Kevin Spacey, Nathan Darrow/Netflix

You got me, show. I was unspoiled going into “Chapter 43,” and I’ll admit to being blindsided by that turn of events roughly halfway through the episode. Until that point, it had been business as usual. Frank is considering Claire’s ultimatum, or at least giving the appearance of considering the remote possibility that she might run as his vice-president. (Needless to say, Seth and Stamper are not in favor of this plan as the poll numbers and focus groups suggest disaster.) A better idea might be peeling Leeann away from Claire and making her Frank’s campaign manager, but when Leeann shows up for a meeting, it is only to delivery a hand-written note from Claire announcing her intentions to file for divorce. Heather Dunbar makes what turns out in retrospect to be an ill-advised call to the Attorney General, telling her Lucas Goodwin is still alive.

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Everything changes after Frank makes a speech to a gathering of college students and decides to engage with the protesters outside. It’s a nearly fatal mistake as gunshots ring out, Meechum returns fire, and the entire season explodes into chaos. Meechum is dead. The would-be assassin, who turns out to be Goodwin, is also dead. Frank is hanging by a thread as a bullet has ripped through his liver, leaving him in need of a transplant to keep him alive. It’s as disruptive an event on the show as it would be in real life; all the storylines we would normally expect to build slowly throughout the season are now up for grabs. The most surprising thing about the assassination attempt is that House Of Cards didn’t do it sooner—this isn’t a series known for its restraint, after all.

The event’s biggest impact is the sidelining of Kevin Spacey. As of the end of “Chapter 44,” he’s spent an episode and a half breathing through a tube, give or take the occasional hallucination. I half-expected to see Frank wandering through a Sopranos-esque dreamworld suggestive of the life not lived, but instead we only get brief visions: a Confederate soldier, Frank doing his exercises, or wandering in the woods with Meechum until ear-splitting gunfire rings out. But although Frank is offscreen most of the time, his poisonous influence is everywhere. His absence creates a void that almost every other character rushes to fill, and what’s fascinating about these episodes (and spectacularly cynical in the House Of Cards tradition) is watching the Frank come out in everyone from Claire to Seth to Remy. Why bother with diplomacy when blackmail and manipulation are so much more expedient?

The other thing that becomes clear as these chapters progress is that almost nobody who knows him cares what happens to Frank. Claire’s mother may be the only one who comes right out and says, “I hope he dies,” but the number of characters who hope he lives can be counted on one hand—maybe one finger. Stamper, having so recently worked so hard to get back into Frank’s good graces as his number one toady, is desperate for his boss to wake up as he watches his hold on power slip through his fingers. (He’s even willing to sacrifice his own liver for the cause, but as the doctor informs him, Frank needs a fresh, nonalcoholic liver.) For everyone else, though, Frank’s misfortune is seen as an opportunity.

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That’s especially true for Claire when processed American cheese slice Donald Blythe takes over as acting president. He’s so much easier to manipulate than Frank, he might as well have a hole in his back where Claire can reach in and operate his mouth. The indecisive Blythe seeks Claire’s advice on what to do about Milkin, the Russian defector, and before long she’s Lady MacBeth-ing him into working with Remy and the long-absent Raymond Tusk on a complicated piece of business that (I think) essentially boils down to working with China to screw Russia. Claire isn’t the only to one playing from the Frank Underwood handbook of extortion and strong-arming, as Remy is only able to secure Tusk’s cooperation by threatening him with jail time for perjury, while Seth throws Dunbar under the bus for her meeting with Goodwin in order to salvage his own job after his clandestine betrayals are discovered.

Frank Underwood may be out of commission, and maybe no one would mourn him if he died, but the toxic culture he instilled has mutated into a virus. He won’t die, of course, but when he wakes, he’ll have a whole lot of scrambling to do in order to climb back to the top of the waste dump he’s created. Here’s hoping that’s at least half as much fun as it sounds.

Stray observations:

  • RIP Edward Meechum. Looking back, Nathan Darrow’s increased screen time over the past couple of episodes was an indication that he might not be long for this world, but at the time I assumed the show was building toward another sexual encounter between him and Frank, this time sans Claire.
  • The fake news coverage of the assassination attempt is much more convincing than the clip of actual newsman Wolf Blitzer weighing in.
  • Frank’s poll numbers are up since he went into a coma. I bet Jeb wishes he’d thought of that.
  • Instead of getting Seth a glass of water, Stamper slams the glass over his mouth and holds his nostrils shut. Doug Stamper is a weird dude.

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