At the halfway point, House of Cards has struggled to do anything too unique or compelling in its final season. The season premiere boasted some promise, with Claire’s no-nonsense approach to her detractors providing a good foundation for the show to work from. But the next two episodes wallowed in the same kind of convoluted, stakes-less storytelling that the show too often deploys. “Chapter 69” isn’t a perfect episode by any means, and it doesn’t exactly get the season back on track, but it does engage in some interesting storytelling. More specifically, it works as a pseudo-bottle episode. The action isn’t contained to one room, but the episode takes place almost entirely at Cathy Durant’s memorial service, and the result is some of the best tension of the season.
On the way to the service, Claire is still upset about Abruzzo. We’ll have to assume that she’s made the appointment or has agreed too; at least that’s the implication, as she tells Mark that “he’s won.” Yates’ body presumably changed her mind. When they arrive at the service, it isn’t long before things start to get tense, and everyone gets paranoid. Not only does just about everyone suspect something fishy about Durant’s death—Doug makes a point of asking her husband what time she died—the Washington elites are scrambling to get a deal done between Russia and the U.S. when it comes to Syria. Everybody is trying to have their interests heard, and Petrov being at the service comes as a surprise to many.
Claire and Mark are informed that Russian troops are on their way to the border, and that a conflict with U.S. soldiers will happen by dawn if no deal is reached. Petrov himself seems to welcome the conflict. He knows it’s the U.S. that largely has to play the role of peacekeeper, even if the truth is that both countries are trying to protect their own financial interests; like “the imperialists” they are, says the Russian President. Throughout this episode multiple subplots rear their head. There’s the question of how Durant really died, the looming conflict in Syria, and sudden questions being asked about Tom Yates’ whereabouts.
Doug seems especially curious about Durant. He asks Assistant Director Green to find out what she was doing in the time leading up to her death, a question that he immediately brings back to Claire. I’m still not entirely sure whose side he’s on, if any, but for now he’s gathering and sharing information in both directions. On the topic of Yates’ death, there’s a rumor going around that the new press secretary, Kelsey, slept with him. That’s becoming the focus of the narrative, despite it being nobody’s business, while Claire concocts a story about someone stealing his identity and traveling around Prague.
It seemed clear-ish at the end of the previous episode that Durant had been killed on the order of Claire and Jane, but “Chapter 69” puts that into question. Suddenly everyone has their suspicions. Claire thought Doug did the deed, and says she has no idea how Durant died. She seems genuinely frustrated by not having the answer, not like she’s playing it up to hide her own role in the murder. To be fair, the truth of who knows what doesn’t matter all that much, because the end of the episode provides a major twist that makes all of this talk about Durant’s death seem foolish. (
The emerging idea of this episode is that Claire is completely overwhelmed as President. She’s under the Shepherds’ thumb, she’s too agreeable with everyone around her, and she doesn’t boast any of that characteristic Underwood ruthlessness. While Mark and Jane urge Claire to make a deal with Petrov—Jane says that when that gets done, she’ll “chip away at Bill and Annette Shepherd”—in order to advance their own agendas, we learn that Claire isn’t drowning as much as she seems. She turns to the camera and says that “playing incompetent is so exhausting.” What does that mean? Well, as everyone believes that she’s been thrown off guard by Petrov showing up at the service, and trying to use her shock to their own advantage, it turns out that Claire invited him. She wanted him there to make a deal, and they’ve both been hiding that fact in order to see how everyone else acts around them.
It’s one of the first signs of the season that Claire is actively working to make her own moves. She even goes to Doug with her own little deal, offering Congressman Cole a spot on her 2020 ticket, plus a pardon for him in the case of Zoe Barnes. That pardon is really going to come in handy because the U.S. Attorney is about to subpoena him to testify, something that Doug tells Seth he won’t do. Of course, Doug being Doug, he wants a pardon for Frank too. Will Claire accept that, and will Doug side with her against the Shepherds? Or will whatever the U.S. Attorney is bringing forth end up being a death sentence for both of them?
The whole conspiracy surrounding Durant’s death gets even weirder when her brother reveals that he never got to see her body. Apparently, there was no autopsy, and she was cremated before he could even get on a plane and fly out. “It all happened so fast,” he says to Doug and Claire, which sure sounds like someone wanted to erase a bunch of evidence.
Anyways, back to the Russia deal. Claire goes behind everybody’s back—I mean, she is the President, but she has a lot of people in her orbit that believe they control her—and makes a deal with Petrov, giving him the ports he needs for oil shipments and also 20% on any resources going out elsewhere in the country. Jane can’t believe her ears when she hears the news, and I can only imagine what the Shepherds think. It’s a deal they’d hate anyway, but there’s a kicker, and the main reason the President wanted to get this done with Petrov alone: Claire tells Petrov that she won’t be allowing any Shepherd-owned contractors into Syria. The Shepherds hate nothing more than being denied an opportunity at profit, so this is a major shot fired.
As the episode comes to a close, a few revelations find their way into the light. First, Seth tells Doug about Frank’s will. He doesn’t give him the full details, but he cryptically says, “he left you more than cuff links.” Just as Doug was maybe trusting Claire again, this is sure to put him against her yet again. Then there’s the big twist: Cathy Durant isn’t dead. She’s holed up in some seedy apartment, making some sort of deal on her phone.
Wait, what? I have no idea how to explain it; did Cathy fake her own death? Did someone else, like the Shepherds, help her? These are all questions we’ll have to sit with until ‘Chapter 70.’