Culture

House of Cards Season 5 Explained

YouTube screenshot.

Netflix released the fifth season of its hit show “House of Cards” this week, and it is a doozy. The new season is thrilling, but it can get more than a bit confusing. Many points leave viewers asking, “What just happened?” “Who was that again?” “Wait, WHAT?!” This article will attempt to answer those questions.

This article will cover each episode in a list format. Spoilers for “House of Cards” Season 5 abound, and the “Load More” button should be taken as a spoiler warning. Feel free to skim to whichever episode proved most confusing.

For those who need a refresher, here is PJ Media’s snarky synopsis of Seasons 1-4.

Once more, hit “Load More” at your own peril, and enjoy!

 

1. “Chapter 53.”

Episode 1 picks up right where Season 4 left off — in the heat of the campaign between President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) with running mate and First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) against Republican Governor Will Conway  (Joel Kinnaman) and his running mate General Brockhart (Colm Feore). At the end of last season, terrorists from the Islamic Caliphate Organization (ICO) seized a Tennessee family. Frank and Conway secured the release of the mother and daughter, but the father was killed.

Season 5 opens with Claire filming a terror-themed campaign ad, and Frank breaking into the House of Representatives to demand a formal declaration of war against ICO. He does this partly to silence the demand for a Congressional investigation following an exposé in The Washington Herald published by Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), uncovering scandals which the audience knows are true.

That powerful funeral scene was in honor of the father killed in the ICO attack, Jim Miller. The daughter, Melissa Miller, blamed Frank for her father’s death, and privately told Frank she hoped he dies so Claire can become president.

The woman Claire visits is the mother of Josh Masterson, a terrorist said to be at large. Claire convinces her to ask her son to turn himself in. But as the FBI closes in on Masterson’s alleged location, the audience sees the angry terrorist himself in a cell with Frank. Frank tells his henchmen Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and Nathan Green (Jeremy Holm) to kill Masterson.

2. “Chapter 54.”

Ken Caswell (William Hill), one of Frank’s old friends from The Citadel, tells Claire that Tim Corbet (David Andrews) is missing and presumed dead. This is a reference to the scenes in Season 1 Episode 8 which imply a homosexual relationship between Frank and Tim Corbet. Caswell even suggests to Claire that “in a different time,” Frank might have come out as gay or bisexual.

Frank’s luncheon with the governors on the pretext of fighting terror really aims to solidify support among the governors of five critical states, including Pennsylvania Governor Jim Matthews (Dan Ziskie), who was vice president in Season 1.

Who is Aidan MacAllen (Damian Young) again? This data analyst joined the Underwoods thanks to LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell), Claire’s campaign manager, in Season 4. Harvey suggested that Frank should use the threat of ICO as an excuse to authorize domestic surveillance, and have MacAllen use the data gathered from spying on the American people to give Frank an edge in the election.

This is an issue where “House of Cards” proved eerily accurate, to some degree. It has been revealed that the Obama administration spied on individuals connected with the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.

In the show, MacAllen delivers the information of 250,000 people to the Underwoods, and uses this data to craft talking points. In this episode, the data analyst is hacking into a telecom switching center to delete data which might implicate him and the Underwoods.

While he is deleting the data, Washington D.C. suffers a cyberattack, which Frank naturally blames on ICO. Conway is taking his kids out to go trick-or-treating (it’s Halloween), but media outlets bombard him with questions, and catch his angry outburst.

3. “Chapter 55.”

A Super PAC backing Conway has turned the angry outburst into a particularly effective campaign ad, an episode meant to highlight the political savvy of a new character, campaign adviser Mark Usher (Campbell Scott). Usher is meant to be mysterious, and a political wild card.

The episode centers around Conway’s 24-hour live Skype session between him and voters — a political ploy which backfires as voters ask Conway to relive his damaging military experience. Such questions weigh on his psyche, bringing back Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Doug Stamper’s anger at Governor Matthews centers around the governor not establishing voting centers or bringing in the National Guard, which he promised Frank he would do. This voting issue becomes important later on.

Frank’s anger at Secretary of State Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson) followed her presenting him with a Mohammad Kalabi, who shares a name with a Syrian national with ICO connections. Frank is mad because arresting this Kalabi would come too late to help him in the election. He is becoming more concerned about his political position.

Frank’s call into Conway’s livestream centered on the president’s decision to keep Conway from continuing his negotiation with the ICO terrorists at the end of Season 4. Frank says the terrorists thought Conway was weak, but it was really a political ploy to take credit for the incident and to steer things toward the death of Jim Miller, which became a pretext for war.

The movie Frank and Claire watch is Double Indemnity, a 1994 film noir about an insurance salesman who lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme to get a double payout. It also involves transportation-related murder… The film is widely considered a classic, and the Underwoods have a tradition of watching it on election night.

4. “Chapter 56.”

As Double Indemnity comes to an end, news comes in that Democratic turnout is low — so low that Frank is likely to lose the election. The focus on turnout is an homage to the liberal idea that the more people vote, the better it is for Democrats.

Throughout the episode, the threat of Mohammed Kalabi allegedly targeting a voting center in Tennessee terrifies Governor Mitch Scanlon (Steve Coulter) and grows to derail the election. It is heavily implied that this entire terror plot has been cooked up as Frank’s last-ditch strategy to prevent Conway from winning the election.

After all, Durant had presented Frank with a different Mohammed Kalabi in the previous episode. It seems he chose to use this man as a terror scapegoat. Durant catches what Frank is up to, and does not approve.

The Atlantic‘s Spencer Kornhaber had a great explanation for Frank’s supposed loss. “The reason for the Underwoods’ apparent defeat—dampened enthusiasm among Democrats for their technocratic candidate accused of corruption—also seemed plenty familiar,” he explained, quoting Hammerschmit who aptly asked, “How many scandals should the public be asked to endure before they say ‘enough?'” Underwoods are Clintons confirmed.

This episode finally reveals the end-game of Sean Jeffries (Korey Jackson), the Hammerschmidt protege who reaches out to Frank’s Press Secretary Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil). Jeffries offers to report on Hammerschmidt to Grayson, so the president can avoid investigation.

It also introduces the relationship between Doug Stamper and Laura Moretti (Wendy Moniz), the widow of Anthony Moretti, the man whom Doug effectively killed by putting Frank Underwood’s name above his for a liver transplant. Doug gave a sizable donation to his memorial trust, and Laura calls to thank him for it in Season 4. In this episode, they sleep together.

In this episode, the Underwoods emerge as utterly corrupt, willing to use terror to manipulate an election. When Doug Stamper says, “The intelligence is classified, governor,” using NSA chatter manufactured by MacAllen, the audience sees the truth.

“The American people don’t know what’s best for them, I do,” Frank declares. Then there’s the chilling line: “Lucky for them, they have me, they have you. Underwood Underwood 2016, 2020, 2024, 2028, 2032, 2036. One nation, Underwood.” With this statement, Frank reveals his megalomania, and the long end-game: to destroy the two-term limit on the presidency and turn America into a Banana Republic. That is the logical conclusion of derailing an election on the pretext of a phony terror threat.

5. “Chapter 57.”

“Not my president!” makes so much more sense in this context. Nine weeks after the election, Frank Underwood is still president. Because two states refused to certify the election results, no one was elected president.

According to the Twelfth Amendment, Congress decides the president if states refuse to certify their electoral votes. This is the reason why third party candidate Evan McMullin ran, and why he had a chance to actually win. This hypothetical, which of course did not happen, becomes reality by Frank Underwood’s design in episode 5.

If no one gets a majority of electoral votes, the House votes for the president and the Senate votes for the vice president. Each state delegation gets one vote. According to the Twelfth Amendment, the Senate chooses the vice president first. But in the show, the Senate defers, afraid of a situation with a president and a vice president from two separate parties. Claire has to push the Senate to vote anyway.

The results are explained in one extremely quick moment very easy to miss. Doug Stamper tells Frank, “The vote is inconclusive, Mr. President, neither you nor Conway to 26.” This means there will be no president for now, but the Senate did elect someone vice president…

But who is Augustus/Eric Rawlings (Malcolm Madera)? He is a character from Season 2 Episode 5, when Frank attends a Civil War re-enactment. Rawlings, a personal trainer who acts on the side, pretended to be Augustus Underwood, and made up quite a few details to tell the vice president. Rawlings’ story about Augustus Underwood rising from the dead is also symbolic — giving Frank hope that he might win the election, despite losing on Election Day and seeming likely to lose in the House of Representatives.

“House of Cards” again features quite a bit of vote “whipping,” and Frank attempts to strong-arm Congressman Alex Romero (James Martinez) into getting him the votes he needs. But Frank’s gruff style backfires, as the ambitious Romero decides against him.

This episode also reintroduces Lisa Williams (Kate Lyn Sheil), lesbian lover to Rachel Posner in Season 2. Doug Stamper killed Rachel in Season 4. Williams approaches Hammerschmidt with more details on the Frank Underwood scandal. While the journalist turns her down in this episode, that seems unlikely to be the end of the story.

6. “Chapter 58.”

Yes. Claire Underwood is acting president. It makes sense you’re confused. Again, the House of Representatives was split between Conway and Frank Underwood. But the Senate voted for Claire as vice president, so in lieu of a president, she became acting president.

Another House vote is coming, and that means more vote-wrangling. Romero uses a ruse with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to determine just how desperate the Underwoods are. CBC leader Terry Womack (Curtiss Cook) even threatens to throw support to the Republican Conway. But the black leaders don’t let Conway get a word in edgewise.

Conway’s blast at Usher is the last straw for this talented advisor. “If you ever talk to me like that again, I’ll make sure you never win another election in your life,” he said. Not five minutes later, Conway verbally assaults him again. The enraged candidate even bullies the pilots on his plane.

With Congress going nowhere, Frank convinces leaders to schedule a re-vote in Tennessee and Ohio. Usher convinces the Claire to agree to open the original Republican and Democratic tickets to the Tennessee Ohio re-vote and that Claire will step down afterward. He also gets a Supreme Court nominee, a major coup.

Meanwhile, Hammerschmidt’s journey to meet the father of Zoe Barnes (remember her from Season 1?) yields a note connecting Doug Stamper to Rachel Posner. Sean Jeffries’ questions made the Herald reporter curious.

The relationship between Claire and writer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) is on the rocks. Yates’ short stories from the last episode would threaten the Underwoods, and Claire tells him so. This episode, he takes his revenge by having sex with a reporter — in the White House press briefing room!

So Russia? President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) reveals that he has Aidan MacAllen, and that it was MacAllen who leaked a report proving that the burnt-down convenience store Claire said was a terrorist attack was merely the victim of a gas leak. The Election Day stunt is unraveling.

7. “Chapter 59.”

Again, what exactly happened? No, the terror threat of a “dirty bomb” isn’t real, either. This time, it’s a military plot to back Conway’s running-mate Ted Brockhart (Colm Feore). That telling interview between Frank and Vanessa Morrison (Mercedes Herrero) makes it clear.

“This was nothing more or less than an attempted coup, plain and simple,” Frank declares. He alleges that military schemers launched the terror attack to keep him off the campaign trail.

In their haste to remake American politics without the Constitution, Claire and Frank seem to have forgotten that parts of the military could go rogue, especially when supporting a candidate with military experience.

Ironically, it is Frank who shoves the head of a Founding Father off its dias in the White House. The Underwoods are trying to remake the country, while this military coup is arguably a last-ditch attempt to save it.

It is possible that more insubordination was responsible for the failure to take out ICO terrorist Akhmed Al-Ahmadi while he was in Damascus, an order Claire gave despite pushback from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The entire episode backfires on the Conway-Brockhart team, however. Brockhart was caught saying he’d refuse to carry out Frank’s orders, and that he would rather “put him out of his misery.” This tarnishes the general’s military credentials, just as Conway is suffering from PTSD.

8. “Chapter 60.”

What is up with that crazy sacrifice? While this “Elysian Fields” retreat is an event of fiction, it echoes the conspiracy theories of many who think that elections can be determined by a few powerful wealthy men, regardless of the will of the people. While elections often come down to a small margin of voters, no one person or group of people knows exactly who must be swayed in a given election.

“While these men here can’t swing the votes of an entire nation, one measly state, well that they can do, and that’s why I’m here,” Frank says. Usher frankly declares, “F*ck Ohio — this is the real campaign.”

Exactly how Frank’s “rocks and dirt” speech convinced the men is anyone’s guess.

Usher has already moved in Frank’s direction, but that recording provided by Pollyhop CEO Benjamin Grant (Daniel Sauli) is the real coup from the event. The powerful men behind everything are pulling for Brockhart, not Conway.

For the confusing Russia-China stuff: The sinking Russian ship is a liability for Petrov — the Russians and Chinese (?!) are trying to hide a top-secret technology that’s also a person (?!), an American — and he does not want the U.S. to intervene. China wants to save the ship. Claire shows deft diplomacy by allowing China to save the people — if they agree to a higher tariff — while the ship still sinks, covering Petrov. But the American on board is lost.

Yes, Usher did actually agree to sabotage the Conway team from the inside. He is on Team Underwood now. Doug Stamper’s premature congratulations notwithstanding, hot mic recordings don’t doom campaigns (see Access Hollywood). But maybe Usher’s work will do it…

9. “Chapter 61.”

“You voted for me. Are you confused? Are you afraid?” The audience is confused.

How did Frank win? That opening section proved Usher’s value — the Republicans did not defend Conway after the recording of his anger went public. Without the party behind him, Conway lost his support due to Usher’s behind-the-scenes sabotage.

Symbolic resignation rejection notwithstanding, there was a key staff shake-up: Claire’s campaign manager LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell) is out, because of her connections with MacAllen, the hacker now held by Petrov. Doug Stamper doesn’t trust Mark Usher, who has become a special advisor. Interestingly, despite Frank ripping up resignation letters, Catherine Durant’s letter remains unscathed…

Harvey lets it slip that “an acquaintance” of hers stole information from the NSA and ran off to Russia. Journalist Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) scores an interview with McAllen in Russia, but he runs out at the last moment, calling LeAnn Harvey.

Thomas Yates, who told Claire last episode that he loved her, is getting cold feet. He refuses to write her speeches.

Frank continues to lead on Congressman Romero, seeming to promise him a line on Medicare in his inauguration speech, and then reneging at the last moment. A furious Romero threatens to restart the Declaration of War committee’s investigation into Frank (remember that, from episode 1?). Frank is too ruthless for his own good. He is alienating potential allies, and even toying with blaming LeAnn Harvey for the “election fraud” she helped them accomplish.

At the very least, Harvey is out, and Doug’s statement, “I don’t have any friends,” was chilling — not just for LeAnn.

That scene with Eric Rawlings? Yes, Underwood is bisexual. He is also creepy as all get out (um … duh). Don’t forget the wonderful little threat Frank gives to Tom (the writer sleeping with Claire), “Don’t cheat on my wife.”

10. “Chapter 62.”

This episode almost centers around Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson), who plays everyone. Davis first emerged in episode 6 in the bunker, but her shadow has been growing, and in this episode Claire asks Usher about her. Davis first tells Frank about the forthcoming Syrian chemical attack in Homs, suggesting he “draw a line in the sand” — a reference to President Obama’s infamous “red line” — to justify an invasion.

Catherine Durant is very hesitant about this idea, and she asks Davis how to prevent it from happening — she has no idea it was Davis’ idea in the first place! Davis encourages Durant to doubt the Underwoods, plotting dissension in the ranks. She reveals her endgame to Usher — she wants Claire to be president, and that involves Frank’s downfall.

On that subject, the “House of Cards” is unraveling in short order. Usher attempts to convince Romero not to have Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) testify, but the young congressman brushes him off. Usher had been grooming Romero for a presidential run, but now encourages him to wait, so Romero no longer trusts him. So Usher leaks the story about Sharp’s long-time relationship with Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) to destroy her credibility.

That matters little, however, as Romero gets former President Garrett Walker (Michael Gill) to testify. Now Usher has to convince Walker to stay mum, which he does off screen.

Frank becomes the instrument of his own undoing, by meeting Walker — ostensibly to convince him not to testify. This tense interaction likely convinces the former president to change his mind, however, putting Frank in serious jeopardy.

Meanwhile, Sean Jeffries is edging into the story on Anthony Moretti, and he has almost all the answers after meeting with former secretary of Health and Human Services whom Doug Stamper bullied into giving Frank the liver meant for Moretti. Doug may be in very hot water.

11. “Chapter 63.”

What is “censure” and why do the Underwoods see it as a way to avoid impeachment? Censure is a formal condemnation of an individual, and Congress has the power to censure a president, which would be “stronger than a simple rebuke, but not as strong as expulsion.” If the Republican House of Representatives were to vote for Frank’s impeachment, the Senate could still downgrade their vote to censure instead.

Why is Doug Stamper reading A Tale of Two Cities? In Season 2, this is the book that Rachel Posner reads aloud to him. This book is a subtle reminder that Rachel’s ghost is very much with Doug, and that Rachel’s old girlfriend Lisa Williams is a recurring problem.

A leak? The story of Mohammed Kalabi, whom the Underwoods said was in Tennessee — just in time to cause a terror scare and suspend the election — has leaked to the press, which is why Doug sets up surveillance in the White House. Frank suspects Catherine Durant, but then she agrees to testify against him, and resigns.

Another leak? Truth behind the voting center closures on Election Day. Now even censure is off the table.

“House of Cards” could not have predicted the long trail of leaks in the Trump White House, but this is an eery reminder…

Both Claire and Frank put away their “distractions” — Claire’s boyfriend Tom and Frank’s boyfriend Eric.

Meanwhile, Laura Moretti (the woman sleeping with Doug Stamper, whose husband he effectively killed by putting Frank first to get a liver transplant) reveals that she always knew Doug had killed her husband, and the entire romantic relationship was a kind of revenge sex.

When Doug tells LeAnn Harvey to turn over MacAllen’s files, she then has sex with him. What is going on with sex in this show?

12. “Chapter 64.”

What did Durant think would happen? Zoe Barnes deja vu.

Sean Jeffries, newly installed in the White House, uses his girlfriend’s sleeping thumbprint to snoop on her texts to Tom Hammerschmidt. This gets Jeffries a meeting with Frank, who now learns that the Washington Herald reporter has Zoe Barnes’ burner phone. But apparently some of these texts were fake…

Then Frank makes the coldest decision yet — to make Doug Stamper, his most loyal staffer — take the fall for Zoe Barnes’ death. Does Doug’s set of greeting cards prove he was the leak?

Loyal to a fault and tortured with grief after having killed Rachel Posner, Doug confesses to killing Zoe (something the audience knows he didn’t do).

What is the deal with Claire and her boyfriend Tom’s last night together? Hate sex barely covers it. Tom wrote a manuscript revealing top-secret details, so Claire decides she has no choice but to kill him, and she uses a sexual meeting at Usher’s house to do the deed. Jane Davis explained a Chinese potion that can easily become a poison, and it seems Claire put it into Tom’s whiskey.

The episode also might be a nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in many ways.

Ironically, most of the loose ends and threats to Frank were tied up: Zoe Barnes’ death will be pinned on Doug, the false arrest of Kalabi explained away by Durant, and Aidan McAllen will be blamed for the hacking. But it appears that Davis has convinced Frank that real power means being the force behind the scenes — “the Koch brother types, Wall Street, oil and gas.”

So Frank Underwood, the same man who gave the “One Nation, Underwood” speech, is out. His testimony avoids implicating Claire, and he is once again “Not My President!”

13. “Chapter 65.”

Why does Romero drop the investigation into Frank? Frank and Usher have evidence of Romero’s past — a gang rape in college.

But who was the leak? Frank himself. He sabotaged his own presidency, in exchange for the kind of power wielded from afar by the likes of Raymond Tusk. His self-sabotaging moves (like visiting with President Walker in episode 10) start to make more sense. “Real power isn’t about who lives at the White House. It’s who owns the White House,” he tells Claire. But now she has the power — to pardon him or not.

“House of Cards” again becomes a game of musical chairs, with Sean Jefferies in, Seth Grayson out, LeAnn Harvey out, Doug Stamper out. LeAnn isn’t just out, either. Joining her in likely death is Eric Rawlings, Frank’s ex-lover, who climbed the White House fence and was shot.

That passage Doug hears in A Tale of Two Cities is the last statement of Sydney Carton, before he leaves the woman he loves. Later, he sacrifices himself in place of Charles Darnay, the man who will marry this woman. His final words are better known: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” That kind of noble sentiment seems rather removed from “House of Cards,” but does it suggest a final redemption for Doug?

Frank shows a very different attitude when he burns his lit cigar into the Oval Office flag.

Jane Davis is clearly pulling the strings, offering to Claire to arrange Frank’s death and convincing Claire to send troops into Syria. But Usher has his own leverage — the body of Tom Yates on ice.

“House of Cards” always seemed likely to follow the rise and fall narrative of the original British television show. Season 3 looked like the beginning of the fall, until Season 4 propped the Underwoods up again. This season had them rise and then fall, hard. It seems Netflix is testing the waters, hoping for a few more seasons with Frank rising in the private sector as Claire struggles in the White House.

Or Jane Davis and Mark Usher could work together to destroy Frank and Claire in one more season. Season 5 had a rambling, almost aimless feel, and that might hurt its success. It might be time for Netflix to topple the house, and build a new, more disciplined show, with the same political intrigue but perhaps a leading couple who are a bit less dark. Maybe Conway-Conway, 2020?