In House of Cards, Sadness Caves are never created nor destroyed; they only change form and occupant. Doug Stamper has been liberated from his Sadness Cave, where he spent the first half of last season recovering from injuries sustained after Rachel (R.I.P.) tried to beat him to death with a rock. He is in Frank’s inner circle once again — I’d say he’s out of the darkness, but everything on this show is lit so gloomily there’s barely any light to be found, even when the spotlight of Frank’s affection shines on you — and this leaves a Sadness Cave vacancy.
Where, oh where, shall we find the soul wounded enough to fill this vital set piece?
So begins “Chapter 40,” the first episode of the fourth season. Lucas, whom you may remember as the editor-turned-sometimes-boyfriend of Zoe Barnes (also R.I.P.), is in prison. He’s serving a ten-year sentence for cyberterrorism, an interesting life choice he made under the guidance of one Gavin Orsay (who skipped town/America), owner of the beloved Cashew (who is in a better place and, miraculously, is still alive).
This miniature gritty prison drama is living inside House of Cards like a Russian nesting doll. And how does it distinguish itself from all the gritty prison dramas that came before it? By being EVEN GRITTIER. This, one assumes, is the reason why the episode opens with Lucas narrating some pornography for his bunkmate, who is jerking off beneath him. As one does. How does the roomie feel about this X-rated storytime? “Damn, you’re good with words.”
As for the characters you probably care more about, Frank is exactly where we left him: He is running for reelection and Claire isn’t taking his calls.
Frank actually points when he speaks, failing to employ the standard politician “thist.” If I were to make a list of reasons why Frank is unlikeable, this wouldn’t necessarily rank high — he’s murdered a lot of people and at least one dog — but it’s an odd fumble for someone who is supposed to be so calculating and hyperaware of the optics of everything he does.
These scenes cut back and forth between Frank’s private and public selves. We watch him stumble behind the scenes, mispronouncing words and boldly scribbling out a scripted reference to his wife, though clearly rattled by it, as he workshops something better to say. When he gets to that line in public, he skips right over it like it never belonged there in the first place.
Meanwhile, Claire is in Dallas, allegedly “laying groundwork for the primary,” but really gearing up for a run of her own. Also, she’s crashing at her childhood estate where her mother still lives. Once it became clear that we would, in fact, meet Claire’s mom, I wrote in my notes: WILL WE MEET THE COLD-BLOODED GENIUSES WHO SIRED THIS CHEEKBONE UNICORN? The casting gods bless us with Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth, who is distant, formal, and still disdainful of Frank after all these years. Vibe-wise, it seems like Burstyn is going for “marginally less creepy than what she was up to in Flowers in the Attic.” Which is a great choice.
Everything in Claire’s world is almost eerily quiet. Frank is surrounded by cheering crowds and chaos. With Claire, we get some of that classic House of Cards imagery, the symbolism that’s about as subtle as Ben Affleck’s back tattoo. All the furniture in Elizabeth’s house is covered with white sheets, as if the whole place is closed for business and its only residents are ghosts. Both Claire and her mother are wearing all white for the first half of the episode. The fact that Claire is, as potential campaign manager Leann (Neve Campbell) puts it, “lily white,” is among the biggest obstacles between her and the congressional seat she desires. As the episode progresses and Claire reveals her dark ambitions to more and more people, her wardrobe follows suit. By the final scene, she’s wearing all black.
Frank has a vivid, gruesome fever dream of beating Claire — the sound in this sequence is so brutal, it’s actually easier to get through it if you cover your ears instead of covering your eyes — and he’s woken, gently, by his one-time threesome buddy Meechum. Whatever happens with the Underwood marriage ( … it’s probably not going to end well), I think we can all sleep a little more snugly at night knowing that this Frank-Meechum relationship is as strong as ever.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the way that House of Cards manages to make Claire — a wealthy, gorgeous, cis, straight, white woman — the underdog of an election. Are we actually supposed to hope she succeeds in derailing a young black woman’s plans to ascend to a congressional seat in a majority-black district? Because yeah, no.
Frank outmaneuvers Claire, sending Doug the henchman to threaten Leann and then crash her meeting with Congresswoman Doris Jones. This whole conversation is a little confusing. Is Claire actually a Democrat? Frank is a very confusing Democrat, so I guess Claire, by the laws of the HoC universe, could also be a Republican. (In case you’re wondering: All TV Republicans are mislabeled Democrats. It’s a grand, bizarre tradition that includes everyone from Ainsley Hayes to Fitzgerald Grant.) But Claire is all about putting a Democrat in the governor’s mansion so … anyway, I’m not sure I follow this part. Feel free to clear it up in the comments! Claire dangles the promise of federal funding for a particularly improbable breast-cancer center (run by Planned Parenthood at a VA hospital in Texas) in front of Doris’s face. Doris does not take the bait. I know we only just met her, but I like Doris a lot.
As the media is abuzz with rumors about the crumbling Underwood marriage — in this case, rumors = facts — Frank shows up at Elizabeth’s house to do some damage control. She is still so underwhelmed by him, and I love it. “She might as well be living in that trailer park where you came from,” Elizabeth says of Claire. And Frank, whom she deems to be “white trash that happens to live in the White House,” cannot be saved by the clout of his office. “Not even being president could give you any class.” This is vicious and accurate; I am into it on both counts.
When Claire gets back, Frank decides a cool thing to do in this situation is throw the news that Elizabeth has had cancer for three years in Claire’s impeccable face. He demands Claire tell the public that this is why she returned to Dallas, which hoo boy, her mom is not going to like that. Frank pinky-swears that if Claire shows up for the State of the Union, he won’t mess with her campaign. So, that should go smoothly.
Frank rubs Claire’s back while she gives her fake speech about her mother’s “dignity.” He commends her for being “such a thoughtful and caring wife.” Every pore in Claire’s face clenches and burns.
Back to Lucas: We learn that his cellmate is in jail for a murder he probably didn’t commit, and Lucas is working with the Feds in exchange for placement in witness protection, which he gets. Don’t worry, though. Lucas’s new digs are still dimly lit, depressing as hell, and totally qualify as a Sadness Cave. He’s freaking out because once Frank Underwood finds out that he’s free, he’ll have him murdered — past behavior being the best predictor of future behavior and all. Lucas’s lawyer assures him that POTUS doesn’t learn about this stuff “unless the attorney general tells them, which almost never happens.” So, how soon do we think Frank will get the dirt on Lucas? I give it five more episodes.
Claire and Elizabeth have a really sweet bonding moment — by which I mean it’s tense and not tender at all, but at least mom hugs her and delivers some stellar Frank advice: “You’ve got to put him in his place.” Moms always know the right thing to say.
Correction: An earlier version of this recap incorrectly said Frank Underwood is a Republican. he is a Democrat.