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 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+

[illustration by Brad Jonas]