Diane Lane, Robin Wright
Photo: David Giesbrecht (Netflix)

Every once in a while, House Of Cards stumbles into a timely real-world parallel that may momentarily cause you to forget all the absurdities and pulpy twists and turns that have brought us to this point. For me, it was this episode’s subplot about Claire’s Supreme Court choice pick that got under my skin a bit, for reasons that I’m sure are obvious. The notion that one-third of our government is being shaped by unelected individuals with unfathomable reservoirs of wealth and power...well, that doesn’t play as such a far-fetched turn of events in these dark times. But any resemblance to reality is always fleeting on the show, which wastes no time in getting back to the loony tunes, such as...well, pretty much anything having to do with Catherine Durant in this episode.

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Durant was given a death scene at the end of the fifth season. It was a stupid one, granted, with Frank Underwood all but twirling his mustache as he sent her plummeting down the stairs, but it wasn’t the first time he’d shoved someone to her demise. Except Durant didn’t die. Reintroduced in “Chapter 68,” she’s suffering from migraines but otherwise appears to be fine. Surely the writers have big plans for her in this final season!

Well, not so much. She’s back as a loose end for Claire Underwood to tie off, just to remind us that she’s capable of murder—one of several reminders in this episode, in which she comes off as more of a mob boss than the president. First Claire meets with Durant to get a sense of where her head is at, and initially that looks like a promising avenue. Durant says she’s having memory problems and might forget everything if...but that “if” is never really explored. Instead she mentions a think tank offer she’s received, which convinces Claire that the Shepherds have Durant where they want her.

“It needs to look like complications from her fall,” she tells Stamper, but he’s rejected the peace offering of cuff links and doesn’t buy her claim that Frank’s last words were “Promise me you and Doug will take care of each other” any more than I do. So Claire turns to the mysterious Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson), who has been missing in action but now turns up at the White House, where Claire invites her to stay. Claire wants dirt she can use against the Shepherds, but once she realizes Stamper is no longer on board, she also wants Jane to tie off the Durant loose end. “I’ll never be able to forgive myself,” Jane says, but I’m guessing she stopped worrying about being able to forgive herself long before now.

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This is how it happens: Durant shows up at a high-end restaurant, and a maître d’ she’s never seen before leads her past empty tables to a back room where Jane sits alone. For some strange reason, Durant gets the feeling there’s something fishy going on and flees. Here’s a tip for the master manipulator of world events Jane Davis: if you want to pull something like this off, maybe don’t stage it like a Mafia hit we’ve all seen in dozens of movies. Cathy Durant may have seen those movies, too.

Not that it’s enough to save her. Claire gets a call, then gets Doug on the phone and tells him Durant has died of an embolism. She thanks him for his help, which sounds like a set-up in the making, but Stamper doesn’t take the bait. He’s got his own scheme in motion, meeting with ambitious Congressman Cole, who is making a play for Speaker of the House. Why would any prominent politician meet publicly with a man who has been institutionalized for confessing to murder? Well, he’s Doug Stamper, so he has dirt on the congressman. But he can also make it go away, which makes him still useful.

The overriding absurdity of this season so far is the positioning of the Shepherds as the all-powerful, all-controlling true rulers of America (who have also been in the Underwoods’ lives forever) when we’ve never heard of them before this season. House Of Cards isn’t the first show to do this kind of retroactive engineering, and at least the writers have the excuse of having to rejigger the season after Spacey got the axe, but it’s still hilarious that the Shepherds have a finger in every pie. They own half the US media, including the paper Hammerschmidt works for—or worked for until this episode, anyway. They have access to every bit of information on every phone their app has been loaded on. They can even produce corpses that still look daisy-fresh months after death!

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Still, if you accept all this—and we’ve come this far with House Of Cards, so clearly we have a high threshold for nonsense—watching the game of one-upsmanship play out can be a guilty pleasure. Diane Lane makes an excellent foil for Robin Wright, although I’m on the fence about Greg Kinnear. (They really couldn’t find someone a little more...Southern?) So far, anyway, Claire is over-matched, clumsily mentioning Duncan Shepherd’s mug shots while the Shepherds (along with Mark Usher, showing his hand) counter with Tom Yates’ remarkably preserved corpse. It’s ridiculous, and yet I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eager to get on to the next episode.

Stray observations

  • Claire is still sneaking smokes, even with Frank gone—and barely sneaking them as she lights up in the White House screening room. And what movie is she watching? 
  • I’m used to hearing over-the-top dialogue on this show by now, but Durant hissing “I curse you and wish you a painful death” at Davis takes the cake. Anyway, Davis assures us she isn’t going to die that way.
  • As always, there’s way too much happening on the fringes of the episode to cover it all, but it probably bears mentioning that: (1) Frank died of an overdose of his liver medication, per his autopsy; (2) he left Stamper everything in his handwritten will; and (3) Nathan Green has access to the metadata from Frank’s laptop, including the footage of LeAnn’s car crash, which he shows Stamper.
  • Regarding that last matter, Green tells Claire that Doug “showed no emotion” when he saw the footage. Well, he is Doug Stamper, after all. Even when he’s emotional, he doesn’t show much.

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