House of Cards Season 5, Episode 6: The Live-Binge Review

Claire takes charge.


As in previous years, I’m binge-reviewing the latest season of Netflix’s House of Cards, the TV show that helped popularize the idea of “binge watching” when it premiered in 2013. Don’t read farther than you’ve watched. (The whole series will appear here.)

Episode 6 (Chapter 58)

President Claire says she doesn’t feel any different now that she’s ascended to the highest office, but Frank immediately calls her a liar for that, and he’s right. For one thing, she’d have to feel a bit flossy in that fetching blue dress with gold buttons (squint and it’s a muted cousin to what Kellyanne Conway wore on Inauguration Day). And in her private moments Claire is obviously experiencing some new pangs. She’s spending late nights lovingly rifling through the nuclear briefcase. She’s fantasizing about nixing her husband’s security clearance.

But perhaps that last instance—when her pen skipped the box next to Frank Underwood’s name and then finally returned to it—wasn’t a sign of new feelings at all. Quiet competition between the spouses has been a constant in this show, and Claire’s resentment triggered the domestic dispute of a season ago that resulted in her improbable nomination for vice president. Their contretemps may feel like a faint memory by now, but it appears she still toys with the idea of ditching her husband and his low approval ratings.

Whatever Claire’s deepest desires, she seemed to opt for the most selfless options of all the convoluted, Veep-ian gambits presented this episode: having Tennessee’s and Ohio’s citizens vote again—which LeAnn said could be ideal for Frank but not ideal for her—while agreeing to step down from the vice presidency if Conway ultimately triumphs. She told Frank that she went along with this idea, proposed by Mark Usher, because she believed Usher was actually trying to get Conway’s running mate Ted Brockhart into the top spot, and his mixed loyalties were exploitable.

I’m not clear on how exactly she knew Usher’s Brockhart plan, nor am I clear on the sincerity of Frank’s “I did, I do, we’re perfectly in sync” to the question of whether he understands her maneuver. But it’s obvious with Frank laying on the floor, stressed, that he is straining to show grace at the fact that he’s no longer commander in chief nor spouse in chief. The episode’s final shot also felt like it might be connected to the other mentions of Frank’s health this episode (the war reenactor hired as fitness trainer, the admonition by Claire for him to watch his heart) in the foreshadowing of yet another twist, this one medical.

We’ve already got a full-blown health crisis going on with Conway, whose season-long crackup reached a frightening culmination in the cockpit of his campaign’s plane. Joel Kinnaman’s acting is doing a lot here, and I haven’t decided whether it’s all to the good—he seems to have decided on a routine of crazy eyes, followed by a calm blankness, followed by a violent explosion, in scene after scene. More importantly, it feels like a cheap plot convenience for the Underwoods’ chief political rival to be psychologically brittle to the point of disqualification.

But Conway’s troubles do fit with a series-long motif of the steely Underwoods winning out while others in their field succumb to human fragility. See: Peter Russo. Perhaps also eventually see: Doug Stamper, clearly freaking out as he struggles to put out every Underwood-related brush fire before they become conflagrations. With Seth digging into his dalliance with Laura Moretti, and with Sean and Hammerschmidt now separately digging into the fate of Rachel Posner, Doug seems more and more exposed—and emotionally less and less stable.

The many, many such micro-threats to the Underwoods on display, combined with the knottiness of the post-election constitutional crisis, are creating a feeling of complication and slog as we enter mid-season. With Aidan as Edward Snowden proxy, Petrov as Putin proxy, and the surreptitious invasion of Antarctica a surreptitious invasion-of-Ukraine proxy, the show also feels more than ever like a current-events grab-bag. There have been a few good lines spicing things up—“I’m excited you’ve developed a personality at this late date” was a great burn from Frank, and Doug’s “everyone trusts the FBI” is nice meta-sarcasm. But in this jumble, what should viewers pay the most attention to? I think, as usual, it’s the marriage at the center of the show.

Previously: Season 5, Episode 5

Next Up: Season 5, Episode 7