In the fifth and sixth episodes of House of Cards, the series’s plot begins to thicken like the glaze on Freddy’s ribs. These hours give us more insight into the Underwoods’ twisted marriage, show a turning point for poor Peter Russo, and present something we never could have seen coming — Frank faltering in a very public way.
The biggest curveball thrown by Chapter 5’s first scenes isn’t the fact that Frank and Zoe’s relationship has become sexual — it’s that Claire both knows and doesn’t care that her husband is cheating on her. Frank says he’s only involved with the cub reporter because “she can be controlled;” he also tells his wife that he’ll end things with the other woman the moment she asks. These two have clearly done this dance before — they’re like the Graysons on Revenge, except they don’t actively despise each other.
Speaking of Zoe: After quitting the Herald, she sets off to join the staff of Slugline, an up-and-coming political news site where everyone writes exactly what they want all the time and never has to worry about being edited. Also, their offices don’t have any chairs. (Chairs are so over! The future’s all about the floor!) It’s a veritable wonderland for the young muckraker — and when Zoe hears that her old editor got fired for not retaining her at the paper, she should be even more pleased with herself.
Things are not going quite so well in Peter Russo’s neck of the woods. In Chapter 4, he had to sit back and allow a shipyard in his district to be closed as a consequence of Frank’s wheeling and dealing. The fallout from that moment is really doing a number on him psychologically — and is driving his self-destructive behavior to new heights. After getting wasted, he decides it would be a good idea to head to Frank’s house and beat the crap out of him.
Of course, Peter doesn’t have the stones to follow through on that impulse. Frank invites him inside, feeds him, and asks him to get into a fresh bath. Then Underwood drops a bomb: He wants to tell the DNC that Peter would be a good candidate for governor of Pennsylvania. In his present state, though, he’s no good to anyone. “The hot water will open up your capillaries. The aspirin you just took will make your blood thinner. It’s up to you, Peter,” Frank says, taking out a razor and putting it on the bathtub. “Oh, and if you do decide to take the coward’s way out, cut along the tracks, not across them. That’s a rookie mistake.” Then he leaves the room. Daaaaamn.
Thankfully, Russo elects not to take Frank’s fatal bait. By Chapter 6, which takes place nearly a month later, we learn that he’s been sober since that night at the Underwood place — and that he’s ready to put himself into the gubernatorial race.
Before Frank can worry about that, he’ll have to figure out how to end the teachers’ strike that began last episode. Union leader Marty Spinella is furious at the congressman for lying about the final version of his all-important education bill — and after more than three weeks, he and his comrades aren’t backing down. The protest is now starting to escalate into violence; as the episode opens, someone throws a brick through the Underwoods’ front window. Marty denies responsibility, but the court of public opinion seems in Frank’s favor… until the opponents agree to debate each other on CNN.
The appearance is an unmitigated disaster for Frank. He doesn’t just screw up — he fails spectacularly, tanking after a bit of wordplay totally gets away from him (“There is no ‘U’ and ‘I’ in ‘education.’ Of course, the letters ‘U’ and ‘I’ are in the word ‘education.’ But education with a capital E? You know what I’m talking about”). The flub instantly goes viral, making Frank a public laughing stock and destroying his chances of coming out of the protest victorious…
… until he and his chief of staff get wind of a fortunate tragedy. A third grader has been shot and killed; Frank gets Zoe to tweet about the accident, adding, “Should have been in school. Spinella to blame?” That’s enough to get Frank a one-0n-one meeting with Spinella. There, the congressman reveals that he engineered the brick being thrown through his own window, taunts Marty with a pitch-black version of Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen’s “Know how I know you’re gay?” routine, and otherwise provokes the union leader so expertly that Spinella ends up punching Frank in the face — thus playing right into Underwood’s hands. Assaulting a congressman is a felony; Frank won’t press charges as long as the strike ends.
As the episode concludes, Frank and Claire smoke and scheme. She’s just come back from seeing her husband’s old bodyguard, who’s dying of cancer. After the poor guy confessed that he’s in love with her but hates her husband, Claire responded with a monologue that reveals why she married Frank: In short, he both understands and mirrors the darkness inside her. Zoe Barnes better watch her back.