There are spoilers to be found here, so tread carefully and don't fall afoul of Frank Underwood's tactics.
After the big argument that saw the ruptures of the Underwood marriage start to truly tear it apart last season, we rejoin Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in a.... Well, actually, we don't rejoin Frank immediately, as we've to make a pit stop in prison first to see how Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) has been getting on after his failed attempt to take down Underwood during Season Two. Bet you'd forgotten about him, right? Well, the series wants to make sure you remember him quickly, seen here describing a fictional sexual encounter so his cellmate can get his masturbatory jollies.
As for Frank, re-introduced after the credits, his storyline in this episode has him dealing squarely with the fallout of the argument. We meet him on Air Force One, going over a speech he's set to give in New Hampshire on the re-election campaign trail. But he's distracted by thoughts of Claire (Robin Wright), who won't take his calls. We cut between his working on the speech and giving it, all the while talking with Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) about what they can do. Now that Claire is refusing to show her face. Claire has returned to Texas and, as we'll later learn, her parental home. It's an imposing place, but most of the furniture is shrouded. But the most important element in this scene is the introduction of Claire's mother Elizabeth Hale, played with typically imposing grace by Ellen Burstyn. We find her sitting quietly in her room, and Claire doesn't try to go in. There's a lot of missing communication this episode.
Frank's frustrated - he dispatches Stamper to Texas to see what's going on: after all, this could hurt his campaign and he needs to be back in control. Back in his hotel room, he's surprised an angry to see that Claire's clothes were hung in the closet, as the advance team didn't realise she wouldn't be coming on the trail. The spectre of Claire won't leave him even when they're apart. We also catch our first glimpse of Joel Kinnaman as charismatic Republican challenger Will Conway. We only see him in news footage this episode, but we know he'll become more important soon enough.
Turns out Lucas has won his cellmate's trust so he can get the tattooed bloke to admit he took the fall on a murder for an Armenian crime boss. And he's wearing a wire, as we discover when the scene cuts to someone going all The Conversation on the cell.
After checking in with Claire – who has been creeping quietly around the family home – we're back with Frank, who falls asleep in the hotel. Underwood sinks into a nightmare where he and Claire have a violent fight, and awakes with a start as Claire is forcing her fingers into his eyes; but in the real world, it's his security officer taking his glasses so they don't break.
Next morning, we learn why Claire is really in Texas aside from not quite visiting with mommy dearest. She's meeting with a campaign manager named LeAnn Harvey (Neve Campbell) to discuss making a run at a congressional seat in the State. As a rich, white woman, she'll have a big hill to climb winning over a district that has been expecting the African-American daughter of the incumbent to take over, but Claire's mind seems set. LeAnn is considering it when she has a visit from Stamper later that day in her office. Frank tries to convince her on the phone not to take the job... And she thought Ghostface was trouble.
Lucas is discussing his potential release now that he's been helping the justice department with the murder case in prison. He's naturally worried that Frank will use his governmental might to solve the Lucas problem permanently, but right now hiding out under another name ("John Carlisle") and getting the bus to a job washing cars at a rental lot will have to serve as protection. Quite a step down, and Arcelus plays the quiet disappointment well.
Seth meets a woman we briefly met early at a bar – turns out it's the campaign manager of Frank's main rivals, Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel). She offers him a job in exchange for damning information about Frank. Doesn't he want a back-up plan in case Dunbar wins and Underwood is booted from power? He's seriously considering it, especially when he's later asked to drop off a call between Frank and Stamper about how to use Claire's mother to manipulate her.
Claire's not having the best day in meeting with the congresswoman (Cicely Tyson's Doris Jones) she's hoping to replace, who cannily includes her daughter in the meeting. Also present? Stamper. He's there to argue Frank's side of things, and essentially convinces the congresswoman not to help Claire.
But even Frank has to admit that the rumours about his and Claire's marriage troubles are starting to pile up: Fox News is talking about them and Heather Dunbar is talking about them, hoping to damage Frank.
Claire finally talks to her mother, who chides her for not even greeting here and using the house as a hotel. It's a crackling scene between these two wonderful actresses and a deeper delve into Claire's background outlined in just one dialogue exchange.
And Elizabeth is about to become a pawn in Frank's bigger game. He's learned she's dealing with cancer and strikes a bargain with Claire: if she'll outline the "reason" she came to Texas, they can use her mother's health as the explanation. Claire, in a tense meeting also attended by LeAnn, wants something in return - Frank's support for the congressional run. As long as Claire does this, and shows up for the impending State of the Union address, they have a deal. Cue a press conference, with Claire looking for all the world like a wronged wife, but managing to hide it.
Turns out it hasn't worked completely - Frank is angry to see he's lost in New Hampshire. But there are plenty of other States to win in primary season...
Season Premieres for House Of Cards usually feel like a chess player taking their time to set up their gambit, and Chapter 40 is no exception. It's the usual round of manipulation and scheming from Camp Underwood, given an added frisson by the fact that it involves Claire as a potentially dangerous opponent. There's that little early friction between the two as they hammer out their deal, but it's much more about establishing the new reality for the Underwoods. Hopefully it will help to boost the show out of the relative doldrums of Season Three, and the presence of Ellen Burstyn is an encouraging one. She's the perfect person to go toe-to-toe with both Spacey and Wright and she gives Elizabeth a quiet power. Campbell is also a welcome addition, allowing Claire a new ally and making her presence felt in just a couple of scenes.
Still, not everything works as well as having another Oscar winner in the cast: the Seth potential betrayal storyline feels like it could take us down a very familiar path and while he's almost certain to be back causing trouble for Frank again, did we really need Lucas to return? Still, as long as Michael Kelly's Stamper is able to keep on subtly threatening people, we'll keep watching.