Feb 27, 2015 · 2 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 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-

[illustration by Brad Jonas]