Michael Kelly, Rachel Brosnahan/Netflix

The season finale begins with a series of postcard images of the American southwest, accompanied by a “Morning in America” fanfare that suggests we’re watching the beginning of a Frank Underwood campaign commercial. Instead the focus narrows to a rundown boarding house and a character who has been absent (if not out of mind) all season long: Rachel Posner. It’s an effective bait-and-switch, implying that it takes only one loose end to unravel even the most powerful man’s plan to reach the promised land. That “Chapter 39” goes on to devote half of its running time to this loose end is yet another peculiar decision topping off this oddly-constructed third season.

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After hopscotching all over the place for 13 episodes, the finale narrows focus to two storylines: the Underwood campaign in Iowa and its accompanying marital drama, and the culmination of Doug Stamper’s search for Rachel. The latter plays out like something out of Dexter as Stamper tracks Orsay down in Caracas, coerces Rachel’s location out of him, then buys a murder van and a shovel and snatches Rachel just as she’s about to disappear into her new identity, Cassie Lockhart.

Writer Beau Willimon and director James Foley make the effort to get us reinvested in Rachel’s fate, but keeping her off-screen until now plays as a tactical error, especially since her supposed death a few episodes ago was so blatantly unconvincing. These scenes really aren’t about Rachel anyway; they’re about House Of Cards continuing to insist that the struggle for Doug Stamper’s soul is worth so much of its time. This started back in the season premiere, when a character many of us had assumed was dead dominated the first hour of the show’s return. Maybe it would have been worth bringing him back and devoting so much care to his slow recovery and occasional backsliding if this had been a true redemption story, but instead Stamper becomes an object lesson in the corruption of an already corrupt character. After flirting with leaving the Underwood nest and opening himself to the possibility of the domestic life, Stamper ends up in the desert digging a hole. For a moment, there’s still hope: Rachel appears to convince him that, as Cassie, she’ll be no further problem for the Underwoods. In the end, he can’t let her go; he’s Frank Underwood’s boy through and through. The show goes a long way just to arrive back at that point, and that’s even leaving aside the absurdity of the President’s Chief of Staff prowling New Mexico in a van in the midst of the Iowa caucus. (Yes, his status hasn’t been made public yet, but there are certainly those within the campaign who know about it, such as Seth. Where did they think he was? Making a donut run?)

Frank Underwood manages to get through the season without murdering anyone with his bare hands, but maybe that’s just another sign that he’s losing his touch. The previous two seasons have ended with Frank triumphing over his enemies, and that’s true to a certain extent here as he prevails in a narrow Iowa victory over Heather Dunbar. In the big picture sense, however, the season has served as a much-needed corrective to the earlier pattern of Frank too easily getting his way. This time he overreaches and ends up losing America Works, bowing to Petrov’s demands, and taking too many members of his inner circle for granted, including his most constant ally Claire.

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The strained relationship between the Underwoods has been front and center for most of the season, and here Claire finally reaches her breaking point. Their marriage was meant to be a partnership, but only Frank has reaped the rewards. (I don’t know if the Clintons exist in the House Of Cards universe, but there’s no talk of Claire getting her turn in the spotlight once Frank’s presidency ends.) If such a partnership doesn’t exist, Claire at least wants the marriage to serve her need for intimacy; bluntly, she wants Frank to be able to fuck her and look her in the eye. Frank can’t even give her that, however, and the sham that is their marriage is fully exposed. Frank’s sexuality isn’t spoken of, but it hovers over their final throw-down. “It’s you that’s not enough,” she tells him. “Without me, you’re nothing,“ he responds. We’ll have to wait until next season to see if the reverse is actually true, as successfully campaigning as a closeted single man may even be beyond Frank Underwood’s skills.

What this episode makes clear is the extent to which the supporting characters exist merely as plot points to advance the story of the Underwoods. Aside from Stamper, they’re almost all absent or make only the most fleeting appearances, but are any of them missed? Remy? Jackie? Maybe Freddy, but was there really any point in bringing him back other than the welcome presence of Reg E. Cathey? Why did Kim Dickens’ Kate Baldwin amount to so little? None of these characters have any meaningful existence apart from their role in the Underwood story, and yet we spent so much time with them, only to have them vanish in the end. The ultimate example is Meechum, who appears only when summoned and rarely says a word. The lumpiness of the season as a whole has a lot to do with this imbalance; it’s hard to justify assigning so much screen time to characters who are more like props. House Of Cards tends toward sprawl, but expanding its canvas rarely pays off in any meaningful way. We’ve seen 39 chapters, but too many of them belong in some other book.

Stray observations:

  • This season’s timeline ran from late 2014 to the Iowa caucus in early 2016. It will be interesting to see whether the action picks up right where it left off or if the show will jump ahead to Frank winning the nomination (as almost certainly will happen). I’d guess the November election won’t arrive until the fourth season’s end, and a Republican opponent will be introduced long before then.
  • Speaking of Republican opponents…so Benito Martinez’s character was replaced for what turned out to be only one scene? For his sake, I hope American Crime’s ratings improve.
  • That’s a wrap on season three. I hope this accelerated schedule worked for most of you and we’ll see you back here next year.

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