Another ghost is back from the Underwoods' past: Tom, the writer who lurked around the White House (and, every now and then, Kate Baldwin's hotel room) taking notes for a nonfiction book about America Works that he never got to write. Looks like he turned his Underwood intel into a novel, though he doesn't anticipate the Underwoods will be "too happy with it."
He's in some surprising company, too: The Conways sense an opportunity in having this unflattering obviously-about-the-Underwoods novel come out before the election. Hannah, it turns out, is a genuine fan of Tom's writing. Tom's not convinced — "I'm on the Marxist side of Democrat" — and says he's not a "political tool," which is hilarious because that is literally all we've really seen him be. (Never forget: He did not write Scorpio, the novel that made him famous. He stole the almost-done draft from his dead friend.)
The Conways promise him the cover of Vanity Fair, but even with their connections, I find it difficult to believe such a deal could be made: Has an author ever been on the cover of VF before? No matter, because the Conways are on the cover this month — they pose for professionally lit selfies — and Tom is playing everyone off each other by releasing a sample chapter to both the Conways and the Underwoods. (Doug, dead-eyed henchman, meets Tom at a diner. He is horrified to learn that all he gets is an excerpt and that it's the same one the Conways have. "That was a mistake, Tom," Doug says, presumably imagining how he would suffocate Tom with a coffee cup if it weren't for all the pesky witnesses.)
Meanwhile, Frank's doing the running-mate dance, letting the leadership think he's going along with their choice: Senator Dean Austin from Ohio, a longtime friend of the NRA. "Another middle-aged white guy, underwhelming, unimaginative," Frank says, ticking off Austin's flaws one by one until only his middle finger is left raised high. Meanwhile, Claire invites Kate to the White House for an interview — and what do you know! Austin is in a meeting with Frank in the Roosevelt Room, and the door's wide open.
As for our little Mr. Robot data-stealing scheme, Aiden is communicating with Leann like a Cold War spy, leaving coffee cups, subtly labeled "SHAME," with USB drives inside, on park benches. For now, they're tracking geolocation patterns through the phones of legal gun owners to find out where Second Amendment–loving Americans "live, eat, shop, everything." This information is used to predict who wants a firearm but doesn't have one yet; it is the scary political version of how Target can know you're pregnant before you do based on what coupons you clip.
Claire records a heartfelt (or is it?) robocall to drum up support for the gun bill. "We should all be ashamed, every one of us. Because the blood is on all of our hands, and doing nothing is the same as pulling the trigger."
Elsewhere, Aiden does a very strange shirtless dance as intense techno music oonza-oonza-ooonzas around him. Phones ring all over America. I know I've said it before but I'll say it again: The sound design in this show is fantastic.
Claire returns to the residence to find Frank smoking a cigarette alone. She takes a drag where he left off, and I feel a little twinge of nostalgia for the simpler times, when the only creature Frank had murdered was that dog from the series premiere, and these two shared cigarettes by the window. Are we supposed to think Tom is a good writer? I'm honestly not sure. Claire and Frank are mulling over the excerpt: "A chasm opened up between them. A hallway less than ten yards wide, but it might as well have been a thousand miles." Their marriage was "a 30-years war that left them both dead inside."
"He's perceptive," says Claire. "Uncanny," Frank says, but they don't seem too bothered because, as Claire puts it, "It's not who we are. Not anymore." They try to suss out Tom's motives. Claire knows Frank had real feelings for Tom; she didn't, but she nevertheless admits, "I felt like he saw me." "Me too," Frank says. It's the most intimate we've seen them in ages. It's interesting that they both seem to like feeling this way — really seen and understood by a third party — considering how much they pride themselves on their ability to construct an impenetrable façade.
Washington Herald Tom, who has the same name as writer Tom for no reason other than to confuse viewers and recappers alike, is zonked out on his couch when his phone rings: It's Zoe Barnes's dad! Tom's got a mini–Carrie Mathison crazy wall on a bulletin board in his living room. In perhaps unsurprising news (considering everything we know about Zoe), she was 17 when she found out her dad was having an affair with a drug-company sales rep. ("Blonde, you know," Mr. Barnes says, because, sure, that explains everything.) She made her dad come clean, and her parents' marriage crumbled. Alas, they barely spoke after that, so this very sad conversation is useless. Tom tells Zoe's dad that Zoe "didn't have many close friends at all," and we are just stuck with this trio of seriously lonely, damaged people. Zoe's dad drunk-drives the rest of the way home.
Tom takes a field trip to Zoe's sketchy-as-hell old apartment. This trip is not for naught: The guy at the totally implausible pizza place down the street — I wish you could get a decent New York–style slice in my fair city, but nope, that's not a thing here — recognizes Meechum and says he used to come in all the time. A lead!
I'm not sure how much time has passed — as you fellow binge-watchers know, time has no place in our lives; we see neither the day nor the darkness, only the glow of our screens, dimly lighting the Sadness Caves of our own construction — but when Frank takes down that Confederate flag painting to put his hand in Meechum's handprint, he sees that its been painted over. He talks to Claire about Tom and they decide he's worth holding onto, if only because he is one of the few people in their orbit who they believe gets them.
Claire meets with Tom to re-up her threats — "I hope you understand that we can't allow you to print this before the election" — and then offers him the opportunity to hang with the Underwoods for a bit so he can get a better ending for his book. He'll even be their speechwriter, since he understands their voices so well. Everyone is keeping an eye on everyone else. I can't imagine this working out well for Tom, even if it does boost his sinking book sales. (Also, I find Tom to be pretty insufferable and could not stop my eyes from rolling when he slowly deleted the "THE END" from the bottom of his manuscript.)
Back on the gun front, NRA president Julia has heard about Senator Austin's plans to sell out for Frank and she is pissed. It gets worse when Austin stands alongside Frank on TV to support Claire's bill. As Frank and Claire planned all along, Austin withdraws from the ticket. Frank suggests Cathy as a replacement, and also to let the party choose her (or at least, allow for the appearance of the party choosing her) at the convention. Why would Cathy be interested in the VP slot? After everything the Underwoods have put her through, she must want to get as far away from these crazies as possible. She'd have even less power as vice-president than she does now.
General Brockhart, promised the running-mate slot by Conway, resigns after all. Vanity Fair breaks the news and Kate gets the exclusive. This is supposedly also a cover story, which would so never happen. Zero percent chance the average American has heard of this guy or cares who he is, and you just know VF isn't doing back-to-back political covers.
Claire, Doug, and Frank have a huddle over the Brockhart thing. This, of course, turns into an opportunity for Doug to say Leann is "doing damage" and needs to be replaced. The dialogue that follows is such a caricature of Doug, I feel like they wrote it as a joke and forgot to sub in the real text: Doug orders Seth to find the dirt on Leann, and when Seth is all " … why would I do that, you're making no sense," Doug literally says: "I thought we had an understanding. Your obedience."
We end with Herald Tom, whose crazy wall has metastasized — it now covers his entire apartment. He's working with little to no light. That's how you know his research is for real. People who are serious about their investigative reporting never give themselves the benefit of overhead lighting.