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 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+

[illustration by Brad Jonas]