be an incredibly well-designed and well-executed social program that created ten thousand jobs in DC alone. If Underwood simply applied all of his brilliant brainpower and inexhaustible energy to crafting and implementing legislation instead of screwing over colleagues, he could have been the next FDR, lifting the country out of recession and unrest and restoring America to its former glory. Now that would be a twist no one saw coming.

As for the hurricane, it missed the coast completely -- though the damage to Underwood's presidency was done and irreversible: The bill to return the AmericaWorks funds to FEMA had already been signed causing those ten thousand new workers to lose their jobs. The only silver lining for Underwood was that Baldwin decided to scrap her story because, with no devastation caused by the storm, the hurricane metaphor simply didn't fit. (In a sad but telling move that reflects poorly on modern journalism, an important story criticizing the President of the United States was killed because it no longer had a snappy headline).

So now, with all of his chips on the table and nearly all of his cards played, Underwood's only hope at reelection is to officially announce his campaign, even though he's already well-behind challengers like Dunbar and House Majority Whip Jackie Sharp.

This should be a thrilling occasion, fulfilling the promise impregnated in the dramatic fist bump that concluded Season 2. But when Underwood resolves to announce the campaign it lacks the punch that usually comes when he sets a plan in motion. That's because throughout this episode, and frankly throughout almost the entire season, Underwood has been in an unfamiliar and unattractive state: He has not been in control. The crowning achievement of his presidency was laid to waste by an act of god that never even transpired. His negotiations with Petrov fell to pieces because a political prisoner took his own life. Even his decision to announce his candidacy was made because he had no other option.

Underwood's lack of control over everything and everybody in Washington makes for a far more realistic narrative than we've come to expect from House of Cards. In my preview of the third season I even suggested that, given the increasingly implausible machinations carried out by Underwood, that the writers would do well to give his schemes a much needed dose of fallibility.

But by setting Underwood adrift and putting him at the mercy of external forces, the writers have gutted the character of the brilliance and powerful sense of agency that made him so much fun to watch. As a result, the whole third season feels like a bit of a misfire so far.

There are still five episodes left, which is plenty of time for Underwood to reclaim his position as a master manipulator whose ability to control outcomes borders on the supernatural. And I sincerely hope he does because I miss the old Frank Underwood. While he may have been preposterous, at least he was interesting.

Grade: C+

 "Chapter 35"

When we last left Frank Underwood at the end of "Chapter 34," the man bore little resemblance to the brilliant tactician and manipulator who, for the better part of two seasons, wielded a staggering and almost-supernatural level of control over his own fate and the fates of those around him.

On the contrary, the man Underwood grew into once he became president lacks that killer confidence and can barely control his own destiny, let alone the destinies of his opponents. Unlike Vice President Underwood or even many Congressman Underwood, Presidents have to govern. They're too busy making a hundred decisions a day to formulate the ridiculous machinations that Frank Underwood 1.0 could devise in his sleep -- or while achieving high scores in Call of Duty. Presidents often have to sacrifice massive amounts of political capital and popularity in order to accomplish anything worth remembering a century from now -- or even a year from now, for that matter. Even at the end of the last episode, when Underwood finally exercised some agency by announcing his reelection campaign, it was difficult to get too excited -- I mean, it's not as if he had any other options, except maybe to lie down and give up.

By having Underwood undergo this transformation, the writers added a dose of sober realism to House of Cards. However -- and I don't mean this as a failing per se -- sober realism has never been the show's strong suit. I feared that its writing, while breezy and often hilarious, would struggle to support the more solemn direction the show had begun to take. Sex? Violence? Drugs? Treachery? These pulpy topics are the areas where House of Cards excels. But terrorist attacks? Drone strikes? Even a show as sincere as The West Wing had trouble tackling these issues.

But in "Chapter 35," the pieces finally clicked -- and the result is possibly the most grim and greatest episode from any season of House of Cards yet.

The episode begins with Underwood in campaign mode -- and again, it's difficult to muster much excitement over his reelection. I probably wouldn't vote for him and it's not because I know he's pure evil deep down; it's because he's become a total bore. And as viewers we're supposed to feel this way. These scenes are observed not through Frank's eyes or Claire's, but through the eyes of writers Kate Baldwin and Tom Yates, both of whom can't help but laugh at his less-than-inspiring campaign slogans.

But the episode soon takes a disturbing turn -- one that adds grisly undercurrents to Frank's loss of control.

Eight Russian soldiers are killed in the Jordan Valley under mysterious circumstances. The Russians refuse to let any other nations, including the US, investigate the site. This, combined with the erratic behavior of the US Russian ambassador, leads Claire to believe that the Russian president Petrov orchestrated the attack on his own men for some larger nefarious purpose. So Frank orders a covert operation to infiltrate the site and to determine who was behind the attack. But the plan backfires stupendously after the team's cover is blown, resulting in 4 US casualties including one death at the hands of the Russians. In retaliation, Petrov shares a video of the assault with the Israeli officials, who are less than enthused by the US conducting covert operations in their backyard. As the Israeli military begins to encroach on the Valley, Hamas and Hezbollah mobilize in opposition. I had joked earlier in the season that Frank might start World War III if he's not careful. I was only half-serious, and yet here we are.

And that's just the episode's "A" plotline. There's also Stamper, whose descent into relapsed alcoholism reaches its nadir after discovering Rachel was killed in an car accident. And then there's Remy, who because of the color of the skin is pulled over and assaulted by police officers. He seeks the comfort of the woman he loves, Jackie Sharp, only to have it confirmed once-and-for-all that she has moved on from their relationship.

When I previewed Season Three yesterday, I wrote that House of Cards was a fascinatingly intricate and entertaining procedural, but unlike many other entrants in the modern television canon the show is not some grand statement on the human condition nor a terribly complex character drama.

After watching "Chapter 35," however, I may need to revise that assessment.

Grade: A

"Chapter 36"

The first two seasons of House of Cards were both slow starters, hitting their stride around the midway point of the season. But while it took a little longer for Season Three to find its groove -- about eight episodes -- the payoff might be even greater.

Instead of trying to up the fever-pitched intensity of "Chapter 35," the pacing in "36" is considerably slower -- even though the crisis is just as dire and the stakes just as high. But slow is the speed at which the methodical Frank Underwood prefers to operate. The decision to launch that doomed covert operation? He made it in the heat of the moment, at the urging of his wife. Even the shuttering of AmericaWorks was done quickly under threat of an impending hurricane -- and again, Frank's staff only urged him to kill AmericaWorks after Claire drew first blood.

Indeed it's not just the pace of Frank's decisionmaking that matters, but the fact that these decisions should be made by Frank alone. Claire is his strength. She is his ambition. And she is no less smart than he is. But again and again, for Frank to execute a decision properly, it has to be his idea. Chalk it up to egotism, but perhaps the biggest thing driving his near-downfall during the first half of the season was that he lost faith in himself.

Though that's not the case anymore. In this episode, he travels to the Jordan Valley against the wishes of his wife and his advisors to negotiate with Petrov face-to-face, in an effort to convince him to withdrawal his troops from the Valley. Frank's plan "works," in a manner of speaking. With his bargaining position severely weakened by the time he meets with Petrov, however, Frank gives up far more than he would have liked. But in the end, Petrov withdraws his forces and Frank looks like a hero in the run-up to the Democratic Primaries.

One of the conditions of Petrov's withdrawal was that Claire step down as UN Ambassador. Frank explains this demand and asks if she's willing to comply.

"It would have been better if you'd just fired me," she shoots back at him.

I see her point. One of the recurring themes of the episode and the season at-large is what Frank calls "the illusion of choice." Frank tells Claire that the decision is hers, but that's a lie. They both know there's only one choice, and it's the choice that draws the shortest line between two points -- the one that removes Petrov from the Jordan Valley as quickly and bloodlessly as possible.

For Frank, having to make a "choice" suggests a lack of certainty; and uncertainty is what fails him every time. And while it may take Frank a long time to determine what to do next, it's rarely because he's weighing two options. Instead, it's simply because he hasn't considered that perfect, elegant solution yet. If there are two choices on the table and he can't decide between them, it's probably because both options are garbage.

Thanks to Claire's forced resignation -- she's last seen stuck with the task of determining which hairstyle of hers tests the strongest in focus groups -- a distance builds between her and Frank throughout this episode. Other characters, however, become closer than ever. Stamper and his brother enjoy a bond that likely hasn't been this strong since Frank Underwood first entered Stamper's life. And Underwood and his biographer Tom Yates share late-night drinks and secret passions in a scene that almost -- just almost -- ends in a sexual encounter.

But the most important thing that happens in "Chapter 36" is that Frank rediscovers his confidence as a leader. And he's going to need all the confidence he can muster over the final three episodes if he's going to win a second term. (But I mean, come on, of course he's going to win a second term).

Grade: A-

"Chapter 37"

After almost ten episodes of having to suffer through some light-world version of Frank Underwood who lacked control, confidence, and focus, the demonically brilliant bastard of the first two seasons is back.

But while the old Frank is great fun for audiences, his arrogance, his cruelty, and his pathologically controlling behavior make him a total monster to anybody who works with him -- and especially those who work under him. As Freddy tells one character who found himself on the receiving end of one of Underwood's verbal onslaughts, "It's like blaming a snake for having fangs."

But if you're trying to win a debate, like the one  held between three Democratic candidates in "Chapter 37," it's nice to be on the same team as the fanged beast.

And indeed, the television pundits agreed that of President Underwood, Heather Dunbar, and Jackie Sharp, the incumbent came out on top -- though just barely. As for the content of the debate, these scenes featured some of the show's most clever writing all season, as between the three candidates they represented the spectrum of debate night personalties. There was the folksy good old boy in Underwood, spouting off pandering cliches like, "That's clearer than a glass of moonshine!" and "If that's true, I will eat my hat!" There was Sharp, the military veteran, who seemed to preface every line with, "When things get tough on the battlefield...". And then there was the plain talker, Dunbar.

Judging on substance alone, Dunbar was the clear winner -- what she lacked in cliches she made up for in trenchant critiques of her opponents' policies and pedigrees. But Underwood's Southern charm was just too much for Dunbar to overcome, and coming out of the debate, Underwood looked poised to cruise to the nomination -- particularly because he had already convinced Sharp to drop out in the next few days and join him as his running mate.

But something goes terribly wrong in the hours and days following the debate. Underwood and Sharp had agreed ahead of the debate to play softball with one another while hammering Dunbar. But Underwood just couldn't help himself, embarrassing this future running mate with harsh critiques for which she was hardly prepared. When Sharp raises these concerns to Underwood, he berates her even more aggressively for not towing the line. When his Chief of Staff Remy -- who happens to be in love with Sharp -- raises the same concerns, he too is firmly rebuked by Underwood.

It's pretty clear where this is headed. While Sharp does drop out of the race as expected, she doesn't put her support behind Underwood, even though he promised her the Vice Presidency. Instead, she comes out in favor of Dunbar -- even though Dunbar has offered her nothing in return. Such is the repellent power of Frank Underwood.

Except when it comes to Claire. Or not? Late in the episode, while donating blood, she becomes faint and starts to ramble to Tom Yates:

"He proposed and I said... seven years. If it's still good, another seven. If not... Every seven years. I don't hate campaigning. What I hate is... how much I need us. I didn't jump. I didn't step back."

It's hard to know for sure but it sounds like Frank and Claire's marriage is coming up on another seven-year milestone. And after all the fights of the past year and Frank taking away her ambassadorship and all the ways their once unwavering loyalty to one another has been tested... Is this the year she "jumps"?

We'll find out in one of the two remaining episodes. My guess is, Frank wins reelection -- this season barely scratched the surface of the dramatic possibilities offered by a Frank Underwood presidency -- but he loses Claire, sending him down a spiral of self-destructive behavior that will dominate next season's story arc. Think of it as Bad President.

Grade: B+

"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+

"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?

Episode grade: B+

Season grade: B

[illustration by Brad Jonas]