There are spoilers to be found here, so tread carefully and don't fall afoul of Frank Underwood's tactics.
The endgame is coming into sight with Chapter 51, but all Aidan is concerned with is crunching the numbers live as Frank and Claire face Will Conway and General Brockhart over a debate table. It's an unusual debate to be sure: the four candidates sitting with real-life PBS news anchor and reporter Gwen Ifill. Apparently we're in cost-saving mode for the show as America's Special Forces have captured Yusuf Al Ahmadi off screen. No chance of a big action scene in this show, unless it's Stamper offing someone or Claire running. We suppose the assassination attempt on Frank was the biggest example of Cards pulling off a set piece this season. The candidates are snarking back and forth about homeland security and their differing opinions on how to deal with ICO.
Stamper, meanwhile is meeting with someone named George Walleck (Dana Healey), who we learn little about besides having been decorated by the military and who Doug will apparently now force to retire.
LeAnn is liaising with Aidan about how the reactions are looking to Team Underwood's debate performance so far. He's reading the data like the heroes of The Matrix, but without the cool trench coats or sunglasses.
Back to Stamper and Walleck, and it appears the latter was a Republican on the Intelligence Committee, which you might recall Conway has (through Brockhart), been tapping for information about Frank's dealings with both military action and the surveillance, while also interfering in their activity. Walleck refuses to become a whistleblower, and Stamper presses him, which is what Doug does best.
Frank is doing his own pressing, trying to get Brockhart to admit he's been interfering with the Intelligence Committee and building up to a point where it almost seems as though he'll go full Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men.
Stamp's got Walleck bang to rights since he lied about his service record. Now he needs to expose Conway's interference before the election or Doug will leak the information about Walleck's lies.
At the debate, Will is trying to point out Claire's relative lack of experience, but is about to be shut down by a woman he really shouldn't have tried to take on in the first place. But before they can get too into things, the debate is shut down and Frank and Claire are ushered out by security types. Seems ICO has taken hostages on American soil, as seen in a video. The hostages, James Miller (Sean Graham), his wife Caroline (Jennifer Leigh Mann) and daughter Melissa (Alie Urquhart) are forced to read the usual statement outlining what ICO is angry about and what their demands are. Shockingly, they're not for seven pints of cookie dough ice cream and free tickets to Disneyland. Specifically, they want to talk to Conway, not Frank.
As Frank heads to the situation room, Conway offers his assistance, and the President tells him he'll let him know. The FBI and other intelligence agencies have identified elements of the video, and they were snatched shortly after leaving a Denny's. The fiends! Couldn't they have taken them before they ate at Denny's?
Conway is doing what he always seems to do in response to any situation... Making a video. But Brockhart seems unsure of lying to the country on camera. After Will dismisses him from the room, he admits to his staffer that he's sick of the general. Pretty sure this lack of trust between the two might come back to bite them both.
In the Situation Room, Frank really should be listening to the various law enforcement experts, but he's too busy talking to camera about what he thinks the terror suspects want and why they insist on talking to Conway. And he has a plan...
Seth is briefing the press, giving them a little detail, but essentially setting up a news blackout on how the administration will be dealing with the hostage situation. But he does slip in a mention of Conway being drafted in to help talk to the kidnappers, which essentially makes it look like he's at Frank's beck and call.
That doesn't sit so easily with Will when Frank calls, but he agrees to at least think about it. And then we're back in Frank-O-Vision, with Underwood explaining how this ties into Conway's biggest flaw – he likes the spotlight too much. Thank goodness the writers didn't just go ahead and call him Brightlight T. Mothman.
Tom Hammerschmidt has been travelling and arrives at the home of former President Walker (Michael Gill) and the nostalgia tour continues. Tom has lied his way in to see the ex-Prez and now confronts him with what he knows about Frank's dodgy dealings.
Will and Hannah arrive at the White House, where their son Charlie (Finn Douglas) immediately calls Frank a vampire. Perceptive lad! It's really just some private joke between the Conway family. Frank seems amused by it, probably because it's the mildest insult he's heard in a while.
Tom presses in on Walker, asking him to be a part of Team Takedown Frank. It appears that the regrets have built up in Walker's soul and he's learning towards helping build the case.
Frank and Conway talk in the Oval office, and Will demands to have more input into how they talk to the terrorists. If only he knew that he was being manipulated by Frank the whole time...
Aidan isn't too happy either right now, as the NSA and other intelligence agencies are descending on him so they can use his data wizard abilities to help with the kidnapper manhunt. Seems MacAllen doesn't play all that well with others, but we guess that's just because he likes to dance around his office topless.
At a press conference, Frank and Conway take turns talking up their next steps, and how the kidnappers can get in touch. It's the weirdest way we've ever heard – dialing the hostage family's social security numbers into any phone or internet voice service and they'll be connected straight to the White House. What, no 1-800-GIVE-UP-NOW? Conway insists both their hearts are with the Millers at this difficult time, which will be absolutely no comfort because we're fairly certain neither Frank nor Will has functioning hearts.
Jackie and Remy are meeting to discuss the fact that Tom has been reaching out to them as part of his investigation. Remy's resistant but Jackie wants to speak up. She's even come clean about their affair to her husband, who apparently has been kind and agreed to hold off the divorce until after the election. Boy, to be a fly on the wall for that chat... Jackie says she wants to go on the record and help to take down Frank.
In the Situation Room, the CIA has identified one of the kidnappers as Joshua Masterson, and that his fellow suspect is Zachary Hawthorne. It's the redneck red-handed gang, folks. There is some discussion about whether they reveal this information if and when the kidnappers call.
At the residence, Claire and Hannah are talking about life as a First Lady. Hannah clearly wants to do more, and is interested in Claire's gun control bill. Charlie, meanwhile is more interested in the coffee his mother is drinking, but there's no way in hell that boy should be fed caffeine. Things get a little more personal when Hannah asks Claire if she regrets not having kids. Mrs. Underwood responds by asking if Hannah regrets having her two. Ouch.
The kidnappers finally do call and Will immediately tries to take control of the situation, taking up his military background and trying to forge some connection with Joshua. He admits he's had nightmares about the people he's killed while on duty (he and Frank should share a pint and talk about ghosts visiting in nightmares one day). He's successful in one respect, though: he gets the kidnappers to agree to extend their deadline to the next morning, even as Melissa Miller screams in the background as the pair threatens to cut her tongue out.
As Frank convenes with his experts on their next move – particularly since the terrorists released the audio of the call to the press – he's called to meet Walleck and does the patented Underwood lean on his neck to get him to agree to talk up Conway's involvement in talking to the Intelligence Committee. Yes, it involves talking up Walleck's past and the power Frank has over him.
Thomas Yates and Claire sit down and Thom starts to wax lyrical about how the building and its surroundings are filled with terror and dread. He's such a bright light in a time like this. Talk turns to Conway and Hannah, they've got his number, but also know he's dangerous.
Talking of Will, he's reading to Charlie. He goes into the talk with Frank about the reactions to the audio release. It's another fun scene of the two sparring over who thinks they're winning this round. Will's smug and self-assured, but Frank is circling like a shark, pointing out how the job of President is 99 per cent in the dark. And he gets snarky about Conway's current position as Governor of New York. "You're a pretender Will, and if you win, you'll go from pretender to fraud." Meow!
After a quick diversion with Charlie, Frank tells Claire he needs his help. They're cooking up a secret plan, and Claire brings it up with Stamper, but we don't learn the details just yet. She encourages Doug to get some sleep.
Tom Hammerschmidt is about to reach out to the White House about what he knows. Everything is ramping up. Except at Chez Stamper, where Laura Moretti has cooked him dinner. Aww.... Weird. The next morning, it appears the FBI and State Troopers are closing in on the kidnappers. In the Situation Room, Frank unilaterally decides to talk to the suspects, and on Joshua Masterson’s face, we cut to black. See you at the finale, folks.
The pressure is truly building here, and Chapter 51 doesn't disappoint with the interplay between Frank and his rival. The scenes between Spacey and Kinnaman are once more the highlight; this pair is great at pushing each others' buttons and Laura Eason and Bill Kennedy's script gives them plenty to work with.
The kidnap plot itself is basic and really just there to fuel everything else. It does feel like leaving things a tad late to really build the tension for Tom's investigation – the finale will have to deal with the fallout of the kidnapping and the likely release of material about Frank's dirty deeds. Still, it keeps things moving as the pieces fall into place.