The Underwood marriage is all but dead. Rachel Posner is dead and buried. Yet somehow, the Underwood presidency lives.
In a finale that seemed content to offer lots of goodbyes — from White House chief of staff Doug Stamper letting Rachel go (then murdering her) to first lady Claire Underwood leaving President Frank Underwood and their marriage — the one relationship it wasn't willing to break up was Frank's relationship with power.
Yes, Frank won the Iowa caucuses, and the implication, despite opponent Heather Dunbar's rallying cry to her supporters saying otherwise, is that he's going to win the nomination. Quickly, much of the season's plot was wrapped up in a few short cable news montages — and, as often happened this season, the true story of the final episode was about the disintegration of the Underwood marriage.
In the last moments of the episode, Frank demanded once again that Claire join him on Air Force One for yet another round of baby kissing and hand-shaking in New Hampshire. She said she wouldn't go, then, with nary a scream or shout or harsh word (all of which he would have deserved) she announced: "I'm leaving you, Francis."
Elsewhere in the episode, Doug killed Rachel despite saying he would let her go. With that bit of history firmly in the past, he then finally and definitively joined Frank again as his chief of staff. Claire brought biographer Tom Yates back to do a little Q&A with him, finally getting the answers she needed about her marriage. And Dunbar pledged to fight on despite losing a primary that should have been hers to win.
It was a finale with few major plot lines to resolve and left very few strings hanging heading into the (currently theoretical) season four. But did it resolve them effectively? And did season three work as a whole, or were we waiting to be dealt cards that never came our way?
Kevin O'Keeffe: In the end, House of Cards' third season didn't really care about the election. Sure, that storyline had moments — the magnificent Elizabeth Marvel's work as Dunbar was satisfying — but it was just a distraction. Doug's "House of Rehab" show-within-a-show was grim and lifeless all season, and his final bits of story with Rachel were just tying up loose ends from season two. Almost every other story was about the Underwood marriage. Yates's book? Goes back to the marriage. Claire's United Nations ambassadorship? Goes back to the marriage. America Works? Somehow still connects back to the marriage. (RIP, America Works.)
If your season is going to be about one thing, at least the producers behind House of Cards picked the right thing. The marriage was easily the most compelling part of this season's plot, in no small part because of Robin Wright's work as Claire. I know she's been acclaimed for her work in previous years, but I've never been as blown away by her as an actor than I was in this episode. With just the slightest change in facial expressions, she gave me more than any of Kevin Spacey's bluster and dramatics could. At several moments in this finale the camera lingers on her face, waiting for what subtle twitch will come next. When she introduces Frank at the podium in the beginning of the episode, then has to stand behind him? Devastating.
I knew at some point, about halfway through the season, that this marriage had to end. I'm not sure I actually believed it would, though. This was a rare case of House of Cards indulging its best instincts, rather than just handing Frank a win because, well, Frank always wins. Of all the antagonists who momentarily got the upper hand on Frank this season, it was Claire who finally dealt him a crushing blow.
What'd you think of this finale, Scott?
Scott Bixby: I'm not generally one to cheer on the end of a marriage, but Frank's manhandling of Claire in the Oval Office was, for me, the straw that broke the camel's back. One of the guilty pleasures of House of Cards is the fact that is has you rooting for the bad guy — that's why it's so addicting. In the real world, a president who has killed to get to the White House and will kill to stay there is a recipe for a world war or a revolution. But when he's on TV, played as a smooth-talking Southerner with an ear for Shakespeare and a steely wife of equally lofty ambitions, Frank Underwood becomes a hero. He lost all of that this season.
At every turn, Frank belittled and abused his support network (House minority whip Jackie Sharp, former chief of staff Remy Danton, Yates, Claire) until it crumbled beneath him. The Underwood marriage is supposed to be a partnership of equals, "the unsplittable atom of American politics," as Yates put it. But Frank has done the impossible: He's split the atom.
The importance of Claire to the campaign was most glaring at the episode's beginning, when Claire's impassioned introduction of Frank was juxtaposed with Dunbar's robotic stump speech. Do you really think the former solicitor general is done for good? She's shown that she's willing to do anything to win the seat. Remember last episode when she said "I was blind to this, until now, what I am meant to be. And I am meant to be president of the United States."? Chills!
O'Keeffe: I think if the show were more interested in Frank losing the presidency, I would have more faith in Dunbar. I loved that line from last episode, mostly because I thought it was a sign she was going to become a potent enemy. But Frank's downfall is his marriage falling apart. I'd be surprised if Dunbar is even a major figure next season — unless she's his vice presidential pick?
Of course, as I've stated earlier this season, I want to see Claire as a political force opposing Frank next. She knows him better than anyone, and she has the knowledge to truly destroy him. Dunbar is effective, but she doesn't know enough. Perhaps they should team up? I'm basically just writing fan fiction at this point.
So now that we've hit the finale, let's look back. Did this season work for you? I'm interested particularly in how you think it compares to seasons one and two, since I haven't seen those.
Bixby: This season of House of Cards was a slow burn. As we noted in our recap of the premiere, there was no dog-strangling, Zoe-Barnes-shoving "moment" at the beginning of this season, and the rest of season three followed similarly. The few "oh shit" moments this season were all Claire's: the suicide of dissident Michael Corrigan while she slept in his cell, her subsequent rebuke of Russian President Viktor Petrov, her final mic drop in the White House residence. We could be generous and call the lack of Frank-centric action a conscious decision by the show runners to illustrate Frank's newfound powerlessness, but in all likelihood they're just running out of pets for him to strangle. Nothing shocks us anymore.
So, in the tradition of post-election morning after stories: What's gonna happen in 2016? Any predictions?
O'Keeffe: Hearing you say that makes me a mite more inclined to go watch the first two seasons, though I'm thinking House of Cards may just not be for me. This season was a bit of a slog to watch, though I will rejoice if Robin Wright wins another Emmy come this fall. It would be well-deserved for a season's worth of spectacular work that quite often held the show together.
2016, though? I'd be surprised if season four even picks up during the election — certainly not during the primary. Here's my official bet: We pick up at the Democratic National Convention as Frank accepts the nomination for the general election. Dunbar is revealed as his VP, but they're playing each other. And Frank is set to lose the general because Claire is waging war, destroying his approval rating. That may just be my hope, but God, it's a pretty picture.