Kevin Spacey, Lars Mikkelsen/Netflix

“I knew Pussy Riot was a bad idea.”

That’s right, Seth. You and everyone who ever heard of Pussy Riot would know it’s a bad idea to invite its members to a state dinner with the President of the United States and his opposite number from Russia. In fact, you don’t even need to have heard of the Russian punk band convicted of hooliganism in 2012; the very fact that they’re called “Pussy Riot” is cause enough to deduce they probably don’t belong at an official White House function. At this point in the run of House Of Cards, however, such an occurrence almost passes for plausible.

“Chapter 29” isn’t quite a bottle episode, but it does confine most of the characters in one location for a big chunk of its running time. The occasion is a state dinner welcoming Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen, brother of TV’s Hannibal Lecter, Mads Mikkelsen), with whom Frank Underwood hopes to broker a new Middle East peacekeeping initiative that entails sending a joint military force to the Jordan Valley. Despite Frank’s gift of an ugly “Back In The U.S.S.R.” engraved surfboard, Petrov proves immune to the Underwood charm.

The Frank Underwood charm, that is. Claire is another matter, as Petrov demonstrates during the increasingly drunken gathering of luminaries. I’ll admit, I half-expected all of this end with Frank convincing Claire to sleep with Petrov in order to seal the deal (and since I haven’t watched past the season’s fourth episode, I can’t be entirely sure that doesn’t happen), but instead Petrov’s flagrant displays of disrespect spin Frank in an entirely different direction. As usual, none of this is subtle: Petrov leads the dinner guests in too many toast of vodka, plants a prolonged smooch on Claire, and even puts his cigar out on the White House wall. It’s all too much, but Mikkelsen brings such an impish charm to the proceedings, it’s fun nonetheless.

While Frank and Petrov are enjoying their cigars, Claire is bonding with Secretary of State Durant over a game of beer pong (or scotch pong, more accurately). Having been appointed to the UN ambassadorship by her husband, Claire has to do some damage control to avoid the appearance of stepping on Durant’s toes. Feeling just as disrespected as Frank by the boorish Petrov, Claire hatches a plan to overrule Russia’s veto of the Middle East plan by taking the vote straight to the UN general assembly.

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In typical Underwood fashion, Frank even tilts the Pussy Riot fiasco to his advantage. During the dinner, the band members turn their toast into a roast, denouncing Petrov and dumping their drinks. In a solo speech that had been scheduled as a joint appearance with Petrov, Frank praises the band for standing up to the Russian regime and insists that the United States can do no less. So maybe Pussy Riot wasn’t such a bad idea after all?

“Chapter 30” is a much less cohesive episode, burdened with setting up a number of storylines for the season. On the Stamper front, Doug is working with hacker-turned-FBI-drone Gavin Orsay to track down Rachel and turning down a too-good-to-be-true job offer from the junior congressman from Hawaii because he can see Frank’s fingerprints all over it. Frank’s plan to install Heather Dunbar on the Supreme Court (thus thwarting her possible run at the presidency in 2016) hits a snag when the justice he previously encouraged to stick around refuses to step down when Frank changes his mind. Dunbar quickly sniffs out Frank’s scheme and announces her candidacy, which may be aided and abetted by the Underwood-spurned Stamper.

Any or all of this may lead to fireworks down the road, but the set-up here is rather sedate and not a little plodding. House Of Cards can get away with that to a certain extent because it doesn’t have to hook its audience for next week’s episode: wait 15 seconds and it will start automatically. Still, the episode’s only truly memorable moment comes at the end, when Frank appears to be suffering a crisis of conscience following his meeting with the man injured in the drone strike. In fact, the crisis (as Frank perceives it) is that he allowed himself to have a conscience at all, feeling his weakness cost him in his meeting with Justice Jacobs. Frank understands the Old Testament God of wrath, but isn’t buying the peace and love version, a point underlined (and circled and highlighted, in the traditional House Of Cards fashion) when he spits on a statue of Jesus Christ, which then shatters into a million pieces when he tries to clean it up. If you like your symbolism on-the-nose and in-your-face, you’ve come to the right place.

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Stray observations:

  • My first thought while watching the episode was that Claire and Durant were too old to have played beer pong in college, but Wikipedia makes the case that at least some form of the game dates back as far as the ’50s. I’ll allow it.
  • Alya badgers Frank about his stance on gay rights, prompting Seth to have her credentials yanked. We already know Frank’s own sexuality is more fluid than a vast swath of the American people would be willing to accept from their president, so I’m guessing this is another ember that will catch fire later in the season.
  • “Well, I’ve got God’s ear now!” Cringe.
  • Cashew Watch: No Cashew yet. That guinea pig has been quiet. Too quiet.

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