The House of Cards series recap: Everything you need to know before the final season premieres
Before Kevin Spacey was removed from the final season of House of Cards following allegations of sexual misconduct, the Netflix series, its first big-budget foray into TV — an idea that was a bit of a gambit at the time —was already well on its way to making Claire Underwood the focus of its story. There’s no telling how everything would have played out (even with the U.K. series there as a predecessor) but if the first five seasons told us anything, it’s that both Claire and Frank Underwood would do anything to get into power and that Claire wasn’t about to settle for playing second fiddle to her husband.
The bodies have piled up, as noted below, and the Underwood have taken control of Washington. Zoe Barnes, Peter Russo, and Tom Yates all died as the ruthless couple clambered their way to the top, and many more have been sacrificed in their name. The goal? To have complete power, and at the end of last season, that’s what they had. Frank had ascended to the presidency and then stepped down amidst scandal in order to wield his influence in the private sector while Claire stepped in as president. But how did we get there? What major events defined the Underwoods up to that point? Below is a recap of the major machinations, deaths, and plot points from the first five seasons. Give them a read and you’ll be all caught up on the drama, and ready to dive into the sixth and final season.
- It doesn’t take long for the first season of House of Cards to establish that Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the focus of the entire season, is a ruthless man. The very first scene sees him kill a dog. Sure, it’s technically a “mercy” kill, but he enjoys it way too much.
- Frank develops a romantic, (I use that word very loosely), creepy, power-fueled relationship with a reporter named Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), whom he tips off with stories that benefit him politically.
- Frank is just a Congressman as the season begins, but he uses Zoe to take down the Secretary of State and get himself installed in the position.
- Frank then uses a congressman with a drinking problem, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), to wield influence over a governor’s race, but when Peter begins to inspire people with his rags-to-riches story, Frank decides to destroy him…and I don’t mean politically. He hires Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), a prostitute originally found with Russo when he was pulled over for a DUI, to seduce him and convince him to drink heavily the night before an important radio interview. The sloppy interview ruins Peter’s chances at becoming Governor, but that’s not enough for Frank, so he murders Peter by suffocating him in his car in a parking garage and making it look like a suicide. It’s not the only murder he’ll commit this season, and far from the only one he’ll condone later on.
- As the season’s power plays unfold, Frank finds himself in the role of Vice President of the United States. It’s exactly where he wants to be. Well, almost exactly where he wants to be. That President’s desk looks awfully comfy.
- So, remember Zoe Barnes from the first season? Well, she’s dangerous to Frank now, so he does what’s becoming common for him: he pushes her in front of a subway train. Yes, that’s in the first episode of the season. House of Cards just throwing it all out there right off the bat.
- This season is all about Frank gunning for the presidency. So, he goes after the sitting president and secretly exposes his marital problems through back channels. Then he sets about discrediting Zoe Barnes’ journalist boyfriend, Lucas, who knows Frank had something to do with her death and gets him locked up in prison after luring him into some shady online dealings.
- Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Frank’s chief of staff, attempts to keep Rachel Posner quiet about the Peter Russo business by moving her out of Washington and setting her up with a new life. But Doug becomes obsessed with her and balks at her new relationship with a woman named Lisa. Doug forces Rachel out of her bed in the middle of the night and drives her into the middle of nowhere, not saying a word, as we all have horrible flashbacks to Adriana in The Sopranos. Rachel escapes though, running into the woods and then attacking Doug when he follows, bashing him over the head with a rock, and the second season leaves us wondering if he’s dead.
- Finally, Claire (Robin Wright) becomes a character. Her big moment this season is telling the truth about the sexual abuse she went through at the hands of a high-ranking military figure. It’s the first instance we see of Claire moving out of her world of business and non-profits and into the political arena. She becomes a champion of military reform and women’s rights, and a force to be reckoned with.
- Through a series of complicated dealings with businessman billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), Frank gets the president to resign and is sworn in himself.
- Frank’s main villain this season is Victor Petrov, the Russian president, and their clashes make for some of the show’s best work. A lot of this season is wonky, boring political machinations, but the inclusion of Petrov, and Claire’s involvement in going up against him, is solid.
- Also in this season, Frank must vie to be the Democratic nominee for president since he just stepped into the role. He promises Heather Dunbar that he won’t run in the primary, leaving her with the nomination, but of course, he goes back on his word.
- Claire is finally tired of being second to Frank and sets out on her own to become the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She’s denied the position, but Frank gives her a recess appointment anyway. It’s through this appointment that the season’s most powerful story takes place. Claire travels to Russia to talk with Petrov not only about settling a dispute in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also to advocate for the release of an LGBT activist, Michael Corrigan, who has been imprisoned. Claire begs Michael to publicly deny his sexual orientation so that he can live to fight another day, but he refuses. Claire wakes up to find him dead, hanging from a rope in his cell.
- Claire’s denunciation of Petrov creates a feud between the U.S. and Russia. Petrov will only sign Frank’s necessary peace deal if Claire resigns, and Frank forces her to do just that. This leads to the most substantial crack in the Underwood marriage yet, as Claire ends the season by walking out on the president as he’s preparing to leave for the important Iowa caucus. Oh, and Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) is introduced this season; the writer will have more than his fair share of access to the Underwoods in future seasons.
- Doug Stamper is not dead. He finds his way back to Washington, infiltrates the Dunbar campaign, and works his way back into Frank’s good book. Then he really goes off the deep end, because Frank needs to know all the loose ends involving Peter Russo are tied up. So, he tracks down Rachel Posner and kills her, running her over with his car in the middle of the desert.
- This season is largely defined by the Underwoods doing battle against one another. By season’s end they’ll be back on the same page, but for most of its 13 episodes, Claire and Frank go up against each other in the political arena.
- That means sabotaging each other. When Claire goes after a seat in Congress in her hometown of Dallas, Frank supports the woman she’s running against. In retaliation, Claire’s political consultant LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell) leaks a photo of Frank’s father posing with a member of the KKK and uses it in conjunction with a photo Frank once took with a Confederate reenactor. All of this leads to political losses for both Underwoods.
- The biggest moment of this season comes when Lucas, the journalist boyfriend of Zoe Barnes, is freed from prison. He tries desperately to reveal the truth about Frank Underwood’s corruption and grabs for power—not to mention the whole murder thing—but when no one will believe him, he takes matters into his own hands. He tries to assassinate the president but ends up taking out Frank’s bodyguard/occasional threesome partner Edward Meechum. Lucas dies too when Meechum gets one heroic shot off before his death. It’s so dramatic, you guys.
- Frank still gets shot though, and that means he needs a liver transplant to save his life. He gets one after Doug Stamper gets the Secretary of Health to manipulate the donor list, which sets up Doug’s own struggles later on, knowing that he bumped someone else down the list. He eventually gets romantically involved with the widow of the man he bumped, which is every bit as weird as it sounds.
- By the end of the season, the assassination attempt has brought the Underwoods back together, and they realize they’re more powerful as a cohesive unit, and the open Democratic convention sees the people elect Claire as Frank’s Vice Presidential candidate. They know working together is going to be necessary going forward, as they, and we, are introduced to their newest political opponent, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), a young vet and the Republican candidate for president.
- The only other potential foe for the Underwoods is Tom Hammerschmidt, the Washington Herald editor who takes up Lucas’ mantle and begins investigating the couple and publishing articles about their corruption.
- Hey, remember Tom Yates, the sullen writer who was sleeping with Claire and seemed to be welcomed into the life of the Underwoods in almost every way? Well, he’s dead now because the draft of his new book was a little too “tell all” for Claire, so she poisons him after a fireside roll in the hay. Oh, House of Cards, you will never change.
- Doug is set to take the fall for Zoe Barnes’ murder? Is that what happened? It sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what Frank orders his loyal sidekick to do. We’ll see if he goes through with it this season, and how it all plays out, especially with Frank being written out of the show.
- There’s a chance that LeAnn Harvey is dead in a car crash, but we don’t know for sure. Something feels shady about it.
- This season sees Frank wage war on the ICO terrorists, the most prominent of whom is an American. Claire gets the man’s mother to go in front of the media and ask him to turn himself in, but that doesn’t work. Well, not exactly. As it turns out, Frank’s had him captured the whole time, and then he has him killed. No trial, no media, nothing. It all serves to make Frank look tough on terror.
- A fake terrorist threat executed by hacker Aidan MacAllan helps swing the election in favor of the Underwoods, who are coming mighty close to losing to Will Conway. The whole election plot is so convoluted. There’s a concession, two “terrorist” attacks, votes from the House and Senate, and then Claire being temporarily sworn in as President before Frank once again takes over.
- Conway goes down once and for all when Frank obtains footage of him losing it on a flight where he demands that the pilots allow him to fly the plane. It’s…not a good look, and suggests he’s suffering from PTSD.
- Frank adds yet another body to his list by pushing Cathy Durant down the stairs. She’s not dead, but still, that’s some violent stuff, Frank! All to stop her from testifying against him.
- So, eventually Frank resigns from the presidency, and his plan is supposedly to wield power in the private sector while Claire controls the government. All he needs is a presidential pardon from his wife. So the season ends with Claire refusing to give him the pardon, Doug admitting to a murder he didn’t commit, and Claire asserting that she’s going to be the Underwood with all the power now.
Season Six of House of Cards hits Netflix Friday, Nov. 2.
House of Cards
Ballots, betrayal, and barbecue combine in Netflix’s original drama, which stars Kevin Spacey as cunning congressman Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his equally ruthless Lady Macbeth. Based on a 1990 BBC serial of the same name.