This is the show I have been waiting for all season (which has only been two episodes but feels like much longer, perhaps because of the interminable recovery of Doug Stamper). Events that actually move the plot forward! Weird sexual power plays! Political struggles that feel high-stakes and violent and terrifying! The Underwoods weathering the schemes of other, inevitably lesser forces, and emerging victorious! CLAIRE PLAYING BEER PONG!
But let’s begin at the beginning. Russian president Petrov is visiting the United States as protests against him rage outside the White House. Pussy Riot will be in attendance; they have a list of issues they want the presidents to discuss, but Frank doesn’t even read it. “Just tell them I did it,” he says. Frank is such a pure political animal: It’s fascinating to watch how he goes from completely ignoring/humoring Pussy Riot, when their agenda is at odds with his own, to how he co-opts their message for his own gain. By the end of the episode, he’ll be claiming to have been on their side all along.
Claire is in meetings with Cathy — fortunately for us all, we’ve skipped ahead to May, after Claire was recess-appointed (can that be a verb?) and is now both First Lady and ambassador. Cathy is having a difficult time adjusting to the complex power dynamics at play. I like Cathy, even though you know nothing good can come of her association with the Underwoods. She seems like one of the only people in this administration who truly believes in the work that she does.
Petrov arrives and immediately gives off such a strange, discomforting vibe. In Petrov we have, at last, a formidable opponent for Frank. Unlike the dopey President Walker or the bumbling old-man Raymond Tusk, Petrov is slick, confident, and savvy; he’s a little bit reckless, but he knows exactly what he can get away with. He’s newly divorced and apparently quite the promiscuous president; he tells Frank that he surfs because “the water is cold as hell, but the women are warm.” Frank declines an invitation on the grounds of, you know, being married, and Petrov just raises an eyebrow and says Frank should bring Claire along. (Does Petrov have an inside source telling him about Claire and Frank’s, shall we say, flexible sex lives?
Anyway, Petrov starts with the following: The Middle East is hopeless, Russia has nothing to gain from peace in the Middle East, and Russia also has nothing to gain from working with America. He calls bullshit on Frank’s insistence that he won’t be running in 2016. Frank doesn’t know what to do with this guy because he can’t play someone without knowing what that someone wants. “Men like you don’t show up for dinner without an appetite.”
Time for the State Dinner. Claire, as always, is dressed in liquid steel and looks like perfection. She’ll work on Petrov while Frank works on Bob Birch for some boring AmWorks-related reason. “Ready for battle,” Claire says to Frank. Game on, Russia.
Sidebar: What’s the over/under on Jackie and Remy hooking up again? I give it three episodes, max. I loved their little “She looks like a Svetla” exchange.
Meanwhile, Pussy Riot, who are accompanied by an activist named Michael Corrigan, pose for the photo op with both presidents but refuse to make small talk. At dinner, Claire and Petrov are engaged in a very dicey game of flirtation-as-power-play. I don’t know who is underestimating whom here. It seems like neither of them know what it’s like to not have the upper hand and maybe wouldn’t recognize that situation even if they were in it. Claire asks her go-to, get-you-to-open-up question: “Are you in love?” Petrov, steering into that sleazy skid, replies, “I’m learning to enjoy being divorced.”
A series of toasts follow, each more loaded than the next. Petrov openly hits on Claire: “We all know which of you brings the enchantment to the table. To you, Mrs. Underwood. [Pause that lasts a bit too long.] And of course, your lesser half.” There’s something so weird about the way people in power think it’s kosher to openly acknowledge the beauty or desirability of other powerful people’s spouses. Everyone has to act as if it’s okay to talk about a woman’s beauty as if she isn’t even there, or as if neither she nor her partner would be offended by it.
Then Petrov toasts Pussy Riot, and this is where things get really interesting. The toast Petrov gets from Pussy Riot and Corrigan in response is angry and fast and gusty as all get-out. He tries to be the father figure (“You’ve made your point, sit and let us all drink and laugh like true Russians do”), but they aren’t having it: They spill the Champagne, drop the glasses, and storm out.
Petrov, perhaps losing his cool after getting embarrassed by Pussy Riot, crosses all the lines with Claire. “So this is what he does? He leaves the seduction to you? There’s a word for that in English, no? Pimping. He’s pimping you out.” Claire’s eyes go black. Through gritted teeth: “How charming you are.” He goes in for one more punch, telling her she makes a much better First Lady than ambassador. “Only teasing.”
Petrov makes everyone take shot after shot of vodka — peer pressure is so real, people — and then there’s this sort of jovial sing-along, but really it’s tense and weird. Kevin Spacey clearly wanted an opportunity to bust out that Bobby Darin impression, and this rendition of “Birth of the Blues” must be the result of that wish. It would be charming and fun under other circumstances, but here you just know it’s the setup for something awful. And it is: Petrov takes the mike to sing a little Russian ditty. My exact notes from this moment: “wow he is dancing REALLY close to Claire I wonder how she feels about this probably not great WHAT WHAT IS HAPPENING HE IS KISSING HER WOW NOT COOL VERY AGAINST THE SPIRIT OF PEACE AND COOPERATION WE ARE THEORETICALLY TRYING TO ESTABLISH.”
Beau Willimon has explained before that the reason people think all the HoC sex scenes are creepy is because they’re really negotiations of power and “all love is transactional.” (Personally, I think the HoC sex scenes are creepy because sometimes they involve Zoe Barnes talking to her dad on the phone to wish him a happy Fathers’ Day while Frank is getting her off, but maybe I’m just imposing my worldview on the show.) But this kiss is all about power and entitlement. It’s a demonstration of strength — not only could he physically grab her, but the optics were such that Claire and Frank had to roll with it as if this were all in good fun — and of Petrov’s style: He takes what he wants when he wants it, with no regard to the wants of anyone else involved.
The real intimacy, though, comes later, when Claire sweet-talks Cathy into a glass of Scotch and then a round of beer pong. I know that Claire is playing Cathy — the Underwoods are always playing someone — but I get the sense that Claire also just genuinely enjoys Cathy’s company, that she respects Cathy’s intellect. Plus, Cathy was the Delta Phi beer pong champion sophomore and junior years! (My kingdom for a Shonda Rhimes v. Cathy Mindy Project/HoC crossover.) I think Claire is a lonely person, and Frank is so busy being president he’s no longer available to assuage that loneliness like he used to be. Does Claire even have any friends? Who does she talk to, unguardedly, besides Frank? She torched her relationship with Adam; she tossed out all her nonprofit colleagues. Is she befriending Cathy or developing an asset? Maybe both: As Claire pointed out earlier this episode, since when can’t she do two things as once?
Frank tries to woo Petrov with Cuban cigars — “smuggled in; I thought you’d appreciate the irony” — but his patience with Petrov is all but gone. As he reveals to us: “I’d push him down the stairs and light his broken body on fire just to watch it burn, if it wouldn’t start a world war.” Been there, buddy.
Frank is still trying to be smooth, but Petrov is all “Cut to the chase, brah, let’s talk Middle East” (I’m paraphrasing here), “I want the entire missile defense system, literally all over Europe, last offer. Also, can I make out with your wife one more time?”
Then Petrov stubs out his cigar against the wall. He is the worst.
Claire and Frank, always better together, come up with a new plan: As Cathy informed Claire, there’s more than one way to “skin that cat” to get troops into the Jordan Valley. What a coincidence, the U.N. could do it, Russia could be overruled, and Claire would need to assume much more responsibility! Win-win-win.
Frank, hung-over as hell, tries to work with Petrov one more time; Petrov uses this opportunity to tell Frank about how he screwed his ex-wife for the first time in the backseat of a Lexus. Frank goes FULL UNDERWOOD: He sends for Petrov’s motorcade and does what was supposed to be a joint press conference all by himself.
His message? “I had the pleasure of hosting true Russian patriots who exhibit the very best their country has to offer.” Who is he talking about? Pussy Riot! “The demands President Petrov made proves to me that peace is not a priority for him. Peace should not have to be bought. Peace is its own reward.”
This is so awesome, I can almost forgive/shall not dwell upon the latest dispatches from Doug Stamper’s Sadness Cave. He got offered a job that was too good to be true; he can tell Frank sent the offer his way. Doug doesn’t want the “training wheels” job. He wants a seat at the big kids’ table. Also, he wants to find Rachel, and for some reason Gavin is willing to risk his life of semi-freedom to help Doug track her down. I think Gavin should be significantly more concerned about Cashew’s whereabouts than Rachel’s, but what can you do?
TL;DR: Pussy Riot forever.