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The Underwoods go beyond marriage as House Of Cards enters the home stretch

Robin Wright/Netflix
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Robin Wright has directed four of this season’s episodes, double the number she did last season. It’s tempting to draw a parallel between her increased creative contributions behind the scenes and Claire’s prominence as a character this year, especially given the events of “Chapter 49,” Wright’s most accomplished directing job yet. Claire has to navigate some tricky emotional territory in this episode, and as both actor and director, Wright is up to the task.

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Some of her best work on both fronts involves Ellen Burstyn, who returns after a prolonged absence as Claire’s terminally ill mother Elizabeth Hale. House Of Cards has always taken a curious approach to subplots, probably owing to its full-season release model. New characters are introduced and appear to be very important for a few episodes before getting lost in the shuffle or disappearing altogether. Since this season has tried to bring back practically every past character in some capacity, some of the new additions were inevitably going to draw the short straw. Burstyn had a handful of good scenes with Wright early on (and, sadly, only one firecracker of an exchange with Spacey), but she’s been an offscreen presence for weeks now, which can’t help but feel like a wasted opportunity.

That changes with “Chapter 49,” which brings Burstyn back for one last hurrah. Deathbed acting can sometimes come off as Emmy-bait, but Burstyn manages to convey both Elizabeth’s flinty stubbornness and the mix of vulnerability and acceptance that her end-stage cancer brings out in her. There’s no full-on reconciliation with hugs and sobbing, but there are a few shared recollections of better times and a warped sort of understanding between mother and daughter. They can help each other: Claire by administering enough morphine to end Elizabeth’s suffering, and Elizabeth by dying just in time to allow Claire to deliver a triumphant speech at the Democratic convention. This is as close as House Of Cards gets to sentimentality.

The moment is complicated by the presence of Tom Yates, who has become the uplifting deathbed presence Claire could never be in just a few short days. Elizabeth dies holding hands with both Tom and Claire, an act that becomes the most morbid piece of foreplay ever when the two pop upstairs for a shag before the body is even cold. (Hell, they don’t even call the coroner until the morning after.) It’s not Claire’s first affair, but it’s the one that gets Frank’s blessing in light of all the recent developments. It’s a sort of tactical retreat for Frank (who has abandoned his hobby of building Civil War dioramas): If his political partnership with Claire is going to work, he needs to allow his husbandly role to be filled by someone who is up to the task.

That political partnership will go nowhere as long as Durant stands in the way, but she proves to be another pushover after some initial resistance. It’s disappointing that Frank has no intriguing scheme to get her out of the way: he simply threatens her by telling her that all the rumors are true, that he did kill Zoe and Russo, and demonstrates that he’ll do the same to her by pulling a letter opener on her. Sure, he immediately laughs it off and says none of it is true, but the message is delivered and Durant caves immediately. Maybe she has something else in store for him in the remaining two episodes, but as it stands, the fact that she’s had a “front row seat” to his treachery from the beginning and now backs off and remains in his cabinet…well, it’s a little too close to Lucy pulling the football on Charlie Brown yet again.

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Once the Underwoods are united as the Democratic ticket, there’s still the pesky matter of the general election, polls for which show Conway with a double-digit lead. A strange thing happens in terms of public perception, however, as Frank learns from his NSA surveillance program (which surely won’t come back to bite him on the ass). The Conways may be the perfect golden family, but the flawed Underwoods are now seen as something new: a true partnership that goes “beyond marriage.” It’s a savory little irony that this happens so soon after the Underwood marriage’s near-complete disintegration, but as “Chapter 50” ends, Frank and Claire have indeed gone beyond marriage, if not in quite the way the public perceives. He’s not only okay with Claire taking a lover beneath his own roof, he’s even made them breakfast. Is this a new understanding or simply an uneasy truce until the election is behind them? The look on Tom’s face suggests that he, at least, is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Meanwhile, pass the eggs.

Stray observations

  • It takes this long to bring Freddy back into the picture and that’s what they do with him? Again, this goes back to the weird way secondary and tertiary characters are utilized on this show. A lot of effort went into securing Freddy a position in the White House last season, so you’d think Willimon and company must have had something in mind for him. Instead, he’s absent until the 11th episode of this season, and only surfaces out of convenience to the Hammerschmidt plot. He has a perfunctory fight with Frank, calls the president a motherfucker, then beats up the reporter when he comes around digging for dirt. We get the point: Freddy may hate Frank, but he’s no snitch. House Of Cards doesn’t trust us to get the point, however, so Freddy has to state this explicitly while Hammerschmidt moans in pain in the alley.
  • Doug Stamper is an alien who has been studying our Earth emotions and human interaction for four seasons now and hasn’t come any closer to understanding them. Here he finally does a good deed, making that contribution to the Moretti memorial fund, but it almost instantly gets twisted as he becomes obsessed with the widow Moretti in a way that’s very reminiscent of Rachel Posner. Their meeting for coffee is up there with Robert De Niro and Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver on the awkwardness scale.
  • Would anyone have been truly surprised if Claire had thrown her hat in the ring for president during her convention speech? I gave that at least a 20 percent chance of happening.
  • “Chapter 50” was directed by a first-timer for this show, Kari Skogland, and it featured some oddball touches, most notably a cacophony of sound surfacing in several scenes (the opening montage with its swirl of talking-head chatter, the dueling saxes in the jazz club, cows lowing on a campaign stop). Commentary on the sound and fury of election season or just coincidence?
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