Robin Wright/Netflix

“Chapter 58” opens with an image that promises change: Claire Underwood is once again directly addressing the camera, but this time she’s being sworn in as Acting President of the United States. As the next couple of episodes progress, however, very little has changed. After pulling out all the stops to give us this incredibly unlikely turn of events, the writers don’t quite know what to do with it. Claire gets custody of the nuclear codes and the title of “Madame President,” but Frank is still omnipresent, pulling all the strings, and letting Claire know what she doesn’t know. It feels like a missed opportunity, at least so far. Why bother setting up such a far-fetched scenario if you’re not going to exploit it for all its loony-tunes potential? This show could use a little more Dr. Strangelove in its DNA sometimes.

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Instead, “Chapter 58” is the third straight episode consisting mainly of people in offices working the phones. A new crisis emerges, as Russian troops have invaded Antarctica in order to seize the oil. This is a violation of a treaty our old friend Petrov says he doesn’t have to honor because it applies to the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. Petrov is looking to take advantage of the chaos at the top of the American government, and he has an ace in the hole: the missing Aidan Macallan and all the secrets in his head. Petrov also has some Soviet-era advice for Claire: “Once you’re in office, you don’t let go.” Still, despite some slight hesitation on checking off Frank’s name on a security clearance form, Claire doesn’t appear inclined to elbow him aside.

Convinced that he is the rightfully elected president, Conway isn’t adjusting well to the uncertainty at all. He lashes out at fixer Mark Usher (Campbell Scott), one of several new characters this season to be introduced almost subliminally only to gradually gain in prominence, in keeping with the usual weird rhythms of this show. Usher’s loyalty lies with Conway’s former VP candidate, Ted Brockhart, and to see Conway attempting to commandeer the controls of his plane is to understand why Usher has little faith in the man at the top of the ticket. Usher makes a back-door deal with the Underwoods, who now realize Frank has little chance of prevailing in a House vote: if they give him his choice of Supreme Court justice, he’ll ensure the Conways go along with a re-vote in Tennessee and Ohio. (Once again I’ll abstain from any contemplation of the constitutionality of this plan; we’re far enough into the realm of the unprecedented as it is, so what’s one more dubious turn for American democracy?)

“Chapter 59” is a substantial improvement, as the Underwoods find their tactics blowing back on them. The missing truck full of radioactive material allows for a much-needed change-up to the sameness of the preceding few episodes, as it provides focus and a ticking-clock element to break up the post-election malaise. The question is, given all the phony terror Frank and Claire have conjured to get to this moment, is this even real? This is a serendipitous reflection of our current “fake news” era (most of the season was shot pre-election), leaving even the show’s chief schemers in a state of uncertainty. Claire worries that their actions in blaming ICO for events that never happened may have stirred up the hornet’s nest, precipitating real terror from the group (a leader of which has been spotted in Damascus, making him a potential target for assassination and a quick political boost). Frank, as usual, insists they only did what they had to do. Unconvinced of the veracity of the potential threat, he sniffs out a coup attempt spearheaded by one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose loyalty lies with Brockhart. Thanks to Leann, he also gets his hands on incriminating audio of Brockhart making what could be interpreted as treasonous remarks.

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In the midst of all this, we’re introduced to another character who might be considered extraneous at first were she not played by Patricia Clarkson. Jane Davis is the Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade, a title that signifies a minor player at best. The fact that she happens to have an appointment with Claire right when the potential terror incident erupts, however, pings the Underwood radar. With good reason, it turns out: the elusive terrorist Ahmed Al Ahmadi has vanished as suddenly as he appeared (coinciding with the reveal that the truck full of radioactive material has been found safe and sound), but Davis strongly suggests she can deliver him to Claire. That’s one thing that never changes on House Of Cards: there’s always a new deal to be made.

Stray observations

  • Another unintentional but fortuitous cracked reflection of our times: here the Americans have hacked their own election, and the Russian leader has custody of the man who can reveal it all.
  • The investigation into the Underwoods’ dirty deeds makes its usual incremental progress. Hammerschmidt fires Sean Jeffries for looking at his notes without permission, but it’s hard to get too worked up over this since it’s never been clear why he hired Jeffries in the first place, and he hasn’t been happy with the decision ever since he made it. Jeffries starts digging around the Anthony Moretti Fund, while an ungrateful Hammerschmidt follows his erstwhile protege’s leads on Rachel Posner. He finds that Zoe Barnes was looking into Posner’s connection with Stamper, and that Stamper’s carjacking happened in close proximity to Posner’s apartment.
  • “I just hope America isn’t getting used to this.” Either this was a late-added line, or yet another prescient glimpse of our current circumstances.

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