Feb 27, 2015 · 4 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 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

[illustration by Brad Jonas]