Characters face endings and beginnings as the first season of Netflix's experiment draws to a close

By Hillary Busis
February 01, 2013 at 10:00 AM EST
Patrick Harbron/Netflix

After the Shakespearean heights House of Cards has tried to hit throughout its first season, it’s curious to see the show’s maiden voyage conclude so anti-climactically — with a “dramatic” close-up on Frank’s phone and a muted shot of Frank pulling ahead of Claire on their late-night job. Get it? Because he’s in the running to become Vice President?

The season’s true climax, of course, came a few episodes earlier, when Frank straight-up murdered Peter Russo — and staged his death to look like a suicide. Though I was certain that Russo would be a goner before the season ended, I couldn’t have guessed that he’d die at Frank’s hands… and honestly, I’m not sure how crazy I am about this development. Wouldn’t Frank know not to commit such a heinous crime in a garage that must boast 24/7 security surveillance? Wouldn’t he think it more prudent to simply wait and let Peter drink himself to death? And wouldn’t knowing what his boss just did be a little too much, even for someone as inexplicably loyal as Doug?

Let’s put a pin in that for the moment and go back to the beginning of Chapter 11, which begins, fittingly enough, with everyone realizing that Russo’s campaign is utterly bankrupt. This means that there’s a hole in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, one that can only be filled at this late date by a sure thing: Vice President Matthews, who’s unhappy enough with his current job to consider Frank’s idea. (It’s so crazy, it just might work!)

Just a few string-pulling sessions later, Frank meets with Linda, who’s the first one to understand his true grand scheme: Underwood wants Matthews to go back to Pennsylvania so that he can secure the vice presidential seat for himself, then use his experience to spearhead his own presidential campaign in 2020. (Or possibly 2016, if he manages to tank the Walker industry from the inside.) After some quick calculating, Frank decides to come clean to Linda about his plan — and tell her that he thinks the two of them could make quite a team.

Meanwhile, poor Russo just falls further and further off the wagon. He drinks himself into a stupor, then manages to drive all the way to his ex-wife’s house. He calls his daughter, who says that he should leave; his son won’t even talk to him. Man, those kids are really going to regret this conversation in the morning.

NEXT: The decline and fall of poor Peter

The guy’s at such a low point that he can’t even get himself arrested, despite a trip to a police station; all Russo gets in return is a visit from Doug, who arrives after being called from the police commissioner. (Another loose end — won’t the commissioner be suspicious of Doug when he finds out what happened to Peter?)

Doug arrives to pick Peter up, and then Frank appears, offering to drive Russo straight to hell home. And once they’ve reached the garage, Frank gives Peter one last drink, turns on the ignition, wipes away his prints and leaves. At least this will be less painful than the bath option.

Peter’s death means Frank has one less thing to worry about, and it’s also enough to get Claire to finally return from her sojourn to Adam’s House of Groovy Artist Folk. It does not, however, immediately move the president to ask Frank to become his veep in Chapter 12 — even though Matthews does decide to run for governor.

Instead, the pres tells Frank that he wants to pursue someone else: Raymond Tusk, a billionaire who’s never held office. Adding insult to injury, he’s asking Frank to travel to Tusk’s home so that he can convince him to take the nomination. At first, Tusk comes off as an eccentric Connie Hilton type, and his scenes with Frank in St. Louis are sort of a drag. But then Doug’s sleuthing reveals that Tusk and President Walker are actually close friends — and as the billionaire subsequently reveals to Frank, the true purpose of this visit is so that Tusk can vet Underwood for the VP position. Twist!

Frank, naturally, doesn’t like the feeling that he’s been played. He’s also immediately against what Tusk proposes next: He’ll tell the president to nominate Underwood, but only if Underwood promises to do him an unspecified favor. Frank’s got until Friday to make his decision.

Meanwhile, Janine calls Shipyard Paul to see if he’s actually planning to run for Peter’s open seat in congress. He ends up giving her something even better: a tip about somebody strong-arming Russo into not protesting the shipyard’s closing. She thinks that Underwood’s the culprit, and her suspicions are all but confirmed when she tries to talk to Christina in the congressional cafeteria — and right on cue, Doug appears to scare Janine off.

NEXT: Something’s rotten in the state of Washington, D.C.

Now Janine knows that the shipyard is only the tip of the iceberg… and with Zoe’s help, she also discovers the truth about both the editorial that discredited Frank’s rival for Secretary of State and Russo’s drunk driving arrest. She, Zoe, and Lucas unite to try to unravel Frank’s tangled web, even though Lucas is completely grossed out by Zoe’s former relationship with her source.

As the journalists dig, Frank makes a play to get the upper hand on Tusk. He wants SanCorp to initiate a hostile takeover of Tusk’s subsidiaries; Remy isn’t biting, though, and SanCorp’s actual executives are less than pleased when Frank makes an impromptu visit to their headquarters. The whole scheme blows up in Frank’s face when Remy switches sides, giving Tusk enough information for the billionaire to buy three percent of SanCorp. by the end of the week, he’ll own 10 percent of the company, and they’ll no longer be a threat to him. Has Frank met his match?

Maybe — but Frank still doesn’t want to be beholden to the businessman, and he knows he’s still got President Walker in a tight spot because he only  has a few more days to find a viable VP candidate. And in the end, his chutzpah and cunning — and, perhaps, Freddy’s ribs — are enough to get Tusk on Frank’s side. Rep. Underwood is officially offered the vice presidential nomination at the end of the episode — and shortly thereafter, he officially accepts it.

His triumph may be short-lived, though, if the Scooby Gang gets any closer to uncovering Frank’s treachery. They track down Rachel the hooker, and Zoe convinces the girl to meet with her.

Rachel doesn’t spill any new information, but as she leaves the meeting place, Lucas notes her car’s license plate — and traces the vehicle back to Doug. Using their collective brainpower, the Slugline/Herald crew surmise that Frank tapped Russo for governor precisely because he wanted him to flame out, thereby eventually clearing the way for Frank to get into the White House.

The gang doesn’t know that Doug is onto their investigation. Doug doesn’t know precisely how much they’ve surmised. And Frank doesn’t know that everything he’s worked for could disappear tomorrow, because he’s not around when Doug gives him a call.

And that, folks, is where we leave things at the end of season 1. Overall, how did you like House of Cards? Are you rooting for Frank’s victory, or his sound defeat? And what would have to happen to make you care about the trouble brewing at Claire’s nonprofit?

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