In House of Cards, as in life, everything improves when bumbling, boring men get out of the way and let formidable, complicated women take over. How much better is the second half of this episode than everything we’ve seen so far? It’s an improvement by miles, all thanks to the welcome return of Patricia Clarkson’s sultry, slippery Jane and the elevation of Diane Lane’s folksy-on-the-outside, lethal-underneath Annette, worthy scene partners and sometime adversaries for Robin Wright’s slick, regal Claire. An honorable mention should go to Jayne Atkinson for her Cathy Durant, who did her very best to avoid getting murdered. Unlike so many Underwood victims, she escaped not once but twice — but of course, the third time was the charm. (Or was it? I feel like on HoC, it’s never-say-die until you see the body. But maybe I’m overthinking it.)
“Women are truly the best, aren’t they?” Claire tells Judge Abruzzo, a SCOTUS hopeful she has been strong-armed into interviewing by Mark and the Shepherds. He pauses for far too long.
Brief caveat: This episode introduces two handsome men and I think it is important to acknowledge them now, because reader service. Nasser (which is pronounced like “Nassar” so, not a great choice, considering) is maybe a terrorist? He’s a Syrian who is in with ICO, the terrorist group that is threatening more attacks. Also, we meet Congressman Cole, who’s doing extra public service just by looking so sharp in a suit. He did something stupid in his past that Doug can make go away to clear a path to the coveted job of Speaker of the House.
After he leaves, Claire vents to Mark about how she “felt emasculated” by Bill’s literal forcing of her hand on that bill. I’m intrigued by Claire’s use of that word, “emasculated.” Why does someone so certain of her femininity and her power associate masculinity with strength and the taking away thereof with weakness? Isn’t she above that kind of thing? Claire also reveals that she can tell Bill is sick, explaining her meeting with the doctor last episode.
Bill is one of those guys who probably sees himself as a modern Thomas Jefferson, nostalgic for an era in which he never lived, when D.C. was a “small southern town” (built by slaves) and not some heathen-ridden city created by a socialist overlord (FDR). Why is he pontificating to his sister? I would never let a sibling just ramble at me that way, especially if we were both billionaires. As he talks, I write in my notes: Oh, he likes state’s rights. He’s one of THOSE white people. Do people typically talk to each other while standing side-by-side, staring out a window? Also, that is some very sensual sister-hair-smoothing, Bill. Seth barrels in to say that Claire’s had three abortions, which they can use against her. Annette is not interested.
Claire meets with Cathy, who knows exactly what’s up, because, to her credit, she usually does. She offers up that her memory could be “erratic” if Claire needs it to be — “I just might forget my time in office altogether!” — while Claire basically tells her not to take a think tank job that’s too close to government for (Claire’s) comfort. Cathy responds by saying she can still feel Frank’s hand on her back. Hmm. I’m not sure this was a smart play. And this hunch of mine is proven correct when Claire brings Jane into the fold and just straight-up puts a hit on the former secretary of state. I MEAN.
Also back in the fold: Doug, who is riding around with Claire and helping her have Cathy murdered. Everyone discusses this quite calmly. I worry about what all these drivers must know. Claire wants it to look like complications from the fall; Doug says he can get Cathy’s detail pulled. Claire says some hokey thing about Frank telling her she and Doug should look out for each other and I shout “STOP” at my screen. NO ONE CARES ABOUT FRANK ANYMORE EXCEPT THE TWO OF YOU.
Meanwhile, the Herald has been bought by Gardner Analytics, which means it has been bought by the Shepherds. Gardner Analytics has been buying up local media and owns Beltway TV, where Melody Cruz is prominently featured. Strong Sinclair vibes all around. The man on the ground is their fantastically trash son, Duncan, a nightmare millennial who dresses like the “bad” member of a ’90s boy band. Tom goes on some crotchety rant about how “no one writes stories anymore.” Isn’t this the same plot from when Slugline first came on the scene? Tom quits and meets with Doug, the man he called a murderer in print, to yell the names of dead people at him and beg Doug to tell him what he knows. “The only person who knows everything is you.”
As for the mystery of Frank’s death, which it appears we’re all supposed to care about now, the autopsy says overdose by liver medication, but Doug is not convinced.
Okay, back to the ladies. Jane arrives at the Oval to have this wonderful back and forth with Claire, in which they’re simultaneously talking about the Syrian strategy, Petrov, the Shepherds, Frank’s death, and God. It ends with Claire inviting Jane to move into the White House. Maybe one day later, Claire is telling Jane to have Cathy killed. Jane does not sound sold in the moment, but later she gets Cathy to meet her in a restaurant where Cathy can just TELL she is about to be killed, so she BOLTS OUT. Jane is lounging with her back to the wall, looking cool as hell, as Cathy’s car peels out. Cathy, queen of chutzpah, calls Jane to ream her out for this homicide attempt; Jane, sounding almost bored, says, “Once a decision is made, you can’t escape. Maybe it won’t happen today. But someday.” Cathy’s totally rational response: “I curse you. And wish you a painful death. Drawn out and excruciating.” To which Jane replies, “I don’t want to disappoint you. That’s not how I’m going to die.”
One scene later, Cathy is manhandled into the back of an SUV. By the end of the episode, Claire reports that Cathy is dead. But said death happens off-screen so we have no idea what went down. I say: YES TO ALL OF THIS. It’s over-the-top but in the most entertaining and bananas and somehow still fitting way. Why did House of Cards ever star men at all?
Mark, fresh from a tryst with Annette, tells Claire to go with Abruzzo. Whatever, who cares about Mark? Let’s get to the good stuff.
In the Oval, Jane and Claire are talking about Duncan’s past misdeeds. Some prep school drugs, a gripping transcript, charges conveniently erased from the young Shepherd’s record. Annette arrives in an absolutely fabulous dress and with perfect hair. I know that all these women are dangerous and vicious and immoral, etc., etc., but I cannot lie: What a thrill to see three women alone in the Oval Office, just holding court amongst themselves, without a man in sight.
After a little aside about The Second Sex — “You’ve gotta admit, she was right about everything;” Lord, give me Patricia Clarkson’s impeccable delivery — Jane leaves Claire and Annette alone. Claire sees Annette’s “Claire Hale” and raises her an “Annie.” Nothing like a nickname from the archives to put someone in their place. One carefully-placed remark about Duncan’s old mugshot and Annie’s a changed woman. “You’re the president. You should do what you want.”
Claire tells her deputy press girl Kelsey that Tom Yates has been using his credit card “in and around Prague,” which I must admit is a perfect cover story. It is extremely Tom to ghost on D.C. to bop around eastern Europe. Claire is feeling all smug and loose-ends-tied-up as she heads out for her evening run, until Mark intercepts her to show her the collateral the Shepherds set up for her: Tom Yates’s body. Forgive me for posing such a gross question, but: If Claire’s been president for over 100 days, would his body really be in such good condition? Please provide your gruesome counsel on this matter in the comments!