Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

House Of Cards bottles up its characters to scheme and conspire

Campbell Scott
Campbell Scott
Photo: David Giesbrecht (Netflix)
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Well played, House Of Cards. You got me.

I have screeners of the season’s first five episodes, but I’ve been writing each review as if I don’t have access to the next one. I didn’t watch “Chapter 69" (nice) until I’d filed “Chapter 68,” but I could still go back and edit that one and make it look like I suspected Cathy Durant faked her death all along. But no. I respect you too much, dear reader, to pull such a stunt. House Of Cards played me and I never saw it coming. I’ll own it.


But that’s the ending. Let’s go back to the beginning of “Chapter 69,” which is reminiscent of other not-quite-bottle episodes of the series, such as the anthrax quarantine in season two and the trip to Russia in season three. After a cold open at Secretary Durant’s funeral, the bulk of the episode takes place at her wake, held in her home. Many of the major players from House Of Cards history are here, and what follows reminded me of nothing so much as one of those immersive plays where you follow characters from room to room and get snippets of the action, which you try to piece together even though you’ve inevitably missed some of the crucial connective tissue.

I’ve watched every episode of this show and reviewed most of them, but keeping track of the shifting alliances, backroom deals, and five seasons worth of back story obliquely hinted at in conversations that unfold over the course of 40 minutes severely tested the limits of my memory. It’s a clever idea: all these players with competing agendas making threats and concessions, horse-trading, and trying to get the upper hand at a memorial for the Secretary of State. For me, though, the energy starts to flag around the 25-minute mark and it becomes harder to care who is trying to get what from whoever else.

Everything revolves around the people who aren’t even there and don’t appear in the episode: the Shepherds. They want their agenda served, which in this case means retaining access to their oil and gas reserves in Syria. The Vice President is willing to make that happen, but Seth isn’t so sure he’ll make the right deal, so he barges in on a mini-summit with Petrov, who wants control of the Syrian ports as well as the oil and gas. (It’s a foregone conclusion that the two world powers are going to carve up Syria for their own purposes; the only question now is the size of their respective slices.)

Claire assures us she’s playing incompetent as she goes along with Mark’s offer to Petrov, but like everyone else at the wake, she has her own agenda. For one thing, she wants to know exactly who is responsible for Durant’s demise (although I at first thought she was just pretending she didn’t know—but that’s the inscrutable Claire Underwood for you). More importantly, she wants to wriggle out of the trap Mark sprung on her at the end of the previous episode. Rumors are spreading that someone in the White House was having an affair with Tom Yates, and all signs point to Kelsey. But Claire takes matters into her own hands in a private meeting with Petrov, giving him more than he could have hoped for in Syria concessions and then slipping in a last-second condition: Russia takes the blame for the death of Tom Yates.

My hat is off to anyone who has a firm handle on the shifting loyalties on this show. I wish I could tell you whether Nathan Green is playing Stamper or Claire, or pitting them both against each other, or just trying to do his job no matter where it leads. It’s an odd paradox: House Of Cards does a lot of hand-holding and spelling things out, but it also expects you to remember every single thing that ever happened, no matter how long ago it was. It’s fun to watch all of these characters bounce off each other in different combinations, but at times I could have really used a cheat sheet.


The focus finally shifts in the final few minutes as we catch up with a few characters who did not attend the Durant wake. Skorsky and Hammerschmidt are reunited and pursuing the app story, but more importantly, as I mentioned at the top, Cathy Durant is alive and well and evidently hiding out in France. Claire doesn’t know, but Stamper certainly suspects after hearing Durant’s brother bemoan the fact that he never got to see the body after her husband Stan hurriedly had her cremated. Stamper’s loyalty is still an open question as of this hour, but this new information could be enough to tip the scales.

Stray observations

  • “You sound like a gangster,” Petrov tells Claire. Hey, that’s what I said!
  • Oh look, it’s Linda Vasquez, last seen way back in “Chapter 26.” This is not just a wake for Durant, it’s a wake for the series a few episodes early.
  • More new information that could sway Stamper: the revelation that Frank left him more than his cuff links in his real will.
  • “I’m killing you for the second time,” Claire tells us, regarding Tom Yates. There’s a lot of that going around, but when Claire tells Mark that the dead never really stay dead, she’s righter than she knows.

My debut novel Charlesgate Confidential is now available from Hard Case Crime.