Kevin Spacey/Netflix

Too often House Of Cards takes narrative shortcuts that make little dramatic sense. “Chapter 35” begins with Frank Underwood in full campaign mode, flanked by “Underwood 2016” banners and leading the crowd in chants of “You are entitled to nothing!” — a winning Democratic slogan if ever I heard one. This is something we haven’t really seen before because Frank bypassed the whole “running for president” thing on his way to the presidency, and it’s fine as far as it goes. The problem is that much of the early part of the season was devoted to Frank announcing he wasn’t going to run, all the while plotting a stealth campaign to be implemented later. By dropping us in media res into the Underwood 2016 assault on Iowa, the show conveniently sidesteps Frank’s transition from non-participant to active campaigner. How did he sell that to the American people after making it clear he would not run? Aren’t the other candidates making hay of this by painting him as a flip-flopper? Maybe the upcoming debate (not yet seen by me) will address some of this, but for now it feels like a bit of cheat.

That’s not the only part of “Chapter 35” that cuts corners to the detriment of drama. Later in the episode, Frank orders a Navy SEAL team sent into the Jordan Valley to gather evidence that the Petrov has attacked his own troops in the region in order to sabotage the mission and improve his negotiating position in the missile talks. Frank and his advisors gather to observe the mission, which inevitably goes awry. This is the kind of scene Homeland can do it in its sleep by now, wringing every bit of tension out of the situation by cutting between the troops on the ground and the increasingly distressed observers in Washington. House Of Cards does none of that, however; the video cuts out as soon as the troops hit the ground, we hear a couple of shots and screams, Frank aborts the mission and that’s that. What could have been an excruciatingly suspenseful centerpiece to the episode is over almost before it begins.

The other major storyline in this episode concerns yet another unraveling of Douglas Stamper after Orsay shows him some not entirely convincing evidence that Rachel’s corpse has been found in a ditch in Arizona. Stamper gets shitfaced and belligerent, then visits Frank, still drunk, to deliver the evidence and confess to working for Dunbar. Frank calls Dunbar to read her the riot act for endangering Doug’s life, even threatening to put her in her fucking grave. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the pathetic Stamper as he puts his head on Frank’s knee, but this is yet another plot thread that had potential to go somewhere interesting and instead fizzles out.

“Chapter 36” is an improvement, if only for bringing Frank and Petrov face-to-face again. As much as the character of Petrov is based on Vladimir Putin, it’s hard not to see a little of Lars Mikkelsen’s brother’s Hannibal Lecter in his dry, puckish delivery. Petrov is an adversary Frank can’t dispose of with a few political machinations or by pushing him in front of a train (at least not without sparking World War III), and Frank is already at a disadvantage in having to negotiate from a position of weakness. (The fact that he looks almost Dukakis-level silly in his Army Man outfit doesn’t help his cause either, and Petrov doesn’t miss the opportunity to mock him for it.) Petrov makes it personal just because he can, and Frank ends up conceding on every point, including Claire’s removal from the ambassadorship. And while Petrov is clearly being petty, he’s not wrong; from what we’ve seen, Claire’s idea of diplomacy is to demand people do what she wants and stomp away in a huff.

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Aside from the Petrov summit, “Chapter 36” is another sleepy episode lacking in urgency, unless you particularly care that Remy and Jackie still have feelings for each other or that Stamper, emerging from his downward spiral, feels the call of cozy domesticity via his brother and his family. Orsay comes clean to Lisa, sort of, and presumably flees the country with his newly unlocked passport. The only other development of note is a surprisingly tender moment between Frank and his biographer Yates, who has sniffed out the president’s rather fluid sexuality. How long before Yates (inadvertently or not) passes this information on to his new bedmate Kate Baldwin? The outing of the president might be a sleazy soap opera development, but at this somnambulant point in the season, a little sleaze would go a long way.

Stray observations:

  • Cashew lives! I certainly hope he’ll have fewer death threats to deal with in his new home.
  • “We’re a hugging family,” says Stamper’s sister-in-law. “I see,” replies Mr. Warmth.
  • I’m still amazed Frank thought it was a good idea to install Jackie as a presidential candidate with an eye towards making her his running mate. If we’re more than one episode away from this decision blowing up in his face, I’ll be surprised.

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