Pacing issues have been a problem in the first half of this season, but there’s no particular pattern to them. “Chapter 30” dawdled to the point of tedium, while “Chapter 31” is shot out of a cannon, whipping through so much rapid-fire exposition some viewers may think they’ve clicked on an episode of The West Wing by mistake.

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Frank is taking strides toward becoming the sort of dictator Obama is so often accused of being by the right, using the Stafford Act as cover to divert funds from FEMA to America Works with the help of the mayor of Washington D.C., who declares a state of unemployment emergency. At the same time, he’s prepared to issue an executive order committing troops to the Jordan Valley with or without the cooperation of the Russians. He may appear emboldened by his lame-duck status but he’s already scheming for the 2016 election, assisting Jackie Sharp in a Trojan horse presidential campaign designed to drain votes from Heather Dunbar before Frank enters the race and names Jackie his veep. (It’s already all too easy to picture this plan backfiring in spectacular fashion.)

Claire shows she’s learned a thing or two from Frank when she demonstrates intimidation through urination for the Russian ambassador, forced to linger in the ladies’ room for a charmingly threatening ultimatum. (What is with all the pissing this season?) Stamper’s scheme, whatever it may be, is put in motion when Dunbar agrees to hire him to run dirty tricks for her campaign despite doubts about his loyalty. (If only Dunbar knew she was a character on House Of Cards, she would have hung up the phone the first time he called.) As usual, Michael Kelly’s performance is so opaque as to keep Stamper’s true motives well-hidden, although at this point I learn toward believing he’s a mole, if only because we’ve seen no reaction from Frank’s camp regarding his defection.

As with the previous episode, “Chapter 31” is primarily concerned with setting up the rest of the season, but at least it does so in more entertaining fashion. Things slow down again in “Chapter 32,” in which Frank and Claire travel to Moscow in hopes of securing the release of gay activist Michael Corrigan and luring Petrov back to the negotiation table on the Middle East plan. Corrigan’s freedom hinges on reading a prepared statement apologizing to the people of Russia for subjecting them to “nontraditional sexual attitudes.” In Deadwood terms, this is “a lie agreed upon”; no one thinks Corrigan will actually mean what he says and no one particularly cares if he does, least of all Petrov. The only one who can’t live with the lie is Corrigan himself.

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In the House Of Cards universe, lies are the basis for establishing trust; they’re the foundation nearly all the relationships are built on. Gavin Orsay, undercover as “Max,” gains the confidence of Rachel Posner’s former lover Lisa by lying about his medical test results and claiming to be HIV-positive. Jackie needs a ready-made family for her presidential run (itself a lie), so she essentially proposes to her boyfriend, who comes equipped with two children of his own. This union may not be a lie exactly, but it’s certainly a marriage of convenience, much like the one at the center of this show.

What happens to a marriage of convenience when it suddenly becomes inconvenient? When Corrigan hangs himself while Claire naps in his cell, it’s an entirely predictable plot development, but it also sparks some of the biggest fireworks of the season so far (as well as some of the best acting by Spacey and Wright). The episode has been rather sedate to this point, but when Claire goes off-message at the press conference, she does the one thing Frank (and any other politician worth his salt) can’t abide: She tells the truth. In Underwood terms, this is a moment of weakness, and once they’re safely in the air Frank unloads on Claire for sabotaging all his hard work on the peace process with her fleeting moment of decency. This isn’t exactly the Sopranos episode “Whitecaps,” but it’s still exciting to see flashes of the old Spacey fire break through the genteel Underwood facade. Whether this is a bump in the road or a major fissure in the Underwood marriage remains to be seen. Too often Frank’s enemies have been paper tigers, too easily dispatched. If Claire turns against him, he may finally meet his match.

Stray observations:

  • Among the unemployed in line for help from America Works is Freddy the BBQ ribs king. Frank owes him a job at the very least.
  • Whenever Frank’s new biographer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) opens his mouth, I can only hear the voice of Boardwalk Empire’s Mickey Doyle. Too soon!
  • Kim Dickens joins the cast as the latest journalist to tangle with the Underwoods. Here’s hoping she’s more formidable than her predecessors.

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