There are spoilers to be found here, so tread carefully and don't fall afoul of Frank Underwood's tactics.
Hitting Frank Underwood close to home was the order of the day for this third episode. And the architect of his malady? Why, his wife, who brought her plan into focus.
Our first shot is, like the start of this season, one of Lucas Goodwin. He's working away cleaning cars at the rental lot he's been assigned under his witness protection agreement. He finds a newspaper report about Frank campaigning in South Carolina but is more inspired by a mention of his opponent, Heather Dunbar. Our Lucas, despite his tricky situation, would seem to be planning something.
Before the poop hits the electoral fan however, we find Francis in a much more ebullient mood, singing and swaying in a church in Gaffney, South Carolina, his old homestead. Doris and Celia Jones are with him, and when he gets the chance to speak to the congregation – predominantly African-American – he's in full-on humble, charming Francis mode, relating the typical tale of his poverty-stricken upbringing and rallying the locals by praising how they stick together.
Elsewhere, LeAnn is travelling, but has time before her flight to check in with a data analyst (Aidan MacAllan, played by Damian Young), who has been crunching the numbers for LeAnn and Claire. He's found some places Frank is vulnerable. Claire's vulnerability remains at her old home, where she's getting ready to leave again. Her mother Elizabeth has stolen her earrings as punishment for taking the family money and using it for her political ends. "Don't come back here," scolds Elizabeth, but Claire sniffs that she'll come and go as she pleases.
Frank, on his way back from church sees a line of people queuing for petrol. They're not pleased. One flips him the bird as his car passes.
As Claire and LeAnn discuss what the analytics mean while flying on their plane, Frank is on the phone with his team, figuring out ways they can solve the current economic crisis. Upon landing, LeAnn heads to a bank where she opens a safety deposit box account, but is really there to open another box. She has the key, so you've got to figure that it's something Claire wants her to do. She snaps pictures of an image stored in the box and heads out.
Claire has gone to see Frank at the South Carolina house and, as the pair does the dance of cordiality, LeAnn goes to see political fixer Oren Chase (Murphy Guyer), who helped Frank out of a scandal in Season One. Turns out she wants something big printed, and hands Chase a big payout. When he leers at her leaving, she slaps him down verbally and tells him to get the job done.
Lucas is putting the pieces of his new plan into action, but his need for a car and someone to switch shifts with him at the rental lot means he'll have to do something for one of his fellow employees. He sighs, and gets in the car with the man.
As Frank is giving a speech at Limestone College, it seems as though Claire and Doris Jones have made peace with one another, despite Claire's Texas ambitions. Frank, however, is suspicious of his wife making nice with everyone, and he's right to be.
Oren and his men stealthily put up a banner on a roadside billboard, but we don't see what it is yet. That same evening, Frank is once again talking with his Secretary of State (Catherine Durant, played by Jayne Atkinson) about ways to deliver a short-term boost to the economy and a bump for his campaign. Even Claire makes suggestions, and Frank is soon also considering ways to make himself and the country look stronger, not least by quietly helping Igor Milkin, the Russian dissident we met in a previous episode.
When Frank retires for the night, he finds Claire in his bed, explaining that the guest room bed is too hard. He says he'll take it, but she tells him to sleep beside her. As they lie uneasily in the bed, Claire reminds him of their first mattress, a cheap thing on the floor in the house as they poured their money into their first campaign. Frank is clearly happy to have his wife sharing his space again, but is also worried about her ulterior motives. Again... he should.
The next morning, the banner is spotted and an angry Frank is dodging the press. Turns out the image was his father, Calvin, standing with a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Underwood and his team are cancelling events and in serious damage control mode. Meechum is dispatched to check Frank's box of secrets in a bank vault. Not so secret anymore, Frank... Heather Dunbar, meanwhile, is answering questions on TV, aiming to look like she's not making political hay out of Frank's difficulties while doing exactly that.
Lucas has reached South Carolina and manages to finagle his way into the Dunbar campaign headquarters set up at a school. Nabbing himself a press ID, he then manages to make it to meeting with Dunbar's campaign manager, Cynthia Driscoll (Elsa Davis). He needs to talk to Dunbar; it's important.
Frank, scrambling to find someone who will stand with him as he tries to explain the picture, reaches out Doris and Celia, but they shut him down. Claire suggests that Oren Chase might be behind the picture and Frank orders him picked up for questioning. Now we know why LeAnn handled the meeting with Chase and didn't use her name.
Lucas has his meeting with Cynthia and Dunbar in a stairwell, but they can't follow-up on his accusations about Frank's past misdeeds. Lucas is desperate and panicked, but they can't help him. Poor Lucas... He's suffered so much.
Finally, Frank has convinced Gaffney mayor Gene Clancy (Lance E. Nichols) to help him out, standing with him in the same church he started the episode in as he makes his case. Explaining that his dad needed to secure a loan to save the farm and had to get to a local bank manager via the man's KKK connections, Mr. President throws himself on the mercy of the crowd, pledging to answer their questions.
Seth, back at the White House, sees how badly things are going for Frank, but is clearly ready to put the knife in instead of helping. He takes a picture of something on his laptop and sends the image... to Cynthia Driscoll, who he had a meeting with just a couple of episodes ago. It was a picture of Frank standing with a Confederate soldier Civil War re-enactor. Not the greatest image to get out given the current situation.
And indeed, it doesn't help: Frank loses in South Carolina. Theories swirl as to who might be behind it all – Seth points a finger at Meechum, but after they meet, Frank's convinced of his innocence. Briefly looking at a couple of documents from the box, Frank slams it shut as Claire enters. He's finally figured it out and is as incendiary as Claire is icily calm. They argue about how Claire is destroying Frank's chances and Claire makes her move - she wants to be back on the campaign... As his Vice Presidential nominee. Frank scoffs, listing the downside to her running, but she counters that she's ready for all of the criticism. Claire will either be part of the campaign... Or she will end it. As a deflated Frank looks on, Claire calls for a car and makes arrangement to head back to Dallas.
Big moves afoot this episode, and the tension crackles. It's a goldmine to have the Underwoods truly at odds and Robin Wright in particular is relishing the chance to be underhanded and tactical against her on-screen husband. But Spacey hasn't been neglected: in this episode, he gets to play all the sides of Frank Underwood, from scheming to frustrated to fiery to charismatic.
The Lucas Goodwin plot line does't quite work as well, but it'll have to be judged on where it goes from here. Ditto Seth, whose vengeful stance isn't given the air it needs to breathe, but also feels like something that will expand soon enough. Neve Campbell certainly seems to be fitting in well to the House Of Cards world, playing the resourceful and underhanded LeAnn.
The show as a whole has had a shot in the arm early this season, and while it's unlikely that Frank will end up losing the big election (what will the already-commissioned Season Five be? A disgraced Frank forced to bunk with the Orange Is The New Black gang because of overcrowding elsewhere?), it's fun to watch him squirm a little.