House of Cards Season Finale Recap: The Extreme Always Seems to Make an Impression

Kevin Spacey as Frank. Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix
House of Cards
Episode Title
Chapter 52
Editor’s Rating

We begin the season finale where we began the season premiere: Prison. Except, as in all HoC things, the situation has escalated. We're in Guantanamo Bay, taking Yusuf out for a little field trip to the White House.

The kidnappers still only want to talk to Conway. Frank ropes Conway into an elaborate lie and lets the kidnappers know he is disinterested in their desires; the money and military exit from Syria won't happen. Frank makes a deal: If they release the Millers, he'll put Yusuf on the line. The kidnappers are like, nah, we'll kill them instead. Very reasonable negotiators, these young terrorists. Frank gives them 10 seconds to comply: "You will release the daughter and the mother or you will never hear from me again and you will lose the chance to hear from your leader." Welp, they already hung up.

Conway is pissed and threatens to tell the press that Frank "put words in his mouth." Oh, Conway, have you not seen the headline? "Conway Lied, Intelligence Committee Member Claims" is all over the news. George, bless his Purple Heart, came through. Conway is out of control, chiding reporters for not focusing on the Miller family, losing what little goodwill Brockhart still had for him, and snapping at his wife and kids.

Yusuf finds himself bearded-face-to-perfect-face with Claire, who offers him a shower and clean clothes, which he takes, and a hot meal, which he refuses. "I think your intention is to humiliate me," he says. How? "I'm sitting across from a woman." "There's no reason to keep up the façade," Claire replies. "You and your brother are not fundamentalists, nor are you Syrian. You're Iraqi." TWIST. He's not even using his real name, though by House of Cards standards, that's a pretty innocuous lie.

"You don't care about Islam or the caliphate," Claire says. "You're just using that to radicalize the soldiers."

"Just as you use democracy and freedom."

Did Yusuf think he could shake the unshakeable Claire? She just nods. "So now we understand each other."

He is skeptical of all the promises Claire is making, that the U.S. can put the military back in control if Yusuf keeps his soldiers in check. "We need to give the appearance that we neutralized ICO," she tells him. Even though the U.S. can't completely destroy ICO, "we can do enough to make you irrelevant," which is something of an Underwood specialty.

She thinks he'll be willing to make a compromise for access to his family — or, at least, for their safety. Yusuf helpfully refreshes Claire's memory re: what terrorists do and are willing to do. Everyone is willing to die, even his children. "We're effective because we make you feel the pain," he says. Not wrong, this guy.

Herald Tom shows Seth a draft of his Underwood-destroyer story. Seth, spin doctor, believes the piece is un-spin-able. Doug offers to leak the Jackie/Remy photos, but those lovebirds have already come clean to Tom about their affair — the story, naturally, includes a juicy tidbit about how Doug "threatened to expose them." Frank's voice drops an octave as he turns to Doug: "This is on you." Doug internally whimpers, like a puppy struck on the nose by a rolled-up magazine, for he knows he has disappointed his master, his keeper, the source of light in the Sadness Cave of his heart.

Frank invites Tom to an off-the-record conversation, and dismisses the whole story as "blatant sensationalism." He accuses Tom of caring only about circulation, which is so cute and old-timey. "Circulation." It's traffic, Frank! Get with the times. (The Conways would totally know that.) "Sir, I don't float stories to see if they're seaworthy, and I don't give a shit about circulation," Tom says. He knows he has news — and Frank confirms as much just by meeting with him.

"Why are you wasting America's time with this, in the middle of a crisis?" Frank asks. "Where is your conscience?" But Tom is unmoved: "That's the question I want you to answer."

Brief intermission: We've got a location on Caroline and Melissa Miller. They are blindfolded and duct-taped and who even knows how psychologically damaged, but otherwise, they are unharmed! It appears the kidnappers did not follow through on their threats to cut out Melissa's tongue. So, there's that. Will Conway responds in a way that definitely makes him seem like a human person and not at all like an soulless A.I. machine: He's angry that Frank will take all the credit. Hannah asks how he would feel if it were her and Lilly, Conway's loving response is, "Don't get weak on me." What a catch.

Claire gets — well, she thinks she gets — Yusuf to agree to her terms. Back into the jumpsuit he goes!

Frank and Tom resume their conversation, in which Tom says that he doesn't believe Frank is a murderer but — holy progress! — "it's becoming harder not to entertain the thought." Tom believes Lucas was right, though: "You're ruthless, corrupt. You destroy whatever is in your path." Frank is all, "Corruption is a matter of perspective." Tom: "It's a matter of law." For a minute, it seems like Tom is starting to buy into Frank's version of events, but thank freaking goodness for the sake of plot progression, he then tells Frank he doesn't believe a word he said.

Sidebar: Frank's atrocities remind me of the kind of tricks the Trunchbull pulled in Matilda. How did she get away with grabbing a kid by the pigtails, spinning her around, and throwing her over the schoolyard fence? Because it's too ridiculous to be believed. Honestly, I would not be surprised to find out Frank has a copy of this classic on his bedside table. "Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous," is basically his mantra.

Here's something crazy: The terrorists held captive in Gitmo are not necessarily reliable allies. They have nothing to lose and are willing to be killed, like, whenever. So when Yusuf Skypes with the kidnappers, he follows the English script for all of 14 seconds before telling Josh and Zach in Arabic: "Release the video. If they don't send me home, kill him. If they find you, kill him."

To this I say: They don't have someone who speaks Arabic on this project? No one in the Situation Room speaks Arabic? As soon as Yusuf stopped speaking English, everyone looked at each other like HOW COULD WE HAVE SEEN THIS COMING and it's like … how could you not have seen this coming?

The kidnappers share the video, of course, which is promptly shown on every news station everywhere. Other breaking news: "Underwood's Crooked Path to the Oval Office" is blasted across the Herald homepage. Seth's phone is blowing up. And the house where James Miller was allegedly held is empty.

It seems like all things Underwood are about to fall apart. But Claire, who has adamantium pumping through her veins, knows the solution. Frank asks if they should "create chaos" and Claire pushes further: "More than chaos." Frank looks startled, but also super turned-on. "I'm done trying to win over people's hearts," she says, and he responds, "Let's attack their hearts."

"We can work with fear," Claire says. Frank, in a vicious repurposing of Obama's slogan, replies, "Yes we can."

They summon Mistress Tom for a speech. He wants to know if Herald Tom's article is true, and Claire says no. "That's the first time you've lied to me since you stopped lying to me." Ugh, Tom, you're in public.

Frank delivers his speech from the Oval Office. It is a fear-mongering masterpiece. "ICO will be destroyed. We are at war. It will be a war more total than anything we have waged thus far in the fight against extremism. Soldiers will die. Civilians may die." Is this supposed to encourage people to vote for him? "We will be confronted with the most horrific aspects of humanity. […] But we will triumph."

Cathy, who basically has X-ray vision when it comes to Frank, confronts him. She cannot believe this is how he responds to a bad story and that he would, oh, you know, declare total war without consulting his secretary of state. Doug kneels at Frank's feet, his tongue wagging, promising to stay by his side forevermore. But Frank is like, "Uh, go home."

Doug goes to visit his widowed girlfriend Laura, and it is not weird at all. I can't tell you how thrilled I am that — at this genuinely exciting juncture, plot-wise — we are wasting valuable end-of-season minutes in a sedan with Doug and Mrs. Morretti. (A different road trip I can get behind, though: Jackie and Remy, driving off together to someplace far away from Frank.)

At 9:00, the kidnappers slit James Miller's throat, live on the internet.

Claire and Frank are stone. They sit under the presidential seal. Frank looks at us. "That's right. We don't submit to terror. We make the terror." (It's all very "I am the one who knocks.") They look at each other, and then at us — both of them! Claire breaks the fourth wall for the first time. Just with her eyes. For now.