Confronted with a potential disaster, the Underwoods work it to their advantage
house of cards season 5 episode 2
Credit: David Giesbrecht / Netflix

Fear has been instilled. The United States is seemingly moving toward becoming a war zone with soldiers on every corner and border, protecting America and the vague notion of “freedom.” Freedom with armed guards everywhere sure doesn’t look a hell of a lot like freedom. This is the world the Underwoods wanted. This is the atmosphere they believe they need to create in order to get elected as president and vice president. “Do you think it’s worth it?” asks Frank at the beginning of “Chapter 54.” He glares at Claire, then begins to laugh. For them, it’s all worth it.

“Chapter 54” is all about the Underwoods further expanding their plan to take over the White House and win the election, now only a week away. Tensions are high as Frank’s call for a declaration of war has the committee potentially looking to nail him for his past crimes, namely the ones suggested in Tom’s published article. That stuff isn’t going away, no matter how much Frank might want it to.

The goods news for Frank? It looks like Jackie and Remy have lawyered up, meaning they probably have no intention of revealing anything shady about his past plans to overthrow then-President Garrett Walker and his Vice President Jim Matthews. At the same time, Frank is dealing with the fact that he needs a few governors to help with a plan to swell the number of National Guard positioned at polling places in a number of states. It’s all part of the optics Frank so covets: looking tough on terror while the truth of the matter is that, as one aide puts it to Doug later on, he’s engaging in voter suppression.

Part of crafting the fear that the Underwoods hope will lead to a heightened National Guard presence at the polls and an election win is, naturally, showing up for all of those fear-mongering appearances! Here, that means Claire is with the media as the Underwoods announce the purchase of gas masks for MTA employees, which, as the First Lady puts it, are crucial in dealing with a potential chemical attack. See how slyly she throws that out to the media to garner fear? Claire is no slouch in the creating fear department.

While she’s making that appearance, an old friend of the Underwoods approaches Claire. He barely makes any small talk before mentioning that Tim Corbet, Frank’s old Sentinel pal, has been missing for two days after heading out on a rafting trip, and things aren’t looking good. It’s something neither Frank nor Claire knew about, as the man says Frank hasn’t returned any of his calls.

Still, Claire is suspicious of the way the man talks about Frank and Tim, so she questions him after the media appearance has concluded. While it’s never explicitly stated, the conversation becomes about how Frank and Tim had a special connection that, were the times different, would have led to a meaningful romantic relationship. The Underwoods’ rather vague (or all-inclusive) sexuality is nothing new, but Claire seems shaken by the realization that Frank may have had another true love. She confronts him with it a bit later, and he only reassures her that there’s never been anyone but her. It’s not particularly convincing, but perhaps it’s enough to avoid an argument so close to election day.
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The push to get the National Guard at polling stations that are typically Republican isn’t going to fly without a fair amount of pushback. Brockhart says that he’d tell the soldiers to ignore any such orders, and Conway is openly speaking out against the president’s misguided dive into war.

On top of that, Frank needs to sway a few governors to allow the National Guard in, and that means offering up things they need. Namely, he needs to wrangle Jim Matthews, the man he screwed over not all that long ago. Matthews ends up being pretty amiable though: he offers up his support after Frank gives him help with a slag heap, which should create a windfall of jobs and money. Still, that doesn’t stop Matthews from getting grilled by the committee, whose role in all of this will surely continue to hamper Frank all season long.

Of course, House of Cards has consistently seen the walls closing in on Frank only for the man to find some hidden door that he uses to escape. Here, as the declaration of war and Frank’s call for the National Guard presence at polling stations struggle to find footing, the Underwoods manage to work a tricky situation to their advantage; it’s kind of what they do.

The latest tricky situation: Aidan MacAllan needs to hack into a telecom switching center and delete everything that may implicate him, the president, and the First Lady. Aidan posits that they only have about 20 minutes to shut down the system and delete any trace, because anything longer than that means the NSA will get super suspicious and probably find them and lock them up.

Frank’s plan comes together when Aidan hacks into a Capital East Telecom Switching Center in order to delete everything incriminating. As Aidan nervously awaits the file deletion, phones and Wi-Fi around D.C. start to go on the fritz. GPS signals are lost, phones are buzzing randomly, and TV signals are cut out. All of this while Frank builds a fire in the Oval Office, talking about the construction of a good fire before breaking down just once for his friend (and perhaps more) Tim.

But he regains his composure quickly, and his plan becomes clear. Putting off Aidan’s “fix” to the network problem for a while, Underwood allows panic to set in, which in turn allows him to deliver a statement branding the outage as a “cyber attack” from ICO: another blatant lie, but it doesn’t matter. The perception of impending terrorist attacks is enough to prompt some of the governors to call Frank and ask for the National Guard at their polling stations. And when the military shows up as Conway and his family leave a Halloween school event, he explodes, chastising the president for not understanding the true implications of declaring war and for instilling fear in the American people.

It would seem that’s exactly the reaction the Underwoods were hoping for as they watch the footage, their smiles accentuated by the glow of the screen. I’m not so sure this tactic will work though. Conway’s “outburst” comes from a place of experience and passion, and if he finds even the slightest footing using his military background to rile up voters, he could be on his way to the White House. This could all backfire, but for now the Underwoods remain in control.

Episode Recaps

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.

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