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 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-

[illustration by Brad Jonas]