Paul Sparks, Kim Dickens/Netflix

Whatever momentum might have been gained from the battle of the Underwoods at the end of “Chapter 32” is frittered away with a pair of meandering, drama-deprived episodes that essentially hit the reset button on the entire season. It’s fitting that the episodes climax with a hurricane that never actually hits, instead drifting harmlessly out to sea. Storm clouds keep gathering, but the only result is lukewarm drizzle.

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“Chapter 33”is a particularly oddly-structured installment, opening with Frank and Claire renewing their vows at a church in Gaffney, jumping back to the immediate aftermath of the Underwood blowup, then skipping between the two timelines except for an extended section devoted to the adventures of Doug Stamper. Not that it’s hard to keep the timelines straight: the Underwoods are dressed in black when things are bad and in white when they get better. (Also, Claire has changed her hair.)

Starting the episode with the reconciliation, surface-level though it may be, immediately undermines the potential of the central conflict. The status quo is restored far too quickly, so scenes in which Claire flinches at Frank’s touch or Frank scolds Claire in the middle of a cabinet meeting don’t carry the charge they otherwise might have. And it’s not as if “Chapter 33” has much else going on to hold our attention, unless you’ve been waiting for Stamper to finally bed his physical therapist. The America Works plan appears to be working, and even some Republicans in Congress are now believers, but it still doesn’t make much sense as a replacement for Social Security. Is there a retirement plan component to AmWorks? Who knows? It’s all kept very vague. America Works keeps reminding me of Hamsterdam from the third season of The Wire, but House Of Cards doesn’t benefit from that comparison at all. Both are somewhat far-fetched solutions to social problems, but The Wire put in the time and detail to make the unlikely seem plausible and House Of Cards hasn’t done that at all.

The episode takes an uncharacteristically artsy turn in its repeated cutaways to the Tibetan monks crafting a beautiful mosaic grain by colorful grain of sand. Frank takes almost no notice until they’re gone; once the image is complete, the monks simply wipe it away. Frank arranges for a photo of the mosaic to be delivered to Claire, which helps ease the tension between them but otherwise misses the point entirely. The idea of creating beauty for beauty’s sake is entirely outside Frank Underwood’s understanding of the way the world works.

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Ideally, “Chapter 34” would benefit dramatically from its ticking-clock scenario as a Category 4 hurricane bears down on the eastern seaboard, forcing Frank to make a choice between continuing to fund AmWorks through FEMA or accepting a congressional bill that would provide emergency funding but put an end to his pet project. In practice, the clock hardly ticks at all. Days pass with little sense of urgency, with the storm presumably approaching but in no hurry to do so. The episode spins its wheels while delaying the inevitable, which is that Frank signs the bill and the hurricane turns away before making landfall. America Works is finished for now, but Frank sees this as his opportunity to enter the presidential race, having amassed evidence that his plan works.

The other major outcome of the storm is that Jackie secretly meets with Dunbar, after which they jointly announce plans to suspend their campaigns until the danger has passed. This has all been set up by Stamper, who passes the information on to Seth but gets no credit for it when Seth informs Frank. Stamper’s motivations remain murky, but if he’s a mole, it looks like he’s a rogue one. More likely, he’s playing both sides until he knows which way the wind is blowing. But House Of Cards isn’t much fun when it’s just blowing back out to sea.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t know if it’s still done this way, but soap operas used to routinely recast roles and make a simple voice-over announcement at the beginning of the new actor’s first episode: “The part of Joey Baggadonuts will now be played by Heywood Jablome.” Even that would have been a more elegant solution than Frank turning to the camera and informing us that the fairly important character of Hector Mendoza did a bad thing and is no longer in the Senate nor running for president, so here’s this new guy. Presumably the real reason for the change is that Benito Martinez got a better job offer from American Crime, but this was a laughably awkward fix.
  • “Don’t politicize this.” Good one, Francis.
  • Freddy is an America Works success story, even if washing dishes is something of a comedown from owning a popular rib joint. When the program is gutted, Frank hires Freddy on as a White House groundskeeper. I don’t know that there’s still a place for this character in the narrative, but keeping Reg E. Cathey around is always a good idea.
  • “Chapter 34” features a dueling narration structure, alternating between Paul Sparks’ hagiography and Kate Baldwin’s hatchet piece. In the end, the two characters wind up in bed together, so I guess that means the truth is somewhere in the middle?

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