There are spoilers to be found here, so tread carefully and don't fall afoul of Frank Underwood's tactics.
The hostage crisis is still in full swing as the season finale starts, but first we meet the ICO mastermind (well, co-mastermind, since he leads it with his brother) Yusuf Al Ahmadi (Farshad Farahat) as he's brought out of his prison cell under full security. The score here seems to be taking a leaf out of Hannibal's book, sounding for all the world like composer Jeff Beal is sending instruments tumbling down the stairs.
Back in the Situation Room, Frank is on the line with Joshua, the de factor leader of the kidnappers. He's getting tough as the FBI is closing in on what they think is the location of the hostages. The Prez is basically playing both Joshua and Will Conway, who is shocked to be suddenly dragged back into the conversation. Frank goes full Ed-209 on Joshua, demanding that he release the hostages before he's allowed to talk to Ahmadi. They have 10 seconds... five seconds... The kidnappers are holding strong, but Frank's still got more of a backbone.
Ahmadi has been brought to a mysterious house to meet... Claire! She offers him the use of a shower and fresh clothes as though he's a friend visiting for the weekend and not a terrorist leader.
At the White House, Conway is unhappy about how Frank is handling the hostage crisis, but has more to worry about when he threatens to go to the press about it. Frank has released the details of Conway interfering with the Intelligence Committee. Snap! Conway is soon dismissed to head back to New York with his tail momentarily between his legs.
Ahmadi, having freshly showered and changed, is offered lunch and a seat by Claire, but sneers at dealing with her. He wants to know what she wants. Claire knows that Ahmadi is neither Syrian, nor much of a fundamentalist. He's Iraqi, and she knows a lot more about his background than he expects. She even knows he had a dog named Binky! (He didn't, we made that bit up.) In reality, he was with the Baath ruling party in Iraq until America and its allies kicked them out.
Seth is briefing the press, and having to lie for his boss as usual, announcing that Al Ahmadi is still in Guantanamo and explaining that he'll be put in contact with the kidnappers if two hostages – Caroline and Melissa – are released. Questions are also raised about Conway's involvement with the committee but Seth says they'll have to ask the governor.
Which, not so coincidentally is just what a press gaggle is doing. Will's trying to pass it off as chatting with his friends and wants to push the agenda back to the hostage situation. When he reaches the quiet sanctuary of his car, he's fuming and snaps at Hannah and Charlie. Will swears and Charlie picks up on it. Seems the perfect Conway campaign is unravelling...
At the White House, Seth is meeting with the speechwriters about statements regarding the hostage situation's possible outcome. And there's a message from Tom Hammerschmidt – his email asking for comment on the big Frank story has arrived. Seth clears the room and calls Tom.
Meanwhile, at Aidan Macallen's place, he's essentially being railroaded by the NSA and CIA on how he'll help locate the terrorists. Plus, he has to keep his shirt on. That's just us saying that, but we're sure the NSA agrees. In the Situation Room. Frank is receiving a briefing on how the search is proceeding when Stamper asks to talk to him urgently.
In the Oval, Frank reads the allegations from Hammerschmidt as Seth and Stamper talk about it. Frank tries to dismiss the story, but Seth's worried about how they spin it. Cue a very angry Frank, who points fingers at both Seth and Stamper. Frank demands to have Tom come to the White House.
In Virginia, Claire is offering to reestablish the Baath party in Iraq, though Ahmadi argues there is no government in the country right now. Claire says the US will put the military back in control. It all has to be secret... Yeah, that won't come back to bite them. There's very little trust here, and with good reason. But while Ahmadi thinks the Americans can't destroy ICO, Claire agrees, yet says they'll make the group irrelevant.
Thomas Yates is looking for Claire, but no one has any idea where she is. Even the Secret Service doesn't know her whereabouts, which is unusual. He talks to LeAnn, who seems to know just how "close" Thom and Claire have gotten.
We find Claire on the phone with Frank talking strategy about Hammerschmidt and Claire's progress trying to get Ahmadi to agree to a deal. She somehow knows Frank is smoking while talking, which is scarily psychic but not all that surprising.
When Claire returns to Ahmadi they talk about his family. Claire, in true Underwood style, doesn't care if they live or die, and is only interested in them as a bargaining chip. Ahmadi doesn't think that will work because they're all devoted to the cause.
Tom Hammerschmidt shows up to talk to Frank in the Oval Office for a meeting that Frank insists is off the record. They discuss the various allegations and Frank tries to shoot them down. According to Underwood, it's tabloid gossip. Tom just wants the truth, and threatens the Department of Justice or the Republicans opening up an investigation. The conversation is interrupted by Stamper, who says the hostages have released the location of the mother and daughter. Tom tries to leave, but Frank wants him to stick around.
Cars screech towards a wooded area where Caroline and Melissa Miller are found bound and gagged, but otherwise unharmed. We cut to Frank briefing the press on the new development. The Conways watch the press conference on TV and Will is angered that Frank will take all the credit. Hannah asks what his priority would be were it she and their daughter kidnapped. Will coldly tells her not to get weak, and just like that, Team Conway is falling apart at the seams. Conway's turned into an emotionless robot. Almost like a robot cop. Or a Robo... Yeah, you knew we were going to shoehorn a RoboCop joke in somewhere, didn't you?
As Seth continues to talk to the press, Frank's team is briefing him again. But at his building, Aidan isn't thrilled that the NSA and CIA are taking his algorithms out of the building to put more teams on them. He's concerned it'll all go wrong. With the NSA and CIA involved? NEVER!
Claire and Ahmadi are talking about his contact with the kidnappers. He's worried they or the president will release any video conversation he has with them and he'll look like a traitor. Claire tells him he really doesn't have much choice but to believe her when she says they won't release the footage.
Cathy meets with Frank at the White House and is concerned that the Washington Herald – Tom's team – have been in touch. She's scared, but Frank insists that he'll handle it. Trust him. Worst advice ever?
Frank heads to the Roosevelt Room and confronts Tom again. He has his people making calls, probably a wise idea in case he mysteriously disappears like so many of Frank's opponents. It's irresponsible, according to Frank, the most irresponsible president this side of Nixon. Frank points to his liver as proof that Lucas Goodwin, the original source for all of these accusations, was a lunatic. What's the story here, that Frank is some sort of psychopath? A killer? Clearly, he's read the original outline for the show. Tom just thinks he's ruthless and corrupt and Frank tells him that all presidents are ruthless. Frank's trying to spin this all like a top, offering tidbits of his political machinations while painting them in just trying to help people. Nice try, Francis. With one last offer to Frank for him to comment, Tom's out.
Frank's back on the phone with Claire and he's worried that the story might finally destroy them. He admits he's frightened, but she's staying strong. Stamper interrupts to say that the kidnappers have called in, so Frank heads to the Situation Room where a video link has been set up between Ahmadi (dressed and positioned to look like he's still in Guantanamo), Frank and the kidnappers. Joshua and Ahmadi converse in Arabic before the latter switches to English to ask him to release James Miller. And... then it goes predictably wrong, with Ahmadi launching back into Arabic before the link is cut and Joshua hangs up. Frank asks what Ahmadi said and Claire, in the basement with the man himself, also wants to know. Well, that escalated quickly!
Seth and Stamper are watching TV as a translation of Ahmadi's statement plays. Turns out he was ordering the kidnappers to release the video and kill the remaining hostage. It's not good for Team Underwood. Seth wants to know what to say, but Stamper tells him to keep quiet.
As Stamper reaches his office, he finds LeAnn and Aidan waiting for him. It's serious, but we're off into the woods to find the FBI team hunting Joshua and his kidnapping team. If this action scene is what they were saving their money for, we're not all that impressed. Neither is Frank, when the team finds an empty cabin. He angrily heads to the corridor outside the Situation Room as Claire arrives. And he's clearly in some pain from the stress.
Seth is being besieged by calls about the Hammerschmidt article, and elsewhere, Remy and Jackie are listening to a radio pundit talking about the case. They've been getting calls, but seem pleased that the truth is out there.
Conway's planning what he'll do with the revelations, seemingly energised by the news. Hannah is still angry with him, and he tries to mollify her by telling her she's going to be the next First Lady, thanks to the damning allegations.
Frank's taking it easy in the residence, trying to feel better and he's concerned. He and Claire discuss their current situation, best described as up a creek and sans paddle. What are they going to do? They don't have time to do anything before the election, and then they lose and the investigation comes down on their heads. But Claire feels numb more than anything. Still, she's come to a realisation: they can't fight everything off one by one. But they're going to make it work for them. "Create chaos?" says Frank. But she means more than that. Say it with us, kids. War. Fear. Brutal. Total. President and Lady Macbeth, ladies and germs! You can pretty much picture them ordering the construction of a Death Star powered entirely by the souls of kittens.
The Underwoods are putting their plan into action, bringing Thom Yates in to write a statement that Frank will deliver to the nation from the Oval Office. Their staff is nervous over the wording and more, but Frank and Claire are committed. The cameras go live and Frank addresses his plebs... Sorry, his fellow Americans. There's lots of talk of turbulent times. Everyone's watching, including Tom Hammerschmidt and, elsewhere, the Conways. But not Ahmadi, who is being shipped back to Cuba. "We are at war," says Frank. "Soldiers will die. Civilians may die. There will be pain. There will be suffering." What, no, "there will be blood"? Frank also claims they will confront the inhuman, which makes us wonder if they're planning some big crossover with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Oh, and they're going to fight evil. So.... they're fighting themselves?
In response, the kidnappers will post a video at 9:00pm sharp, likely meaning that they're going to execute poor James Miller. Frank says the whole word needs to watch it. At the Situation Room, Frank asks Cathy to build a coalition for war. He wants to obliterate ICO. And he tells the FBI's commander to kill the kidnappers when he finds them.
Doug asks permission to leave, headed, we assume to some dark nefarious mission. But he's meeting Laura! Because of course he is.
Back in the situation room, Frank, Claire, LeAnn, Thom Yates, Cathy and Seth are watching something horrifying... It's the series finale of How I Met Your Mother! No, it's Joshua and Zach killing James Miller by slitting his throat. Everyone else squirms like human people might, but the Underwoods are impassive. Claire orders the sound cut off the video and as we slowly zoom in towards the power couple, Frank talks to the camera. "We don't submit to terror," he says. "We make the terror." Claire looks at him and then... AT THE CAMERA! AGH! And.... we're done for the season.
That big final twist is certainly a good one, though the season finale ends on a frustrating note as nothing is really resolved. True, the series has always been fluid that way, but it doesn't exactly feel satisfying as a contained season of television.
Yet you can appreciate that the ramped-up election and the fallout of the assassination attempt did a lot to restore the show, at least in the early going. It allowed Robin Wright to have a proper turn in the spotlight and brought some much-needed internal drama to the power couple, even if the reset button has essentially been pressed. A little like Aaron Sorkin stepping away from The West Wing on a honking great cliff-hanger, this seems as though Beau Willimon has handed his writing and producing team a box that is ticking and simply said, "you guys deal with it!"
Highlights this year? Joel Kinnaman got a few moments to shine as Will Conway, even if he is a little too Frank-like to be truly original. But every time he and Kevin Spacey got to spar kicked the show up a few notches, while the addition of Ellen Burstyn, even though she was in just a handful of episodes, was a welcome one. Can she come back as a ghost, please?
Finally, while the series still hasn't found a way to really threaten and challenge Frank in his presidency, which dampens the intrigue, the ICO situation and his many chickens coming home to roost at least holds the promise of some fireworks to come.