Neve Campbell, Paul Sparks/Netflix

Plausibility is never going to be a priority for House Of Cards. Even in a crazy election year like this one, the idea of a sitting president choosing his wife as his running mate requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Frank Underwood knows that, too, and pulling it off will entail implementing the sort of long con that makes the show so pleasurable when it’s at its best. Reality takes a back seat when the Underwoods get to plotting and scheming.

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It can’t look like Frank’s idea. The congressional leadership has to be on board, so his first choice is a pro-gun senator from the crucial swing state of Ohio. Right from the start, however, Frank and Claire are working behind the scenes to torpedo Senator Austen’s candidacy. Word leaks out early when Claire conveniently marches Kate Baldwin past the open-door meeting Frank is holding with Austen, alerting NRA shill Julia to the potential conflict. Once Austen is aboard, Frank backtracks on his promise that the senator won’t have to publicly support Claire’s background check legislation. Julia threatens to pull her organization’s substantial financial backing, and Austen is forced to drop out. One potential obstacle to the Underwoods’ plan is out of the way, but they’re just getting started.

Step two is proposing current Secretary of State Cathy Durant as Frank’s running mate, but rather than naming her outright, Frank suggests an open convention so as to at least give the appearance that it’s the party’s decision. The real reason for this gambit becomes clear when the representative of the Kentucky delegation announces an assortment of votes for various potential veeps, climaxing with one vote for Claire. That’s followed by the entire Texas delegation throwing its support to the First Lady. Somehow word has reached the press that Claire had much more to do with the Petrov negotiations than was originally reported, about which Frank pulls his usual “Who me?” routine with Durant, who has surely seen it a few dozen times by now. She plays the good soldier, insisting she’ll support Claire should the chips fall that way, but the Underwood virus has infected her as well. Backstabbing is the only real option.

House Of Cards gets to have it both ways here. We see how the Underwood plan is meant to play out, and it’s actually rather ingenious. If Durant were to play ball and throw her delegates to Claire, the Underwoods would be running mates without having publicly forced the issue. But for once, they aren’t getting their way all too easily. Frank has an opponent who is starting to look every bit as conniving as he is: Will Conway, who shows up in Atlanta while the Democratic convention is going on in order to disrupt the news cycle. With the general Frank dismissed at his side as his running mate, Conway gives a speech about the looming threat of ICO (which is to ISIS as Pollyhop is to Google), demanding that Frank put aside politics to take action. Frank calls his bluff, leading to one of the season’s best scenes: a highly unlikely but quite enjoyable face-to-face meeting between the presidential candidates.

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Naturally, ICO isn’t really discussed. Instead this is a sparring session, with each combatant probing the other for weaknesses. They talk video games as a metaphor for presidential politics, and then Conway takes a call that Frank is desperate to listen in on, even trying to get Leann to have it electronically surveilled. The purpose of the call is revealed when Frank and Conway watch the convention results together and see that Louisiana has thrown its full support behind Durant, first as president and then (after being admonished) as veep. It turns out Durant wanted to see if Conway would keep her on as Secretary of State before launching her own offensive against Frank. ”The president is the people who work for him,” but the Underwood brand of loyalty cuts both ways. As season four heads into the home stretch, there’s reason to believe Frank has finally met a worthy foe.

Stray observations:

  • Stamper flirts with developing a conscience after Frank meets with the mother of the suicide victim who provided the president’s new liver. His fingers hover over the donation button for the memorial fund set up for the family man who would have received that organ had Stamper not interfered, but perhaps deciding that it would raise uncomfortable questions if the donation became public, he decides against it. Whatever flicker of humanity this represents, it doesn’t prevent him from continuing his vendetta against Leann. His lapdog Seth is also infected with the Underwood virus, however, and he spills the beans to the campaign manager.
  • Tom Yates is sliding into the Meechum role as trusted confidant, and perhaps more than that. His interaction with Claire as they work on her potential acceptance speech hints at a more intimate relationship in the making.
  • Hammerschmidt is poking around Zoe’s old neighborhood, asking about Frank. If history is our guide, he’s also asking for trouble.

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