There are spoilers to be found here, so tread carefully and don't fall afoul of Frank Underwood's tactics.
The wheeling and dealing really kicks in on episode 2, AKA Chapter 41, as the early sides are drawn and we get an inkling of how dangerous the Underwoods fighting each other might truly be. Woe betide anyone who gets in their way. But it's Elizabeth Hale, Claire's mother, who dominates the first scene, hosting a party with her friends, none of whom have much love for Frank. Elizabeth steers them towards anonymously helping Claire with their funds. She may regret that later on.
Celia Jones (LisaGay Hamilton) is in Washington, lobbying Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) about her mother's campaign for a new breast centre clinic, pledging support from Texas if she can help, but Jackie's not sure. Claire is still trying to find a way to secure the 30th district congress seat despite Doris Jones' reluctance, but she also has shown up in Washington to show her face at the State of the Union speech. There's a particularly frosty moment as she walks into the Underwood bedroom to find a note (signed "Francis", a blatant attempt by Frank to callback to happier times) attached to a pair of Frank's mother's earrings, something he hopes she'll wear to the speech.
That's also is Frank's mind as he fine-tunes the language he'll deliver at the SotU, but he's been called into the Situation Room to hear about Russian President Petrov's (Lars Mikkelsen) latest machinations. He's been rooting out those plotting against him, taking their businesses and having them killed. Bet Frank wishes he could get away with that. One of the president's enemies is sitting on his plane at a secure airspace having fled to the States. Frank would be quite happy to send the new arrival packing, but his team suggests it could have economic implications for the US.
As Claire decides on dresses for the event, she talks to her mother on the phone, who urges her to run for office using her maiden name. We get to see how much control Elizabeth can – or wants to – exert over her daughter here in terms of how she demands Claire dresses, and it's well played by Ellen Burstyn and Robin Wright. But Claire decides that politically, the smarter move is not to anger Frank. At least not yet.
"Not yet" turns out to be almost immediately, however, as a cordial meeting between Frank and Claire in the Roosevelt Room is also a fine example of these two titans dancing around the real issue: how much support Claire will offer him, and how willing he is to help with her own ambitions. He's naturally all about his own elections issues, and while they seemingly part on good terms, the subtext tells a very different story. Which leads to Frank heading to the Oval Office and starting to change his speech again, while asking that a new guest be added to the evening's list. Who could he possibly mean?
Jackie Sharp, meanwhile, is enjoying a rendezvous with former lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), who makes his first appearance this season. In between seducing him, she asks if he'll find out what's going on in Texas. As she's leaving after their tryst, an investigator hired by LeAnn and Claire snaps her picture, and also sees Remy leave separately.
This episode's big scene is the State of the Union speech itself, a master class in Frank Underwood manipulation and political thinking. He's invited Doris Jones and places Celia right next to Claire for maximum embarrassment. And that's just the tip of this iceberg: he uses the speech not only to lob criticism (diplomatically delivered) at Russia, but to promise Doris he'll help fund her clinic and endorsing Celia to take her place. Claire will need a metric tonne of aloe to help soothe that burn.
The speech is also of interest to old acquaintances Remy and LeAnn, who meet in a bar so he can sound her out about Claire and Texas, but LeAnn's not one to spill her secrets so easily. The meeting, and what he learned (or rather, didn't) clearly had an impact on Remy, who has nothing to tell Jackie when she calls him and even remains noncommittal about seeing her again.
A quietly furious Claire is on her way to the airport post-speech, discussing with LeAnn on the phone a potential next move. But she's informed that the car will be taking her back to the White House, and on arrival at the residence, sees Doris Jones coming down the stairs. Claire tells Frank when they meet that she's not giving up her ambitions, and it's all too clear that Frank politically slapping her down in the speech earlier that evening means she'll try again. But she makes a show of seeming to agree with him about the need for her to wait, and he offers to find her a senate seat if she'll just help him win the next election.
And guess what happens next? Just when you thought Frank had gotten out of the habit of addressing the camera, a technique the show hasn't used for a while, here he is again, chatting away about a boy he used to know in his younger days. It's all a metaphor for what's happening with Claire, and makes it clear that Frank will not stand for her causing him trouble.
Bad news, Francis... Claire finally arrives at her plane and tells a waiting LeAnn that her plans are very much still in place, but that she's got a bigger target in mind. LeAnn, for her part, seems ready to join up, but demands to be paid.
Frank's on the phone with President Petrov, trying to hammer out a deal around the "traitor" hiding on US soil and demanding asylum. But the two grandstanders can't come to an agreement, so Frank will hold on to the man, named Igor Milkin (Leonid Citer) for now.
Back in Texas, Claire is smoking in the house when she's confronted by Elizabeth, who remarks how much her father hated Claire's habit. Claire explains that she needs money to fund her new campaign - a cool $1.5 million, but Elizabeth isn't sure. Which leads Claire go Full Underwood and threaten to sell the estate out from under her mother. It's another brilliant scene between these two powerful women, which ends with Burstyn delivering the hell out of the line, "I AM THE MOTHER!" and then cutting to Claire smoking silently out in the grounds, contemplating the night and her future.
Another solid entry for the House Of Cards canon, moving things along much more smoothly than in the first, which was slightly burdened with setting things in motion. It seems clear that the writers are ready to relish the idea of Claire going full power against Frank, and it's leading to some of the best material Robin Wright has had to play with outside of that big argument with Spacey at the end of last season. The endless political dance between these one-time confidents is a shot in the arm the show badly needed: how many seasons could go by with Frank just quietly manipulating others before we got some solid drama close to home. The chickens are very much coming home to roost.
Neve Campbell also continues to offer good value as LeAnn, bringing a fresh female energy to work alongside her. And we can't say enough good things about Burstyn as Elizabeth. She's always been great, but Elizabeth is a wonderful fit for her, and it's a credit to the creative team that they've crafted a character that is this rich and layered within the space of a couple of episodes. The series hasn't always done right by its female characters, but this is definitely some of the stronger writing they've had for a while.
And how nice to see Spacey getting the showcase State of the Union speech, the sort of thing he can do so well, showing Frank's ability to drop political bombs with an enthusiastic smile on his face.