Molly Parker/Netflix

After a meandering string of episodes in which the various storylines spun aimlessly away from the center, to the point where it often felt like many of the characters didn’t even occupy the same show, House Of Cards pulls it back together for the stretch run. As if in acknowledgement of the pointlessness that ran rampant in the preceding hours, Claire dyes her hair blonde again after going dark for a couple of episodes. Sometimes it’s important to give the people what they want.

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That’s a message that’s lost on Frank Underwood, who prefers to tell both his potential voters and the people closest to him that they are entitled to nothing. Frank has been making this mistake all season, as the arrogance and ego that come along with the Oval Office have combined to diminish his manipulation skills. The velvet glove is gone, leaving only the iron fist, but bullying tactics only go so far. That’s especially true in the case of Jackie Sharp, Frank’s designated pit bull for the Iowa debate. “Chapter 37” devotes a big chunk of its running time to this debate (complete with CNN branding and John King as himself, further blurring the line between news and entertainment, if that’s even possible), and while it doesn’t exactly pass the realism test, it delivers in terms of head-to-head drama.

These days televised debates are generally lifeless affairs because the formats are negotiated by the participating camps so as to avoid any of that pesky spontaneity or engaged interaction. You rarely see the constant interruptions and direct personal attacks in national debates that we see here, but in the House Of Cards universe, anything short of the participants actually mud-wrestling to end the debate counts as a victory for restraint. The part of the debate that rings truest is Frank’s hammering of the ”vision” theme following his advisors’ focus-testing of that term after the mock debate. True to the plan, Frank lets Jackie attack Dunbar on her lack of experience, her stance on gender inequality, her silver-spoon upbringing, and finally her privileging of her own children by sending them to private school. But the scorpion just can’t help himself; he has to sting Jackie on the same issue, as her newly-acquired campaign-friendly step-children also attend private school. In the short term, this has the desired effect, as the pundits praise Frank for sticking to the high ground and proclaim him the winner of the debate. Frank’s assumption that Jackie will take his abuse and like it is not borne out, however, and he loses both his lapdog and a crucial endorsement.

In fact, Frank is losing friends in droves. Remy resigns, Stamper appears poised to make the ultimate betrayal, and even Freddy is putting up a false buddy-buddy front even though he can hardly stand to listen to Frank’s stories anymore. It’s his closest ally who is feeling the most neglect, as Claire is left to work the campaign trail alone, finding a kindred spirit in an embittered voter who admits being tempted to smother her baby just to regain her freedom. As is its custom, House Of Cards nails the point home with Claire’s reading to a group of children about whether to leave Tina the tarantula trapped in her shoebox or let her go.

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The strain of the Underwood marriage have come in and out of focus over the season, but it takes center stage in “Chapter 38” as Yates delivers his first chapter to Frank. The book is not about America Works at all, but about the Underwoods: “a cold fusion of two universal elements…the unsplittable atom of American politics.” Frank has no more use for Yates and dismisses him as easily and threateningly as he has everyone else this season. Yates immediately takes his findings to Kate Baldwin but, somewhat surprisingly, she wants nothing to do with them. Whenever an ethical character turns up on this show, it’s like spotting a Sasquatch in the wild.

Until now, Dunbar appeared to be that ethical compass, but Frank learns she’s “one of us” when she threatens to release the journal containing the truth about Claire’s abortion. As it turns out, however, Stamper is the one lapdog who can’t get enough of the master’s cruel treatment. By episode’s end, he’s back where he always wanted to be, inside the Underwood circle and installed as the new Chief of Staff. For Claire, this may the final straw, and given that the 2016 election must be at least a season away, there’s only one real decision looming over the finale: Should I stay or should I go?

Stray observations:

  • Robin Wright directs “Chapter 38,” appropriately enough for a Claire-centric episode. This is her third time in the House Of Cards director’s chair, and she’s absorbed the house style, all deep shadows and languid camera moves, as well as anyone who’s taken the helm since David Fincher.
  • Netflix is definitely getting its money’s worth out of the Air Force One set this season. It’s been featured prominently in just about every episode.
  • Great moments in out-of-context quotations: “You need a Southerner with a penis.”
  • While lightheaded from giving blood, Claire confesses to Yates that she agreed to give Frank seven years when they married and reconsiders every seven years. I’m pretty sure this means she’s a Vulcan.

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