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House of Cards Season 2, Episode 5 Recap: Backchanneling

House of Cards season two followed up on its riveting fourth episode by delivering a fifth installment best described as … confusing.

From the very beginning of this deep dive into currency manipulation, World Trade Organization lawsuits, and U.S.-China summits that, for some reason, are taking place during a Civil War anniversary event, the proceedings felt convoluted. And I really do mean the beginning, which featured an opening scene in which a guy attempted autoerotic asphyxiation while engaging in a threesome with two exceptionally high-priced prostitutes. That guy turned out to be Xander Feng, a Chinese telecommunications billionaire who tried to convince Frank that the U.S. should drop its WTO lawsuit against China without actually dropping it, because that will allow China to pretend-fight the lawsuit and seem strong (or something), and then, in exchange, they’ll help President Walker build a bridge over the Long Island Sound. For some reason.

The whole Chinese plotline made no sense, or if it did make sense, it wasn’t explained very clearly, which is the same thing as not making sense. Also: What did Feng having sex with two people, while wearing a plastic bag on his head, have to do with anything? Was it supposed to provide key insight into his character? Will the fact that he’s into weird, oxygen-depriving orgasms be one of those little pieces of info that pays off in episode seven, or ten, or some future work of House of Cards fan fiction that eventually turns into a best-selling novel, possibly entitled Fifty Shades of Feng? I have no idea, nor do I have any idea why it seemed like a good idea to immediately transition from that sex scene to a Civil War reenactment. That was very disorienting. It also made Spotsylvania, Virginia, suddenly seem kinkier than I ever imagined possible.

By now, many people may agree that House of Cards is an addictive but flawed show. When it hums along at its most compelling, as it did just one episode prior, it’s easy to overlook those flaws, which include: an unearned sense of self-importance; a propensity to get mired in excessive political details that often don’t reveal anything significant about the players involved; over-reliance on predictable character clashes that stem from Frank’s un-nuanced desire to crush all human beings in his path; and plotlines that, if not handled carefully, can easily teeter into snoozeville. This episode succumbed to all of those weaknesses. The good news is that if season two went from intriguing and intense to stupefying and dull in just a single episode, it can easily swing back the other way again.

Okay, now, seriously: I am determined to understand this whole situation involving the Chinese and Raymond Tusk and the Rare Earth Refinery and the WTO lawsuit and that bridge over the Long Island Sound. Determined! So I’m going to rewatch, for a fourth time, a couple of the scenes most relevant to that story. I’ll be right back.

I’m back! Yeah, I still don’t get it. Ultimately, the key things to know are this: Xang Feng is a corrupt guy with business ties, via that refinery, to Raymond Tusk; Frank has succeeded in making an enemy of Feng; President Walker is now very mad at his two little boys, Frank and Raymond, who basically got sent to their rooms when they refused to stop bickering over the disastrous negotiations with the Chinese; and House of Cards loves to use the word “backchanneling.” “We’ve been backchanneling this for months!” “No more backchanneling until I can straighten this out.” “Man, I’d love to unwind right now with a stiff drink and some casual backchanneling.” Backchanneling is one of those terms, like consultant or digitally innovative — that means something, but also can be dropped in an empty way that doesn’t tell anyone anything.

It’s only episode five and already I am sick to death of the power struggle between Frank and Raymond. Why does Underwood care so much about “loosening Raymond’s grip on the president,” as he put it during one of his over-explanatory, straight-to-camera remarks? Will that necessarily give Frank more political clout and power? (I don’t think so.) It seems like Frank is fixated on this because, from a narrative point-of-view, he needs obstacles, and also because he’s a petty human being. Which is funny, since he recently told Jackie Sharp that he despises pettiness.

As for the overplayed relationship between Frank and the Civil War reenactor portraying his grandfather’s grandfather, a soldier who killed and was killed in the war, that obviously served as a reminder to Frank that he is a person of formidable authority, with the ancestry to back that up. Feng’s grandfather fought with Chairman Mao, according to Doug, but Frank has thoroughly American fighters in his blood as well. The standoff in the woods between those two is probably only the beginning of the season two rivalry between them. So: yippee.

You know what? Let’s get the hell out of Spotsylvania. The place is creeping me out. Let’s talk instead about Claire Underwood. I thought for sure — for sure — that after not really hearing from Dalton McGinnis in last week’s episode, we’d be hearing him vocally challenge Claire’s accusations in this week’s episode. When that mysterious guy showed up at the home of the widow of Dr. Marbury, who performed Claire’s abortion during Frank’s campaign, I thought for sure he was a shadowy figure acting on behalf of McGinnis to dig up the truth and expose it, live on MSNBC, since that’s apparently how things are done on House of Cards.

But no! The thief of that private journal — in which Marbury evidently had written down that he had performed the abortion, which is kind of weird, really — turned out to be Seth Grayson, a guy who’s determined to get Connor fired from his position as communications director so he can take over. Really? He went to all the trouble to get that journal so he could prove Connor sucks at his job, even though Connor specifically asked about potential issues like this and was told by Claire not to worry about it? There must be more to this than that. Also: How many people will be able use the knowledge of those real abortion facts to manipulate Claire this season? So far we’ve got at least two — Seth and Connor — assuming Mrs. Marbury doesn’t decide to jump into the fray.

With McGinnis apparently laying low, Claire also had time to decide to make military policy on handling rape and sexual abuse her new crusade, enlisting the First Lady to fight alongside her. It’s a worthwhile cause, as we know from actual current events as well as what we learned about the arrogant, laughably negligent way that officials handle such cases in the House of Cards universe. (The military literature that advised that, in some cases of assault, it may be more advisable to submit than resist is basically the whole reason the Take Back the Night movement was invented.) But even though Claire is right to confront the Joint Chiefs and right to insist that abusers and rapists who happen to be in the military should be tried as civilians, that doesn’t change the fact that this whole effort is predicated on a lie, a lie that can’t possibly be kept secret forever.

Lastly, in the matter of Lucas Goodwin, inept murder investigator, everything came to a head exactly as expected: with arguments between journalists and hackers/government spies, guinea pig threats, and, finally, an FBI takedown in a room filled with computer servers. Yes, Lucas is now in custody and, according to Doug, will likely be facing 35 years to life for engaging in cyberterrorism. With him out of the picture, who will be able to unmask Frank Underwood as the murderer he is? Apparently no one. Poor Lucas. He fell in mighty fashion because he failed to do that one crucial thing that everyone must do in political matters: He did not effectively backchannel. And if this episode of House of Cards taught us anything, it’s that quality backchanneling is crucial.

Photo: Nathaniel E. Bell/Netflix