Last season on “House of Cards,” Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) took over after President Walker was impeached. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) told the public on national television that she was raped by General Dalton McGinnis and that she had to get an abortion because of it, but a journal written by the doctor that performed the abortion is discovered and proves otherwise. Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) gives the journal to Claire in return for a job as the Underwood’s communications director. Frank then gives the journal to Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) with orders to destroy it, but Doug instead keeps it. Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) quits his job with Raymond Tusk and goes to work for Frank again. Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), a hacker, convinces his FBI handler, Agent Green (Jeremy Holm), to get him a meeting with Doug. At this meeting, he tells Doug that he knows about Rachel Posner (Rachel Broshnahan), a former prostitute that Doug kept in hiding because she knows that Frank covered up Congressman Russo’s DUI and purposefully broke his sobriety (he was a recovering alcoholic). Doug goes to Rachel’s house to move her again, thinking she is in danger, but on their way she runs from the car into the woods. Doug finds her again but she hits him over the head with a brick multiple times and steals his car, leaving him for dead. Freddie Hayes (Reg E. Cathey) is forced to sell his restaurant.
Doug is still alive after being attacked by Rachel, but is badly injured and in the hospital. He gets better as the episode progresses, eventually being able to move back to his apartment. He has a meeting with Frank to discuss his return, but Frank tells him not to come back until he is completely ready. Claire tells Frank that she wants him to nominate her to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. To show her the kinds of tough decisions she would have to make, he orders an airstrike that will probably kill civilians in front of her. He nominates her when she shows that she is unfazed. Frank is working on a jobs program called America Works to lower the unemployment rate and raise his approval rating. He meets with a Supreme Court judge that wants to retire because he has Alzheimer’s disease, but Frank convinces him to stay on.
The opening of this episode is entirely too heavy-handed: Frank pees on his father’s grave. We already know that Frank is not a sentimental person, that he does not like his father, so we do not need to be smacked in the face like this.
We follow Doug for more than half of the episode, which is a surprisingly good move. The writers should not have focused so heavily on a side character early in the season, but his story is very interesting. We see him wake up from a coma and struggle to get back to some kind of normal. He leaves the hospital and moves back into his apartment, but it is hard for him to live alone. It clearly hurts him just to move and then he slips in his shower, breaking his arm. He makes his own splint and does not go to the hospital until after his meeting with Frank the next day. He is in so much pain that he eats the Percocets he is given like candy. Finally, he hires a prostitute and has her squirt a syringe full of bourbon into his mouth. He has been through so much over the course of the episode that he needs some kind of relief. Last season, Doug expressed how easy it would be for him to start drinking again, and here we see that fear manifested. Knowing that it would be so easy to lose himself to drinking again, but desperately needing a drink, the syringe gives him enough of a taste to remind him of alcohol’s allure. Doug was the centerpiece of this episode for good reason.
I could never figure out why Claire was so dead-set on becoming U.N. Ambassador. She has shown zero interest before and has no relevant experience. Nominating her, as it is pointed out, would be bordering on nepotism. The bottom line is that it does not make sense for Frank to nominate her. Someone like Frank – someone who is at all times conscious of his public perception – would not nominate her, no matter how much she wanted it. And even worse, someone like Claire – a pragmatist – would not ask that of her husband because she would understand that it was too much.
It is nice to see that Frank is being forced to play from behind at the start of this season. He spends so much time in the last two seasons always being two steps ahead of, or at least even, with the competition that seeing him in real trouble with a declining approval rating and an already-struggling jobs program that has not even been formally announced. If there is one thing that everyone can root for, it is an underdog.
Claire has a Senate hearing for her ambassador nomination. It goes well at first, but turns for the worse when Senator Mendoza hounds her for saying, “The military is irrelevant.” Political image hurting, she spends the rest of the day calling senators to save her nomination. Eventually, she loses the nomination by a vote of 52-48. She then has Frank circumvent the Senate and make a recess appointment. Seth visits Doug at his apartment to check up on him at Frank’s request. Frank meets with the Democratic leadership to discuss America Works only to be told that if he decides to run for election, he will not be supported. Later, he decides to pretend that he will not be running for election and announces such when he introduces America Works on national television.
This episode just takes us back to Claire’s insistence on becoming the U.N. Ambassador, but takes the unlikelihood of this whole situation by having her get Frank to force her appointment. Again, if anyone would not ask that, because they entirely understand how that would like in the public’s eye, it would be Claire.
Frank’s speech about his plan for America Works, with lines like, “You are entitled to nothing,” sounds pretty, but is incredibly unrealistic and very well delivered by Spacey. Gutting entitlements are what any politician would love to do, but they cannot because the vast majority of the public loves Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. A program that sucks funds out of entitlements until they are dry like America Works would become the most hated thing since Obamacare and subsequently ruin any chance of becoming the next president for the politician that dares to draft it.
Both of these points bring up something that the entire season relatively ignores: what the public thinks. What the public thinks is important because they vote for a politician. They vote for a sitting president that used to be the vice president but took over after the last president was impeached and is looking to get elected in the next presidential race. There should have been more backlash over things like America Works cutting entitlements, Frank saying that he would not run and then doing so anyways or forcing the appointment of his wife to a high-ranking job. I imagine that these things will all become more prominent in the next season, but that is almost an entire year off and we cannot even be sure they will be brought up again.
Frank also announces during his speech that he will not be running for president, ostensibly so that he will be able to focus on passing America Works. But remember that we already know that he is going to run and everything he is doing at this point is so that he will be elected. Unpopular lame duck presidents do not get controversial bills passed when the opposition has a majority in Congress (i.e. in this exact situation), which Frank has to realize. At that point, it makes more sense to have had Frank announce he was running.
Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) travels to Washington to meet with Frank on the Israel/Palestine conflict. He initially refuses any peacekeeping efforts, but promises to discuss the matter with Frank later. At a dinner party that night, Petrov dances with and kisses Claire. He shares a cigar with Frank afterwards and the two continue to discuss peacekeeping. In return for his agreement, Petrov wants the U.S. missile defense system in Europe to be dismantled, but Frank refuses. They meet for a third time and Frank agrees to water-down the system, but Petrov will not agree to anything less than what he asked for. Claire and Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson) meet with Israeli and Palestinian diplomats to facilitate peace talks. Claire gets the feeling that she is upstaging Cathy because she is the president’s wife. Later, Claire plays beer pong with Cathy to foster a friendly relationship with her. Doug hires Gavin to track down Rachel.
The Petrov-Putin parallel should be a little less strong because that makes the unrealistic things about this show stand out even more, but Mikkelsen is too good as the slimy Russian president. If there are only two things that this show did right this season, it is giving Doug a bigger role and introducing Petrov. He is better than anyone else he shares the screen with, and that is no small feat when you share it with Spacey and Wright. Petrov is best described as a Russian Frank Underwood. You can see the same ruthlessness in him when you see him tell Frank that he will not be supporting the peacekeeping effort. When a character dies later in the season, you can see the same comfort with lying and deception when he crafts a story for the press with Frank and Claire. There is a sense of weariness about him that suggests he has done it all before.
Petrov tells Frank that he knows Frank will be running for President in the next election, which is not the only time that someone does that in this season. That reduces the meaningfulness of both this moment and the dramatic irony of having Frank announce to the country that he will not be running even after we see him discuss his campaign with Remy and Seth. Why would the writers even have him lie in the first place?
Remy and Seth brief Frank on Solicitor General Heather Dunbar (Heather Marvel), who they think might run for the presidency. Frank tells her about the justice with Alzheimer’s disease and offers her his position, which she accepts. The justice then tells her that Frank forced him to stay on and she goes back to Frank and rejects the position. She calls a press conference at which she announces she is running in the next election. Doug meets with Dunbar later and asks to join her campaign. Gavin tracks down Lisa Williams(Kate Lyn Sheil), Rachel’s girlfriend from last season, and talks to her at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
There is a scene in this episode in which Frank spits on a statue of Jesus, then sends it crashing to the floor after he tries to wipe it off. That is pretty much a perfect metaphor for this entire season up until this point: Frank does something shocking and brazen then feels a twinge of regret then things go wrong. It’s a wonderful act of foreshadowing that can be too easily dismissed as simply Frank’s irreverence rearing its head.
Heather Dunbar’s motivations for running for President are unclear. The point that only one solicitor general – President Taft – has ever won before is brought up, but it should be pointed out that he only got there many years after he was solicitor and had been groomed by Theodore Roosevelt specifically to become president. He had to be convinced to even run. Yet this is the only explanation that we are given for why a glorified lawyer could think that they would be able to seriously challenge a seasoned politician like Frank. I, for one, am very ready to see Frank blow her out of the water in the election.
Frank agrees to put Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) on his ticket as vice president when he runs if she announces early and acts as his proxy to fight Dunbar. In order to fund the America Works, he fires the head of the Department of Homeland Security and uses the Stafford Act to redirect funds from Federal Emergency Management Agency to his program, having declared unemployment a national emergency. He gets the D.C. mayor to agree to test out his program so that, if it is successful, Congress will vote on it. Journalist Kate Baldwin gets wind of this and the potential danger of taking funds from FEMA and publishes a story that threatens Frank’s plan. Russia threatens to sell arms to Iran, causing Israel and Palestine to drop their support for Claire’s peacekeeping resolution. Claire then has Frank sign an executive order that commits 5,000 soldiers to U.N. peacekeeping operations and she tells the Russian ambassador that those troops will destroy any arms shipments to Iran unless Petrov agrees to discuss the Israel/Palestine conflict. Petrov invites Frank and Claire to Moscow and agrees to release Michael Corrigan (Christian Camargo), an imprisoned gay rights activist, upon their arrival. Dunbar agrees to let Doug join her campaign after he shows her a journal containing proof that Claire did not get an abortion because of her rape. Frank hires novelist and video game reviewer Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) to write a book on America Works to improve its public image.
Frank’s decision to use the Stafford Act to take funds from FEMA and give them to America Works is a controversial one in the show. Many of his opponents claim that such an act is unconstitutional, including Dunbar. What seems to be forgotten by everyone is that this was done once before. Frank does not use this to defend himself at all despite the mounds of bad press this gives him, but I would not even have known that if House of Cards had not told me. I cannot understand why a show would bring up an excuse for him to do something, but then never let any of the other characters know about it. The writers were likely trying to excuse Frank in the eyes of the viewer and set us against those who disagree with him. However, this just makes me think that Frank is stupid and has an easy way out that he simply refuses to use.
Frank and Claire arrive in Moscow and tell Corrigan that in order to be released he has to read a statement on television. Corrigan refuses to read the statement and promises to stay in prison. Claire spends the night in his cell. The next morning, she finds him hanging from the ceiling by her scarf. Later, Frank, Claire and Petrov announce his death at a press conference, then Claire denounces Petrov for imprisoning Corrigan in the first place. On the flight back to Washington, Frank tells Claire that he never should have made her ambassador. Gavin spends more time with Lisa, faking a positive HIV test to get her to open up. He establishes that Rachel is likely in New Mexico.
Gavin, don’t you think faking an HIV test is a little much? Surely there was another way to gain Lisa’s trust and/or sympathy.
Corrigan, don’t you think killing yourself was a little much? Surely there was another way to show the world how serious you were about Russia changing its laws. What makes this especially odd is that he does not seem suicidal at all during his conversation with Claire. He at least says that he is fully committed to staying in jail until Russia becomes more tolerant and I thought that was genuine. I cannot help but feel as if the writers wanted to make Claire burst out against Petrov during the press conference at the end and figured the only way that could happen was if she had a conversation with Corrigan that he killed himself after. This moment is used to “finally” show Claire that Frank and she are really awful people. “Finally,” of course, because she would not have realized that when she told a pregnant woman she would let her baby “wither and die” inside of her if she did not drop her lawsuit against Claire. She would not have realized that when she damaged Walker’s marriage with his wife. She would not have realized that when she helped get Walker impeached so that Frank could take over. All of that was fine, but pretending everything was fine after one activist she had one conversation with killed himself was the tipping point. Again, the tipping point was not the baby thing.
Frank and Claire continue to argue, but a conversation with Tom convinces Frank to patch things up. They renew their vows. Gavin gives Doug a picture of Rachel taken at a traffic stop in Santa Fe, N.M.
This episode is a lot more character driven than any of the other episodes and that’s a welcome relief from the increasing tension that’s been developing. Frank and Claire are at their best when they are ever-so-slightly vulnerable and we get some of that in this episode. Tom’s only real function on the show is to get Claire and Frank to realize things about their marriage, but that works beautifully this time when it leads to one of the most touching moments of the show. Visiting Buddhist monks have been making a painting out of sand in a White House foyer, so Frank sends Claire a picture of it completed with a note attached: “Nothing is forever. Except us.” There is more than a hint of truth in that because no matter what has gone on around them throughout this entire show, they have always persevered together. It is obvious to anyone that has watched this show that while they do not openly express how they feel very often, they love each other more than anything else in the entire world. Clichéd, but true.
“House of Cards” tried something new with this episode and I liked it. They start out with Frank and Claire renewing their vows, which is weird because the episode before this ends with them fighting. They show what happened before, during and after the renewal ceremony out of order over the course of the episode. Netflix needs to take more chances like this with their shows, especially when they have brilliant creative minds like David Fincher behind their programming.
Hurricane Faith speeds towards the East Coast and public pressure forces Frank to withdraw the disaster-relief funding from America Works in order to prepare for the storm. Dunbar convinces Jackie to suspend her campaign until the hurricane passes. Freddie job that he got from America Works is threatened, and Frank finds out and gives him a job as a groundskeeper at the White House.
We last saw Freddie standing in line at the America Works tent to get a job, but the collapse of the program forces the restaurant he works for to fire him. It is nice to see him again after so long, especially since he got more screentime in both of the earlier seasons, but he tells Frank something that I cannot quite understand. When Frank calls him into the Oval Office, he offers Freddie a job in the White House kitchens. Freddie turns that down for a job as a groundskeeper because he does not actually like working in kitchens. The guy that owned and operated a restaurant for more than 20 years does not like cooking. If the writers wanted to give Freddie a chance to be close to Frank again, why not have Frank offer him the job for groundskeeper first? That would have gotten rid of the ridiculous idea that Freddie would not want to work in the kitchen.
I really liked seeing Frank utterly defeated by Hurricane Faith. There is a moment after the storm passes that he tries to get the funding back for America Works, but cannot pull it off. It was such an agonizing choice for him to pull that funding in the first place that it is hard not to feel something for him when he realizes that he killed his child for nothing. This season needed Frank to fail to do something because he had to make the right call as president, not as a politician. It shows him the realities of his new position, which will hopefully come to serve him well in the coming season(s).
Claire tells Frank that eight Russian soldiers were killed by an Improvised Explosive Device in the Jordan Valley after Petrov agreed to Claire’s peacekeeping effort. Petrov refuses to allow U.N. officials access to the site where the soldiers were killed. The Russian ambassador hints to Claire that Petrov was responsible for the attack. Frank clears the deployment of troops to the site. An operative on the ground turns on the soldiers, killing one soldier and wounding others. Petrov calls Frank and tells him that he knows American soldiers deployed and that he has leaked this information to Israel, who then deploy their own troops into the Jordan Valley. Gavin tells Doug that a dead girl was found with fingerprints matching Rachel’s, which causes Doug to start drinking again. Drunk, he meets with Frank and confesses that he infiltrated Dunbar’s campaign in order to find dirt against her that Frank could use.
Doug falling off the wagon leads to two great moments: his confession that he wants to help Frank more than anything and Frank calling Dunbar to chew her out for letting Doug work when he clearly was not ready. We do not see a lot of that Frank this season, so it is nice to know that he is still lurking under the surface. Doug’s confession is great because it lets us see a side of him that is never really directly addressed. He loves Frank passionately because Frank has been like a father to him. He is the one that has really kept Doug sober for 15 years. It is his loss of Frank, the one constant that he could rely on, that makes him drink again. This season has given Doug a depth that was not apparent before, and I for one want more and more and more.
Israel establishes a no-fly zone over the Jordan Valley. Petrov issues a statement on television that promises to violate the zone. Frank also ignores the Israelis’ warning and meets with Petrov in the Valley. He promises Petrov that he will end Claire’s peacekeeping operation, dismantle the missile defense system and fire Claire. He tells Claire he needs to fire her to appease Petrov and she takes it well. Gavin tells Lisa that he has been lying to her this entire time and that she will never see him again.
I do not like Frank as much this season as the other two and it took me a while to figure out why, but this episode illustrates why pretty well. In the first season – his best – Frank is a man of action. He is the driving force behind everything that happens and it all works out for him perfectly in the end. In the second season, things go a little wrong, but he is still able to work things so that he gets what he wants. The quests for the vice presidency and the presidency were interesting because they had concrete goals that we knew Frank had to reach. Now that he is president, Frank has become reactionary and stagnant. He tries to overreach and influence international politics the way that he influenced American politics, but he finds that it is simply too much. Worse than that, he seems to be far more restrained this season. There are moments in which he finds the bite that made Spacey so wonderful to watch, but they are few and far between. Give me a Frank that can get an education bill passed over one that chooses to die on America Works Hill.
Claire was played. Petrov brings up the excellent point that, no matter whether or not he killed his own soldiers, he should not be able to convince an ambassador so easily as he did Claire. This move by the Russian is one of the greatest moments of the season and does very well to showcase that he is the real schemer on the international stage that Frank has joined. Even more diabolical is that he did all of this so that Frank would be forced to fire his wife; he did this to drive a wedge between Frank and Claire. That is not just conniving, that is downright evil. There are few characters on TV that I love to hate as much as Petrov. It is a real shame this is the last time he shows up this season.
Gavin tells Doug that Rachel is not dead and that he knows where she is, but he will tell him only if Doug helps one of his friends get out of trouble. Jackie meets with Dunbar and offers to attack Frank in the upcoming debate, then drop out of the race in the next week and give her support to Dunbar in return for being named Secretary of Defense, but Dunbar refuses. Jackie attacks Dunbar in the debate, but Frank turns on her. Later, in the Oval Office, Jackie raises her concern that she is being taken for granted. At a press conference, she announces that she is dropping out of the race and supporting Dunbar. Remy resigns.
Remy resigning as Chief of Staff does not make a lot of sense. This is a man that has spent years involved in politics, has shown that he is good at the wheeling-and-dealing that is so endemic to Capitol Hill and been very comfortable stabbing people in the back for nothing more than money. Any problems that he has with his job seem to arise only in this episode, leading to his resignation, apparently because of Jackie’s treatment by Frank and her announcement at the end. It is like Jackie supporting Dunbar – going back on her deal with Frank – tells Remy that he too can reject the life he is living. He completely severs his ties to the last ten-plus years of his life (it is not clear how old he is or when he started, so that is just a guess). I am not suggesting that burnout does not happen, because Walker’s chief of staff, Linda Vasquez, was a good example of that. What I find hard to believe is that this particular man would suddenly realize that he does not want anything more to do with politics.
During the debate, Jackie attacks Dunbar for sending her kids to private school and Frank attacks Jackie for doing the same thing. Much as it is never pointed out that Frank’s usage of the Stafford Act was not the first, it is never pointed out that Jackie’s kids going to private school is different from Dunbar’s kids doing so. Dunbar is running on a platform of equality for all, yet she sends her kids to fancy schools that the majority of the country cannot afford. Quite simply, Jackie is not running on that same platform.
Claire takes a bigger role at campaign events because she polls very well with the public. Tom gives Frank and Claire copies of the first chapter of his book. They find that it is all about their marriage, not America Works, and Frank fires Tom so that their private life will not be exposed. Dunbar asks Doug to sell her the journal. She calls a meeting with Frank in which she tells him that she has the journal and that she is willing to go public with it if he does not drop out of the race. Frank refuses, saying she does not have the guts. Doug visits Frank and burns the journal in front of him to prove his loyalty. Frank hires him as the chief of staff to replace Remy. He asks the deputy director of the FBI to bring Gavin back to the United States.
Tom should not have been fired. Frank and Claire are shocked by the honesty of the book, but a book about how the two of them are incredibly close and perfect for each other would have done nothing but good things for them. It is important to remember that Frank is in the midst of an uncertain campaign that does not even guarantee him the Democratic nomination, so he needs any bump that he can get. Wouldn’t Frank realize this? The first chapter is read aloud and does not seem to reveal more than the fact that they love each very much. It does divulge a few secrets about that love, like that President Frank Underwood does not feel he deserves Claire. “Secrets” like that might be incredibly personal to Frank, but surely he understands that a book focusing on their lives would sell well. I also think that he would realize that books are going to be written about his life at some point, if everything goes well, so I would expect him to want as much control as possible over such a tell-all. You are not going to get much more control than Frank has over Tom.
Doug flies to Venezuela, finds Gavin and interrogates him until he gives up Rachel’s location. Doug flies to New Mexico and rents a van. He shows up at the grocery store that Rachel works at late one night and kidnaps her. He drives her out to the desert and is ready to kill her, but she convinces him to let her go. He drives off, but changes his mind, turns around, runs her over, and then buries her in the desert. Claire asks Frank to have rough sex with her in a hotel, but he refuses. He sends her back to Washington and tells her to come back for the caucuses. She doesn’t, but Frank still wins. Frank flies to Washington and has an argument with Claire. She tells him that she’s leaving him because she doesn’t feel they’re equal partners.
Claire would not tell Frank that she does not think they are equal and then leave him. She very may well think that, but she would understand that she could never be his equal. He is the President of the United States. There are very few positions in the entire world that come close to being as important or as powerful as Frank’s. If anything, she would not have suddenly realized this after talking to a housewife last episode. She would have realized this long ago when she and Frank started their bid for power. The idea that this dawned on her only in the last couple days is, frankly, laughable. The moment where she separates from him makes me realize why she has made a bunch of choices this season that I could not understand: so that she could leave him. She became an ambassador so that she would fail so that she would be forced to resign so that she would feel like a failure so that she would not want to be with Frank so that she would leave him. There have been far too many moments between the two of them that have demonstrated that they love each other unconditionally to lead me to believe anything else.
Doug’s story has been leading up to this the entire season and I could not be happier with how it turned out. The whole storyline was too drawn out and I was really disappointed at first when he lets her walk off down the road and drives the opposite way, but started cheering when he turned around. At his core, Doug is every bit as ruthless as Frank. Perhaps even more so, because he knows and does things that Frank cannot. He realized that if he wanted to be safe, if he wanted Frank to be safe then he would have to turn the van around. Rachel walking around, despite any promises on her part, was a threat to the Underwood Administration that needed to be ended once and for all.
Another thing that I really liked about this episode was how it showed the end of the caucus. The last several episodes have all been leading to this point, building a sense that this more important than anything, and Frank’s win is forgotten as quickly as it is announced. He wins in Iowa and is immediately ready to move on to New Hampshire. That is the kind of true-to-life detail that I appreciate. The next season will not be able to pull off that kind of tension because it will be about more than one primary, but hopefully Frank will be treated to a sustained high level of stress.
It should be obvious to anyone that watches this season that it was only ever meant as an interlude before an action-packed fourth season. It is a shame that we had to get something as above-average-to-mediocre as this season after an excellent second season, but it is hard to maintain that level of quality. The two big things that need to change are how Frank and Claire are written. Frank needs to go back to being the guy that I could count on to get laws passed and people killed. They made him a better character this season by having him fail, but he failed far too much for me to be comfortable with. Claire’s problem this entire season was that the writers did not appear to have a good idea for her, so decided to force plot points onto to her to get the ending they wanted. When Claire was well-written, Wright was truly great. Those two things accomplished, season four should be as exciting as ever.