There are spoilers to be found here, so tread carefully and don't fall afoul of Frank Underwood's tactics.
If you thought the drama levels had been high so far this season, you haven't seen anything yet. Chapter 43 ramps things up to an extraordinary degree, and starts right from where the previous episode left off. Frank, Stamper and Seth are meeting in the Oval Office, looking to find ways to diffuse the bombshell that Claire dropped the night before. She can't possibly be the vice presidential candidate, can she? Seth argues the numbers don't support it, but Frank seems determined to make it work, probably because he knows what she'll do if it doesn't happen. Both the president and Doug seem suspicious of Seth and Underwood sends him out of the room so he and Stamper can talk. With Seth gone, Frank admits he's right about Claire and starts to scheme with Stamper as to how they can put a stop to this safely. How about co-opting LeAnn Harvey? They're going to offer her a job.
Frank is called to the Situation Room, but on the way stops for an odd little scene with Meechum where they discuss art and Frank ends up taking a painting from the wall and drawing round Meechum's hand right on to the surface in its place. It's a nice bonding moment for the pair, and a cheerful one after the strained relations from the recent scandal. Yet we can't help but note it feels like the sort of character moment that crops up on a show before something bad happens to one or all of the people in a scene.
Stamper and Seth are having a face-off in Stamper's office; it's clear Stamper still suspects Seth, but does his best to mollify him. When Seth threatens to quit, Stamper asks him to go back to his office and wait, and they'll talk again.
The president is seemingly beyond the talking stage when it comes to dealing with Russian president Petrov and rebel Igor Milkin. Secretary of State Catherine Durant is still raising objections to poking Russia by sending Milkin to one of Petrov's main enemies just outside his country's borders. But Frank will brook no more pussyfooting: the time for diplomacy is over.
Stamper is calling LeAnn to offer her the job of campaign manager with Frank's team. But her loyalty remains to the First Lady. She argues that they can find some convincing research to show why Claire could fill the VP spot, and makes a deal with Stamper that they'll both look at each others' research before making any decisions.
Heather Dunbar is clearly ready to follow up on the information Lucas Goodwin tried to give her when they met, but she's having no luck on the phone with Attorney General Martha Wilson (Ellen Harvey). The AG knows that to even discuss information from someone who is in the Witsec Federal Witness Protection Program is illegal on many levels. And Wilson can't talk for long, since Stamper is calling her into his office.
In Texas, LeAnn and Claire are watching focus group panels discussing the first lady. They're not good: people don't trust her, particularly after her stint as a diplomat in the last season. Claire has clearly decided something – the cogs are working in that clever brain – and she starts writing a note for LeAnn to take to the president.
Seth meets with Dunbar's campaign manager Cynthia in another anonymous bar and they trade barbs about what the others knows and what position Seth might earn if he betrays the president. Cynthia drops Lucas Goodwin's name, which makes Seth's ears prick up, even though he tries to hide it.
Back at the White House, Frank is being briefed before he's handed the executive order to send Milkin to meet with his fellow Russian rebel. Cathy objects again, but Frank signs the order. As the various advisors are leaving, LeAnn is ushered in to talk about her potential future with Frank's team. But she's committed to Claire and hands Underwood the First Lady's note. It is, as you might have been able to guess, a statement announcing her intent to divorce Frank, which LeAnn says she'll send out on Super Tuesday, a big day of voting in the nominating elections that would do yet more serious damage to Frank's campaign. This is a very real threat, and you can see in his eyes that Frank's incensed, even as he remains cold steel on the outside. LeAnn leaves and Frank tells Stamper that they have to stop her.
Claire is trying to make a phone call at the house in Texas when she discovers that all the phones are dead. Turns out there has been a credible threat called in against the house (obviously the work of Frank and co.) and Claire will have to stay put with no contact outside. She's serving at the displeasure of the president.
Frank has busied himself with campaign duty, out stumping at a local university. He encourages his supporters in the hall to be silent for a moment and hear the protestors outside chanting "Blunderwood." The president says he intends to reach out to them and listen, because even though they might not vote for him, he still leads everyone. Once he's outside, he's as good as his word, trying to talk to the braying mob. But his security will wish they'd never agreed to this, as suddenly shots ring out! Frank is hit! Meechum too! He tries to cover his boss and fires back, and we catch a fleeting glimpse of Lucas as the shooter, who is also taken down. The Secret Service, who will not be getting their bonuses this year since their boss is bleeding from an abdominal wound, rush him to hospital.
The episode goes into montage mode for a while as real-life US TV anchors Charles Gibson and Wolf Blitzer report on the president's condition. He's critical, with a damaged liver and a secret service agent is dead. Bye Meechum! We knew that little moment with Frank earlier on would come back to bite ya. Who wants to bet Frank will have an emotional moment looking at the hand print in a future episode... assuming he survives? In Texas, Claire receives the news stoically, and Elizabeth delivers the zinger of the episode, saying bluntly, "I hope he dies."
Vice President Donald Blythe (Reed Birney) is in charge, and he's a stuttering mess now that the full weight of the presidency has come crashing down on his balding noggin. But thank goodness Claire is there to reach out and offer any help. After Blythe signs the letter confirming his status as Acting President, he's briefed about the Milkin situation and crumbles under pressure like a biscuit in a pocket. As Seth is briefing on the transfer of power and Frank is fighting for life, Claire arrives at the White House (after stopping in to see Frank) and Stamper asks for her help with the acting commander-in-chief, who is having a hard time with big decisions.
The press is zeroing in on information about the shooter, finally putting Lucas's name out there. But foremost on Claire's mind is talking to Blythe about his decision over Milkin. She suggests there might be a third option instead of making him stay in the States or sending him to a rebel friend. They need a decision soon, as the plane with Milkin aboard is circling, waiting for orders. What would Frank Underwood do?
Probably not what Blythe does, acting on Claire's suggestion and ordering Milkin be handed to the Chinese as a bargaining tool against Russia. The cabinet and military advisers are in shock. As is Stamper; when he suggested Claire talk to Blythe, he didn't think this would happen. Which seems a little short-sighted if you ask us. He's furious, but there's nothing he can do as Blythe briefs the press.
Blimey... When House Of Cards wants to embrace its soapy side, it really goes for it. There's always that low-level melodrama hanging around, but this latest episode kicks things up a gear. We lose Meechum (honestly, not a huge tragedy character-wise; short of suddenly turning on his bosses, he was fairly played out and is actually more useful dead) and Lucas (ditto, though the ramifications of his death will be far greater, especially as it frees up the information he was holding on Frank) and now Underwood's life hangs in the balance. Of course Frank will survive, but the new power dynamic between him and Claire just got a whole lot more complicated as she goes full Lady Macbeth on Blythe. It's a power grab of the highest order and we couldn't be more thrilled for her. Not that we'd want to be living in an America that has her whispering in someone's ear who isn't Frank Underwood. And someone please just start putting Ellen Burstyn's name on a Support Actress Emmy now, please?