For boiling its episode down to three hot-button topics, the Season 3 finale of “House of Cards” still felt impossibly jumbled throughout. First, we discover Rachel is indeed alive and working (a lot) in New Mexico. Doug is on his way to find her, and his indecision over how to handle his former lady love carries a huge chunk of the 57-minute story. Relegated to supporting roles are Frank and Claire, as the President gears up for the Iowa primary and the First Lady comes to terms with who she is outside of being her husband’s supporter.
Despite the well-meaning parallels between the season premiere and the season finale (both focused on Doug and his recovery from/relationship to Rachel), “Chapter 39” just couldn’t find equal harmony in its dialogue, actions or ending. I’ve mentioned before how Season 3 feels like a multitude of short cons strung together to mean nothing, and that feeling is reaffirmed when looking at what’s been accomplished over these past 13 episodes. Other than Claire leaving Francis, everything is as it was, essentially. Doug finished what he started at the end of Season 2. The President is still in the middle of his campaign. Claire is still looking for her purpose.
In between, we had a dizzying array of revelations and retractions. The President wasn’t running for President, but, of course, he did. Yates didn’t write his book, but then, well, actually he did. Claire got the U.N. job and then had it taken away. Remy and Jackie broke up, she got married and now they’re back together. The Underwoods had a falling out, then patched things up, then came crashing down yet again. Season 3 very much felt like stalling, which is interesting when considering it’s the first season of “House of Cards” outside the gameplan from day one. Seasons 1 & 2 were already planned out (thanks to its source material, Andrew Davies’ miniseries of the same name) when Netflix gave the series its green light. Can Beau WIllimon forge his own path successfully in Season 4? I sure hope so, even if it’s hard to imagine right now.
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Breaking the Fourth Wall
For the first time in series history, the season finale did not end on just Frank. Focus officially shifted to Claire as she strode confidently away from her abusive husband. That’s certainly an encouraging move for Season 4, but what does it mean that Frank never said a word to us, his audience, in the final hour of the season? An optimist might argue he’s lost touch with his fan base, and thus doesn’t know what to say to us anymore. Another side to the argument, though, feels more accurate. It doesn’t feel like Frank’s actively ignoring anyone as much as he’s forgotten us. He’s too wrapped up in his own world to see any other point of view. This reading would certainly help explain his actions toward Claire, and therefore it will become the official interpretation for this fan, still hoping for better things to come.
Binge and You’ll Miss It
Frank…won? He actually won the Iowa caucus? His victory was emphasized in both Heather’s speech and his own, but it’s simply quite hard to believe. During the race for Iowa, Frank’s Chief of Staff left him (Remy); his other opponent endorsed Dunbar; that errant analyst is the only person who thinks he won the debate; his wife stopped campaigning for him (which made the front page of the paper in Santa Fe!); oh, and his own party is actively supporting his opponent. How, in the name of holy hell, did he win Iowa? I went to the University of Iowa. We’re not dumb, ignorant farm hands. So unless Iowa State alums were the only people caucusing, there’s no way Frank should have won that state.
Made for Daytime: Frank and Claire’s Fight
Boy, do I hate siding with Frank in a fight between the Underwoods, but Claire’s proposed logic just doesn’t hold up. She began the conversation by saying how she hates to “need” Francis as much as she does. She wants to be able to do things on her own and not rely on a helping hand from her husband. That’s fine. That’s more than fine. That’s great. But he asked her bluntly what she wanted to do about it, her only retort was to attack him.
“It’s you that’s not enough,” Claire said. Frank’s response to this was certainly indefensible, but her statement was utterly absurd. Up to that point, all she says is that she needs to do things on her own. It’s not about him. It’s about her. Then she flips that argument on its head while refusing to propose the alternative requested. In the end, her decision will destroy Frank’s life, and how that’s an acceptable solution to either of them — after they both agreed on the road to the White House — is beyond me.
My insightful colleague Andrew Fiouzi, who last chimed in for Episode 4, pointed out that Claire found empathy within herself this season, and perhaps that’s why she couldn’t keep going down the path set before her. I can believe it. Between her time spent with gay rights protester Michael Korrigan and the ugly campaign waged by her husband, Claire spent a lot of time rethinking her position in Season 3. Even her interaction with the horrible mother from last week might have signified her inability to put up with nasty people anymore. But none of that was articulated in her argument. Even her hateful retort to Francis doesn’t illustrate any moral questioning. As glad as I was to see her go, it would have been nice had she been given a fair fight beforehand.
Ready for Primetime: Rachel’s Opening
Rachel, you will be missed as both a character and an actor. Though I had no doubt Doug would finish the job he came there to do, I did sincerely hope there would be another way out for you. After watching her work as a cleaning woman and grocery store clerk, share a drink with her alien housemates and nobly argue for her right to live, watching the dirt pile up over her body was extremely difficult.
She was right, too. Doug may never recover. Apparently connecting with his brother’s family wasn’t enough for Doug to find his own humanity. Now he’s tied to a candidate who may never hold more power than he does currently, and Doug needs the control as much as Frank does. Rachel will haunt him in Season 4. I can guarantee that, be it as a literal reappearance via memories or a ghost (which somehow feels appropriate for “House of Cards”), or as the conscience he has to keep squelching to do his job. Doug lost his soul in that desert, and that’s utterly terrifying for the future.
I said above that Season 3 felt like its writers were stalling, which is exactly what happened in this episode. Our cliffhanger last week was when Claire said, “We’ve been lying for a long time, Francis. To each other.” And though we started “Chapter 39” immediately following her statement, the conversation was unnecessarily delayed. We came back to it later, when Claire awkwardly reintroduced the subject, leading to the above-mentioned battle between husband and wife. But why wait? The only authentic answer stems from the series’ need to tease what’s coming next, even if fulfilling that promise is a lie they’ll later retract or distort or ignore.
Claire’s final statement puts everything in question, from Frank’s campaign to the series itself. Seeing these two square off in the political arena (if they do become enemies, as seems to be their new course) could be quite a piece of theater… or it could be too much for fans to handle. No matter how dark “House of Cards” got in the past, we could always fall back on this couple to carry us through. There was something deeply touching about their devotion to each other, even if it was a Sid and Nancy/Mickey and Mallory Knox coupling. Without it, “House of Cards” could combust under the pressure of its evil nature.
After complaining of the series’ redundancy in Season 3, it feels odd to be rooting for the two to get back together. We’ve seen it before, but is the allure of creature comforts from better seasons the wrong direction or the only way to move forward?