House Of Cards normally doesn’t operate this way, but “Chapter 60” functions as a distinctive episode of television. It’s more streamlined than usual, with two primary storylines that more or less play out in full. (Someday this show will end, and some poor soul will attempt to rank all 143 episodes of House Of Cards and be driven insane in the process of trying to make the minute distinctions between them.) This is “the one where Frank goes to Bohemian Grove” or “the one where Claire takes charge at the White House,” and it’s enjoyable enough despite some of the usual all-too-convenient developments.
Technically it’s not Bohemian Grove but Elysian Fields, but the general concept is the same: the rich and powerful gather in the woods to perform silly rituals and make their plans for world domination. Any discussion of politics is ostensibly off the table, and no presidents are allowed, but since Frank is temporarily without that title, he finagles an invitation. It’s an absurd spectacle, like a cut scene from Eyes Wide Shut: men in robes and masks burning a sacrificial effigy to a giant crow statue. Frank has no use for the ritual, but he does have a mission: he needs to win only one state, Ohio, but rather than campaign there, he’s come right to the secret source of power in America.
Some familiar faces are in attendance, including old friend Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), Mark Usher, and Ted Brockhart, but notably not Will Conway. Tusk has gotten into business with Benjamin Grant, the head of Pollyhop and one of Conway’s chief supporters. It appears that what Tusk is really after is immortality, as Grant is in the process of uploading a virtual Tusk to the cloud, storing his entire consciousness digitally. It sounds science fictional, but Frank demolishes this high-tech pipe dream with a folksy speech about growing up on a dirt and rock farm in South Carolina. For some reason this goes over well enough that Grant does a complete flip-flop, providing Frank with a recording of Conway trying to take over the controls of his plane. Even Frank thinks this comes too easily, but the other shoe fails to drop.
Back in Washington, Claire addresses the camera once again, saying, “It’s strange for you here without him.” Once again it’s a fake-out, as this rather on-the-nose line is delivered not to us but to Doug Stamper. On her own and in charge for the first time without Frank hovering over her shoulder, Claire is handed a new crisis to deal with: a sinking Russian research vessel that may or may not have an American scientist on it. Claire’s cagey new ally Jane Davis helps her navigate the situation even as negotiations with the Chinese for a trade agreement are ongoing. Petrov wants no American rescue mission, and he’s still holding Macallan as leverage; meanwhile, the Chinese want to handle the rescue and obtain a mysterious piece of tech on board. Claire proves herself an able wheeler-dealer, netting a one-percent tariff increase in exchange for giving China the credit for the rescue, providing her cover with Petrov in the process. Still, there’s a sense that she’s been played to some degree by the string-pulling Davis, who cryptically notes that the American aboard the ship was the tech. Was he turned over to the Chinese without Claire’s knowledge?
Any fears that the one-state election storyline will be extended to season’s end are wiped out in the opening of “Chapter 61.” It turns out that both incriminating tapes were leaked and the Underwoods have won easily. Sure, it’s anticlimactic, but aren’t you relieved it’s over with? I still don’t think the show squeezed all the possible juice out of Claire’s brief reign, but there are still a few episodes left and no clear direction for the rest of the season, so who knows what might yet transpire? For now, there are still a few loose ends to address as Frank takes the oath and attends his inaugural ball. Macallan is still in Moscow, and Petrov is willing to let him leave only if he agrees to a televised interview with Kate Baldwin (an always welcome return for Kim Dickens). That’s not good for the Underwoods, who give Leann her walking papers but appear to be contemplating even harsher measures by episode’s end.
In the end, nothing happens with Macallan, because he just sort of…leaves? There’s apparently an extraction plan that results in Macallan being delivered to the Jordanian embassy in Paris, but it’s unclear exactly how this worked. Once again, Jane Davis appears to have arranged it all, because she knows everyone of importance in the world. Other strands in this episode that may or may not lead somewhere by season’s end: Stamper is threatened by Usher’s elevation to special adviser status; Frank’s relationship with Eric goes exactly where you thought it would in that back stairwell where all the real shit goes down; Hammerschmidt is still digging around the Zoe Barnes situation and has video from the train station on the night she died; Congressman Romero is unhappy with Frank’s Medicaid stance and looking to revive the committee investigating his wrongdoing. We’re in weird place with four episodes to go. House Of Cards seasons have always been oddly-shaped, but this time in particular it feels like we’re practically starting over.
- “Why weren’t you at the beheading?” I’m guessing that’s a question Doug Stamper never expected to be asked.
- Will Conway calls to concede to Frank, a conversation that begins with “congratulations” and ends with “go fuck yourselves.” I can’t say I was ever really comfortable with the way the show used Conway’s PTSD to turn him into an unreliable loose cannon, and I guess the real story of his rescue mission in Afghanistan will never be known now.
- “Tom, don’t cheat on my wife.” Reader, I laughed.