Robin Wright, Patricia Clarkson/Netflix

A surplus of schemers with cloudy agendas in “Chapter 62” pays off with the darkly conspiratorial “Chapter 63,” the best hour of the season so far. At first the additions of Campbell Scott’s Mark Usher and Patricia Clarkson’s Jane Davis to the Underwood inner circle this late in the season threaten to muddy the plot, which is already no model of crystal clarity. Usher has switched sides so readily it’s hard to fathom why Frank would bring him into the fold aside from the obvious “game recognize game” reasons. Davis, meanwhile, is cartoonishly omniscient, able to manipulate events around the globe (such as the recovery of the American scientist’s body, which Claire wants lost in transit) without ever revealing her true intentions.

No honeymoon period awaits Frank as his first official term as president gets underway. The smug Congressman Romero is still a thorn in his side, turning down Frank’s appeasement offer of Whip and continuing to stir things up on the committee looking into the president’s misdeeds. Jackie Sharp at first agrees to testify, but Molly Parker’s absence from this season continues as the Underwood camp leaks dirt that forces her to plead the Fifth. Loose ends abound: Macallan still may tell what he knows; Stamper gets cold feet about injecting Lisa Williams with a lethal dose; Sean Jeffries tells Seth he believes Frank jumped the organ recipient line; the terrorist Ahmadi is still in the wind.

Amid all this muddle are two significant developments pointing the way toward the season’s endgame. First we have a little pillow talk between Claire and Tom Yates in which she mentions that Frank killed Zoe Barnes, Peter Russo, and “so many others will die.” Is this a rare moment of unguarded emotion from the calculating vice president, or part of a set-up for a larger scheme? (Vegas will not be taking your bets on the answer to this question.) This is followed by the resolution of Macallan’s story, which has been more of a phantom than an enduring source of tension. He shows up suddenly at Leann’s car in a parking garage, says he has a visa and he’s getting away, and asks her to join him. The nature of their relationship is revealed to be more intimate than we previously knew, and Leann gives him her gun while declining his invitation. (“Keep it until you get on the plane.” Airports don’t work that way, Leann.) Later we see Macallan in a hotel room, his brains blown out, with Leann’s gun beside him. Suicide? Probably not, as we then see the all-knowing, all-powerful Jane Davis shredding files on both the dead scientist and Macallan.

That doesn’t bode well for Leann, who gets a visit from the FBI and, even worse, a roll in the hay with Doug Stamper in “Chapter 63.” That’s usually a harbinger of doom, although the widow Moretti pulls a switcheroo on him when he finally confesses to arranging for Frank to jump her husband on the donor list (only because he fears the truth is about to come out anyway). She tells him she already knew, and she’s been fucking him because she hates him, not because she loves him. Well, we all grieve in our different ways! Frank is a little more appreciative when Stamper tells him the truth, as he’s been running out of people to trust.

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The reason is that ex-President Walker has flipped and testified against Frank, telling the world that it was his idea to launder millions in illegal Chinese campaign contributions. This not only provides Hammerschmidt an opportunity to grandstand on Rachel Maddow’s show, it gets impeachment proceedings rolling in the House. Frank is still confident the Senate will never vote to impeach him, but Usher and Claire both try to convince him to accept a censure. (Frank is naturally stubborn and resistant, and by the time he agrees to it, it’s probably already too late.) The big question now is who flipped Walker, and to that end, Team Underwood implements a Dark Knight-style surveillance system that provides live-streaming from every computer and communications device in the White House. This development leads into a delicious sequence in which the key players all eavesdrop on each other as paranoia is ramped up sky-high.

Frank’s suspicions turn in a particular direction, and ours are supposed to turn there, too. The tip-off—and the payoff to a season’s worth of feints in this direction—comes when Claire addresses us directly. This time it’s not a fake-out: she’s seen us all along, but she’s been unsure of our intentions and ambivalent about the attention. It’s not personal, though; she feels that way about most everyone. As the person who would benefit the most from Frank’s impeachment, Vice President Underwood should surely be at the top of our list of suspects. It would make sense of the confluence of new schemers, as well as Claire’s abrupt kiss-off to Yates the morning after unburdening her deepest secrets. As Frank said after coming into possession of the recording that torpedoed Conway, it seems too easy. Are we simply seeing events through Frank’s paranoid perspective? Or does Claire’s awareness of us signal an imminent power shift? Two episodes remain.

Stray observations

  • At this point, it’s too early to know if House Of Cards will retain a dueling narrator structure, but I’m not sure it makes sense for Claire to address us very often. One of the central facets of her character is that we almost never know what she’s really thinking, whereas Frank is an open book: he’s always telling us exactly what he’s thinking. That provided a balance for the characters that might be knocked off-kilter with this new development. Do we really want a chatterbox Claire sharing her every thought with us?
  • Another sign that Frank’s people may be on the way out: Jeffries has been made Deputy Press Secretary and Seth knew nothing about it. We know, however, that Jeffries told Claire directly that his dream is to work in the White House.
  • Eric turns out to be a little too touchy-feely for Frank’s needs. That’s fine, as there was already a creepy incestuous quality to their relationship, what with Eric’s history of portraying Frank’s “redneck” ancestor.
  • Cathy makes a show of calling Romero a traitor, but slips him a note agreeing to testify. Frank looks to be setting her up as the leaker by asking her to create false intelligence documents.
  • Romero drops his Democrat affiliation and is considering an independent run for president. “A third party candidate is the future,” Usher tells him. “And always will be.”

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