After I watched the first four episodes of House of Cards‘ third season, I noted that the Frank Underwood who had wormed his way into the Oval Office was a Frank Underwood who had lost his fundamental sense of purpose. A week after Netflix unleashed the 13 latest installments of the Underwood saga, that opinion still stands. But one plot development promises to pull the show out of its directionless (and worse yet, boring) nihilism — not by altering its pitch-black DNA, but by giving its darkness a more constructive outlet.
(If you’ve made it this far, I’ll assume it’s because you’ve watched the entirety of Season 3, or are at least comfortable with knowing its major plot twists. For those that haven’t/aren’t, consider this fair warning.)
The decision split up ur-power couple Frank and Claire, or at least end the season with Claire dead set on leaving her husband, has been a controversial one. Slate’s Willa Paskin deemed the show’s new direction a “plodding relationship drama,” while Vulture’s Margaret Lyons argued that in the Underwoods’ unholy alliance, the show was throwing away its greatest strength: “Turning Frank and Claire against one another just makes them more like everyone else on a show already struggling with repetitive character traits. Their love makes them special!”
House of Cards‘ first hints of the rupture did, indeed, seem like drastic missteps. Claire has always seemed softer than Francis, but that illusion, combined with her inscrutability, had previously just made Mrs. Underwood’s real ruthlessness all the more devastating. Think of the hospital bed scene from Season 1, for example, or the revelation that her visit to a fertility specialist was not a sign of second thoughts about childlessness but a (successful) ploy to crush the threat presented by her pregnant former employee. The idea that the suicide of gay rights activist Michael Cunningham would divide the Underwoods on moral lines thus felt more than misguided; it seemed like a disservice to Claire, and a capitulation to the idea that, in the end, Lady Macbeths always want that damned spot out.
The final third of the season, however, pivots away from the guilt angle and goes in a much more satisfying direction. What ultimately drives Claire away isn’t repulsion at what Francis, or she, has become; it’s the frustration that their long, ugly climb to the top has made Francis the President and her… his wife. The First Ladyship can be an influential position, but it’s ultimately one that defines its holder in relation to her spouse. That’s a dilemma with real-world resonance in the form of Hillary Clinton and even Michelle Obama, but it’s also one that works a lot better within the world of House of Cards than this season’s other stabs at relevance. The Pussy Riot cameo may have been cool, but the members’ impassioned stand on behalf of free speech felt oddly dissonant with the show’s longstanding belief that actual values are nothing but obstacles to getting what really matters: power.
Unlike her very public lapse of composure in Moscow, Claire’s dissatisfaction with her life in the White House has the virtue of being perfectly in line with her character. Think of where House of Cards began: with Frank as majority whip, of course, but also with Claire in charge of her own non-profit. It makes sense that she wouldn’t dwell on her loss of autonomy during Season 2, when she and Francis were in peak scheming mode, only to take stock of her life once she achieved her ostensible goal. (Season 2 also saw Claire undertake a political initiative of her own, military sexual assault, rather than devote herself entirely to her husband’s campaign.)
There’s even a moment in the finale where Claire seems to echo critics, such as myself, who questioned what people who care an awful lot about the presidency of the United States and not at all about the United States itself are supposed to do once they’re in the West Wing. Frank’s answer is simple to the point of being nonsensical. When Claire asks what they did everything — impeach a president, kill an opponent or two, put up with the president of Russia’s borderline sexual harassment — for, Frank replies, “This House,” as if the glories of gutting FEMA and butting into the Middle East once again speak for themselves.
Which brings us to the ultimate virtue of a Frank vs. Claire showdown: it’s not just a logical extension of Claire’s desire for real power, a desire she refuses to subsume to her husband’s; it’s also a much better use of the show’s bleakness than political machinations or the Doug Stamper subplot that had worn out its welcome before it even began. Doug works his way back into the Underwoods’ good graces as we knew he would, by murdering the only person he cared about, in his twisted way, who wasn’t them. Rachel Posner’s death feels the most inevitable, and least exciting, of House of Cards’ three casualties to date, evidence that the show’s like-clockwork formula of killing off one idealistic character (or semi-idealistic, in the case of Zoe Barnes) was wearing out its welcome. Death isn’t a break from routine on this show anymore; it’s yet another way of driving home that nothing matters in this version of DC besides ambition.
Claire’s decision to walk out, on the other hand, has potential to give the series’ now-dreary cynicism some edge. Viewers already know that nobody besides the Underwoods stands a chance. What happens, then, when one half of a marriage starts to question the entire premise of their union — which is, in turn, the entire premise of the show? A House of Cards that pits Underwood against Underwood is a House of Cards that retains its essential darkness while taking that darkness to a new and unpredictable place. It’s too bad it took an entire season, the show’s weakest to date, to set up, but House of Cards demonstrates more potential in the Season 3 finale than it has in some time.