Robin Wright, Kevin Spacey/Netflix

At the end of my last review, I expressed my hope that post-assassination attempt, Frank Underwood would be in for the fight of his life. Somehow I’d managed to forget the cardinal rule of House Of Cards plotting: everything always comes too easy for Frank. Things may change depending on how the rest of the season plays out, but for now it‘s as if Willimon and company have knocked all the pieces off the chessboard only to start a new game playing by the same old rules.

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As “Chapter 45” begins, Frank is still barely clinging to life and in desperate need of a new liver. (This idea that the president wouldn’t immediately move to the top of the organ waiting list struck me as odd, but I couldn’t find any information disproving it, so fine, show, I’ll give you this one.) Frank continues to battle his demons in his dreams, which include a violent threesome with the long-dead Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo. (Even death can’t stop the parade of cameos from the series’ past. This curtain-call aspect is suggestive of a show’s final season, and since new showrunners are taking over next year, Willimon may be thinking of it that way.)

With Frank powerless, Claire’s power continues to grow. She’s already got Blythe in her pocket, and at the G7 summit she steamrolls over the increasingly hapless Secretary of State Durant, arranging a private meeting with Petrov to hammer out an agreement on a joint Chinese-American bailout package. I’m sure I’m not the only one who dreaded where this one-on-one meeting might go, but fortunately Claire ignores Petrov’s continued expressions of lust and exposes him for the desperate leader he is. “I’m done letting you have your dignity.” Claire secures the agreement, and while Durant is publicly given the credit, the Washington gossip mill ensures Claire’s involvement won’t go unnoticed.

Frank doesn’t even have to be awake for one of his biggest problems to disappear. Dunbar comes clean about meeting with Goodwin, and even though it wasn’t her idea and she was basically tricked into it by her aide, her campaign is over. She’s excoriated by the press while Frank continues to accrue good will simply by being at death’s door. Stamper, still the only one who really wants Frank to live, resorts to blackmail in order to get his boss moved to the top of the liver list. One freshly harvested organ later, Frank is awake in time to hear what his wife has been up to in his absence.

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What follows once Frank is on his feet again isn’t a complete reversion to the status quo, but it’s close enough to come as something of a disappointment. Frank and Claire aren’t going head-to-head, at least not yet. Their partnership is reformed on different terms (not all of which are disclosed in these two episodes), and within minutes they’re back to tag-teaming adversaries and allies alike in the interest of consolidating Underwood power.

It’s a long con that begins with Frank insisting to Donald Blythe that he wants him to continue to serve as his veep, knowing that Blythe’s brief flirtation with the presidency has exposed his Velveeta spine. Blythe has no interest in being Frank’s running mate and the Democratic leadership wants nothing to do with him either, so the search for a vice presidential candidate is on. (Where oh where will it lead?) Despite the past several episodes cementing the notion that Claire has nothing left to learn from Frank, we get a scene where he coaches her through an upcoming meeting with the head of the NRA. (The aftermath of a presidential shooting seems like as good a time as any to push for stronger gun control, but it would probably help if Frank were a bit more beloved.) At least there’s a later scene in which Claire and Frank coach each other, but this still feels like a step back into something we’ve seen a few times before.

There’s always a new threat, of course, and in this case it comes in the form of presumptive Republican nominee Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). The contrast between youthful war hero Conway and his beautiful family with the Underwoods is something that doesn’t go unnoticed by Claire, and how could it? Every time we see the Conways they are bathed in light, while the Underwoods continue to skulk around a gloomy, shadowy White House. Conway’s use of social media to target voters prompts Frank to take that approach to its natural conclusion: he scrubs a mission to attack a group of Islamic militants in order to secure approval for a massive NSA surveillance operation. Although we glimpsed Conway earlier in the season, his emergence as a front-line character in “Chapter 46” feels abrupt, and it’s not clear that he’ll be any more formidable than previous Underwood enemies. It’s been a strong season so far, and this may be nothing more than a mid-season lull, but the new normal is a little too close to business as usual for House Of Cards.

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Stray observations:

  • “The president is the people who work for him.” This is what I was getting at in my last review: Frank has set the culture of deceit and treachery in the White House, and in his absence, everyone else fills the void.
  • “Pollyhop”? Seriously? How hard is it to come up with a plausible-sounding alternative to Google? “Let me Pollyhop that for you” just doesn’t trip off the tongue.
  • Ghosts from seasons past continue to materialize. Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) is still keeping a low profile, but she does confirm the truth of Goodiwn’s suicide note to her old boss Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver).
  • “A Supreme Court nomination? In the middle of an election?” Once again, House Of Cards is accidentally timely.

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