House of Cards premiere recap: 'Chapter 53'
The Underwoods reveal a heinous plan to win the election
“We make the terror.”
Those were the not-so-uncertain words of Frank Underwood that closed out season 4 of House of Cards. Now the show is back, and it wastes no time establishing that this season will be different. The Underwoods have been using shady backdoor dealings to get what they want for four seasons now, but the Underwoods in the season 5 premiere aren’t the same. They’re more vicious and focused than ever, and they’re neck deep in a campaign to make sure that the American people are afraid of everything around them. If you’ve been watching the news for, oh, let’s say the last four months or so, that tactic of fear mongering might sound familiar.
“We make the terror” turns out to be a very literal proclamation, as the episode begins with Claire filming a PSA telling American citizens to be on the watch for suspicious activities in their neighborhoods. It’s a “see something, say something” kind of PSA, where the goal is more to instill fear than to prove that the American government is keeping people safe. The Underwoods are two weeks out from the election, and they’re not about to let the public get comfortable.
Part of creating fear comes in the form of a bold move by Frank. He storms into a congressional session, which is meant to be discussing the crimes suggested in Tom’s article in the Herald, and completely takes over, despite the cries of pretty much every opposition congressman in the room. Despite the calls for the president to leave, he takes the stand and demands that Congress approve a formal declaration of war between the United States and ICO.
It’s a move that’s meant to make Frank look tough on terror, capitalizing on the fact that Joshua Masterson, one of the men responsible for the beheading of Jim Miller, is still on the loose. The goal is to make the public fear for their safety by suggesting that ICO is infiltrating the U.S. at an alarming rate. Mirroring our current state of affairs, Frank calls for a strict travel ban that Catherine chastises for “lacking in evidence.” Frank doesn’t care though; he’s all about optics and perception.
On the other side of the fight is Governor Conway. While opposition to Frank isn’t totally absent — Jim Miller’s daughter tells Frank that she hope he dies and that Claire becomes president — Conway is perhaps one of the few within the system who can work against Frank. He’s meeting with Democratic congressmen in the hopes of getting them to go against the declaration of war, something Conway can’t do himself without risking looking like he’s weak on terror. Can’t have that when the election is just two weeks away.
That angle might already be out there though, as Conway’s wife Hannah posts a video defending Joshua’s mother from vicious attacks online and on her home. She says that the mother is in no way responsible for her son’s sins, and while Conway does seem to agree, he’s worried that this will reflect badly on him and his policies. When Frank and Claire see the video, they see an opportunity. As Claire says, “it’s time to dial up the terror. The mother can help with that.”
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While Leann puts Aidan MacAllan back to work inside the NSA in the hopes of swinging the election for the Underwoods, Claire and Frank split up to maximize their potential for creating terror like the Macbeths that they are. After Claire is revealed to still be having an affair with Yates — is it still an affair if Frank is totally cool with it? I guess not — she heads to meet with Mrs. Masterson.
The meeting is a tense one. Claire plays the sympathetic ear to an extent, but then she turns things around. She tells Mrs. Masterson that what her son did wasn’t an isolated incident, that it could have been carried out by any number of kids of hard-working parents in the United States. She ends the meeting by asking Mrs. Masterson to talk to the media and beg for Joshua to turn himself in.
The search for Joshua is central to the season premiere. It’s the dark cloud hanging above the nation, sure, but it’s also a piece of political propaganda for the Underwoods. After all, a terrorist on the loose is the perfect climate within which to roll out their platform of fear and hatred. The only problem is that for Frank to get what he wants — the declaration of war and the travel ban — he must provide evidence. He needs to catch Joshua and prove that he’s connected to ICO in a significant way before the committee votes on whether or not to approve the declaration.
That’s when “Chapter 53” takes quite the turn. We cut to a very clean, sterile room, presumably somewhere deep in the White House. The assistant director of counterterrorism (ADCT) is informing the president that their “asset” has no real ties to ICO outside of a certain admiration for them, and that based on his agent’s findings, there’s no immediate threat from a cell or larger ICO network operating within the United States. Then the camera turns to reveal the asset: Joshua Masterson, locked away, beaten, and bleeding.
Frank has had Joshua all along, and every single thing he said in the media and on the floor of the House about the manhunt for Joshua is a lie. It’s all a PR game for Frank. He had to stoke fear to hopefully get elected, and that meant constructing a story where a terrorist was on the loose. It’s an astonishing abuse of power, and it only gets more shocking from there.
Frank has one last use for Joshua. He orders the ADCT to “get rid of” Joshua after securing “good, usable footage of his killing.” We’re not privy to the actual killing, but what happens is clear enough. Essentially, Frank orders the ADCT to stage a raid and make it look like Joshua was killed in the process. A raid on a trailer in the woods near the Virginia border already has the media in a frenzy, the first step in Frank being able to construct this horrendous lie.
How will this all turn out for Frank? It’s hard to know. The death of Joshua and the terror instilled in the people might swing the election in the Underwoods’ favor, but there are other problems to deal with. Not only is Mrs. Miller incredibly angry that Frank is using her deceased husband’s name for his own warmongering efforts, but Doug learns that the committee voting on the declaration of war is looking for Remy and Jackie. What does that mean? Well, it means that the opposition might use the declaration and the committee to justify a look into the crimes reported by Tom. So what does Frank do? Does he forge ahead with his declaration and risk exposure, or does he back off to save himself? Will the truth about Joshua eventually come out? And how will the election turn out?
These are the questions that linger as season 5 is off to a shocking, compelling start.