In case you forget what Freddy called Frank last episode, the opening music in "Chapter 51" is a helpful reminder: "Hey motherfucker, hey, hey!" Aiden is rocking out and digging into all that Conway data, as you do.
Meanwhile, Claire, Frank, Conway, and Brockhart are engaged in the first debate of presidential candidates and their running mates — which is a really cool idea I wish someone had thought of sooner! Imagine Sarah Palin having to debate with Obama. Imagine the SNL sketches that could have been. Conway relies on his standard-issue talking points, and Claire rips him apart for using buzzwords as a shield against a complicated, nuanced reality. Conway and Brockhart, unsurprisingly, are like, "Hey, we were in the shit while you were a debutante in Dallas or whatever," and Frank reminds his opponents that ICO's leaders are locked up.
Aiden analyzes all of this in real time — is this sci-fi or is this reality? Should I move into a tinfoil bunker? — and learns that all the "beyond" and "become" stuff is working really well for the Underwoods.
And then the kill shot: Frank calls out Brockhart on conspiring with members of Congress to block Russia's involvement in the ICO thing. With no other choice (I mean I guess the truth is always a choice? But that's not how we do things here) Conway and Brockhart lie on TV. (Meanwhile, Doug is calling in a favor from some Purple Heart–haver who probably shouldn't hold that honor.) Then some important-looking military folk whoosh into the debate and whisk Frank away, a scene that makes Conway look powerless and irrelevant.
The news: ICO has kidnapped three American hostages. The kidnappers say, on video, "Our country is guilty of illegal aggression and mass murder against Muslims." They want cessation of all U.S. military activity in Syria, $10 billion in reparations to ICO, and to free Yusuf, the ICO leader Frank literally just imprisoned. "We will not communicate with the criminal Frank Underwood; we will only communicate with his successor, William Conway." They will kill three hostages in 24 hours.
There was a brief moment in which I thought: Holy shit, what if Conway coordinated this entire thing? What if these "terrorists" are actually on the Conway for President payroll?
But it turns out HoC has made my imagination into a place even darker and more ruthless than, well, HoC. These are real terrorists and real hostages! Conway is as surprised as we are. The hostages are Melissa, Caroline, and James Miller, a family just trying to grab a bite at Denny's when they were grabbed in the parking lot.
Conway — who is undergoing a transition like that prince from Frozen, starting off tall, blonde, and charming but turning out to be a monster — sees this as a great opportunity for a little phone video. Brockhart, as you might expect, does not. "It implies that we're willing to negotiate with terrorists. We should keep out mouths shut and let the authorities do their jobs." But, as Conway explains, media coverage. Brockhart is so clearly wishing that he'd never aligned himself with this G.I. Joe but, as they say in the big leagues, no backsies. Brockhart bounces, but Conway makes his man hit record, and shoots a video saying he will be on hand to help the president.
Frank takes a break from the Situation Room to talk to Viewers Like Us: "Why did they want Conway? That's the real question." Going around Frank "undermines my authority," he says, as I type Frank that is NOT the issue here. "No president would compromise," Frank realizes. "A would-be president like Conway, he might."
Why? Because Conway has a flaw: "He aches for the spotlight. He feels almost invisible without it." Conway will risk being booed because he is so hungry for applause. And now that he has made his entire campaign about "showing up for duty," he has no choice but to follow through. The entire Conway family arrives at the White House, where baby Charlie won't shake Frank's hand because his daddy told him Frank was a vampire.
So Conway is in the room, but Frank tells him that he's just "the bait." Conway is leaning on Frank's desk in the Oval. This is a recurring thing in HoC that I find very distracting: No one really treats Frank like he's the president. Everyone is so flippant and cavalier around him. Tom and Freddy call him by his first name like it's nothing; guests just perch on the edge of his desk. Can you imagine showing up to the White House, then kicking your feet up on the Resolute desk like, "Oh hey, Barack, didn't even see you there?"
Conway demands to be more involved, as Frank assumed he would. He speaks at the press conference and we cut to a Muslim spokesperson reminding the American people that "ICO does not represent Islam. But there are those who would use this incident to justify draconian measures, like travel restrictions" — hmm, where have I heard that before? — "The moment bigotry becomes a form of patriotism, America is no longer America." I like this guy a lot. Maybe he should run for president?
In semi-related news, our kidnappers are two disaffected young white guys, Josh and Zach. But something tells me the HoC universe will not see any draconian travel restrictions placed on white men in their twenties.
I think some of HoC's strongest scenes have been those between women when our central male characters are elsewhere. Claire and Cathy playing beer pong, as you all know, is one of my hall-of-fame moments; I feel the same way about Claire's conversation with Hannah. I would have watched so much more of this. It's almost like Hannah and Claire are bonding, as Hannah reveals that she thinks America's "gun obsession is madness. Will does, too, but he can't admit it." She also tells Claire that "you're actually a role model of mine," and I think it's genuine? Hard to say, but I believe Hannah means what she says more than her husband does. Claire refers to Hannah's son as "very cute" like "cute" is a word in a foreign language she is just beginning to master. Hannah asks if Claire ever regrets not having children and Claire — our lord and savior — responds, "Do you ever regret having them?" YES CLAIRE. Why are you always allowed to ask if women regret "missing out" on things — husbands, kids, what have you — but never the reverse? But, because the fates are cruel, we don't see the rest of that conversation, aside from Hannah's stunned face.
The Situation Room is packed. Frank and Conway get on the line with the terrorists. As Conway is getting trolled by these very angry Millennials — "How sorry did you feel when you dropped bombs on innocent Muslims?" — Frank steps in to say, "If you want anything to happen, I'm the one who can make it so." Proof of life or no dice, kids! The terrorists respond by threatening to slice out Melissa's tongue. Conway leaps back onto the call and goes off-script. He admits that he has nightmares from his time in the service (but does he really mean any of it?) and, ooh boy, "I am ashamed of what I've done."
Conway suggests that, as youths who have never killed anyone before, "You owe yourselves more time before you can do something you can never take back."
George, that Purple Heart guy Doug visited earlier, does not want to be the voice of "Conway and Brockhart lied on national TV about the Russia thing." But Frank pulls up a little something from the archives: George's magnet from the vote-count board when Frank was whip. Behind each magnet, Frank says, is "at least one dishonorable thing." George's is more dishonorable than most.
Oh great, now it's time for a detour into Mistress Tom territory. He uses this moment of unimaginably horror to speak in beat poetry: "Their eyes were glued to their phones, and no children out, anywhere."
Conway just helps himself to a beer from the Underwoods' fridge — again, I know you're a narcissist, but could you at least show some respect for the office? — and engages in some very cocky trash talk. "I feel sorry for you," he says. "Two years. That's all you're going to get in here." Frank will be forgotten, Conway says. But Frank still feels superior: "Ninety-nine percent of this job is in the dark. You have to make a thousand decisions no one will ever hear about or appreciate." Frank leans in. "You're a pretender, Will. And if you win, you'll go from pretender to fraud."
Claire suggests sending the Conways home, but Frank has more plans. Charlie scoops up some of Frank's tiny model soldiers, and at first Frank wants them back. But then, in maybe my favorite line of the episode, he sneers, "You should keep them because you should get everything you want in this life."
In news news: Herald Tom pays a visit to ex-POTUS, Garrett Walker, who is living in that Vermont jam-mansion Olivia and Fitz dream about on Scandal. (I don't actually think it's in Vermont, you guys; just describing a vibe here.) Walker has settled into that post–White House life, wearing turtlenecks and gazing at nature a lot. Walker is reluctant to betray the party — that's some top-notch loyalty, considering the guy got forced out of the White House by his own people; good to know there's at least one Gryffindor in this show full of Slytherins — until Tom asks the money question: "You want a Republican or a criminal? The truth is coming out. Be part of the truth."
Remy and Jackie also meet up — Jackie's coat is fantastic, more of this please — and agree to go on the record. She's revealed her affair to her husband, who seems like too gentle a soul for this vicious world, and he says they can quietly divorce after this chaos is over. (HoC men are so chill about affairs. One more makes a trend!) Remy was only keeping quiet to protect Jackie, and now that she's in, he's in.
One last thing: What's more horrifying than a hostage crisis? Laura is coming over to Doug's house to cook him dinner with the scraps of sorrow he keeps in the crisper drawer.