There are spoilers to be found here, so tread carefully and don't fall afoul of Frank Underwood's tactics.
After a few appearances on TV screens and hovering in dialogue mentions like the dark shadow of Sauron creeping about the land (though let's be honest here, this show is about a Sauron), we finally get our first proper introduction to Frank's main election opponent, Will Conway, played by Joel Kinnaman. And the initial look at Will, his wife Hannah (Dominique McElligott) and their charming kids couldn't be more different to the usual footage of Frank and Claire. In fact, the episode goes out of its way to do that, showcasing Will and Hannah as loving, sexy and youthful, living in a golden-hued world of family and fun, whereas the Underwoods are in their usual Ikea-catalogue-from-Hell colour tones, and the feelings between them are decidedly frosty. And that's despite their shared acknowledgment that they need to be a team again.
They're busy working on the next stage of their plan, you see. With Frank the presumptive nominee for his party (thanks to Heather Dunbar dropping out after unintentionally making a comment on the current political race in the US by saying "controversy has TRUMPED – emphasis ours – issues"), now they need to be ready to run against Conway. Frank will need a steel stomach, according to Claire, and to be honest that would've been useful before he got shot.
The other big problem for the Underwoods and everyone else is mentioned here: ICO, the Islamic Caliphate Organization (or, the least subtle take on ISIS in current TV). Will's reading about it on his flight to a campaign rally, while Frank's getting a briefing about bombing one of their meetings from top military men and intelligence types, including General Brockhart (Colm Feore). At the same time, a lawyer is in FISA court (AKA the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), trying to get authorisation to start a domestic spying programme on American soil. Frank takes a moment to explain it all to us, the audience, outlining that he can use the rise of ICO to justify an order that will let him compete with Conway and his use of Pollyhop. Honestly, we'd be happier if he'd just make the name "Pollyhop" illegal. But there could be serious blowback if he does get the order and someone finds out. Oh, and now you're worried about this sort of thing, Frankie lad? Underwood won't authorize air strikes yet, even though the generals think they could cut the head off of ICO, clearly ignoring the lessons of history.
Weapons are also on Claire's mind as she gives a speech talking about ramping up gun control in the wake of the attempt on Frank's life. She even invokes Edward Meechum's name. Frank is not above using poor old dead Meechy as a prime photo op either, arriving at his grave in Arlington to lay some flowers. But first he has a little heart to nervous heart with Donald Blythe, "asking" him to "be" his "running mate", while all the time knowing that the Spineless Wonder, exhausted from the stress of a few days in the top job, will beep a warning given how quickly he'll back out of staying on the ticket.
Back at the White House, Frank "tries" to "convince" the party that he "really" "wants" "Blythe" as his "Vice Presidential candidate", but they're not convinced. They'll come up other names, not realising (as always) that Underwood is playing them like a cheap piano. Who knows the words to The Outmaneuvered Morons?
Conway is speaking at a rally, hitting his talking points (and a checklist of Republican political rhetoric) HARD. He's all for small government and not interfering with people's lives (what? like data mining their web searches to help win votes?). And he wants to protect liberty. Someone wrap him in the American flag right this second! THIS SECOND! No one actually does that, but it would work for him.
Frank is meeting with Stamper and Stamper II (AKA LeAnn), discussing the FISA action channeled through data expert Aidan MacAllen, a tactic they're treating as Plan B, and Plan A, which is trying to bring to light Conway's use of Pollyhop. Stamper is not sure about MacAllen, LeAnn's strongly in favour.
Conway switches to talking about ICO, hitting 9/11, his air force service and how he just wants to make the world a better place for his kids, other kids, rainbows and unicorns. But not ponies. Those arseholes are on their own. But as he's meeting the crowd after the rally, a journalist pipes up with a question about Pollyhop. And the question isn't, "who in the name of all things unholy calls a web search engine Pollyhop?"
It's Underwood Expository Theatre time again (different to Underwood suppository theatre, which was probably happening while he was in hospital) as Frank stalks a White House hallway and treats us all to a monologue about how surveillance on the scale he's considering is a gun that could blow up in his hand. He's obsessed with guns at the moment, which we suppose is only fair given he was shot recently. Oh, did the show mention he was shot recently? Because he was shot recently. It's capped with Frank standing between portraits of JFK and Ronald Reagan, both of whom had experience with bullets, just like Frank. You half expect him to swing a sledgehammer to drive his points home here.
Aidan MacAllen heads to a deserted building for a shadowy meeting with LeAnn and Stamper. He's suspicious of the rendezvous, and well he should; people meeting Stamper this way usually don't survive it. But aside from some continued reluctance on Stamp's part, and Aidan himself showing concern about the surveillance plan, LeAnn seems to be selling him on it. Still, Aidan would take the fall if it even came out. Dear Aidan: they'd make sure of it. Love, everyone who has watched this show before.
At a fundraiser, Will is plagued with more questions about Pollyhop, and finds time to sneak away for a quiet meeting with some of his team and Benjamin Grant (Daniel Sauli), who is the founder and CEO of Pollyhop and therefore the person we can all blame for the world's stupidest company name this side of Tinder. They debate the legality of their data mining and how the press is starting to ask questions.
Finally, Will decides to take an unusual course of action. Learning that the reporter who asked about Pollyhop earlier wasn't accredited by his team, he makes the leap that maybe Underwood is trying to drum up coverage. So... he calls the president out in it. No, literally, he calls him. Frank's getting his blood pressure checked when he picks up the phone, and smugly, calmly dismisses Conway's threats. He treats him to one of his historical lectures – which really makes us wish Martin Sheen would show up as President Bartlet to have a history-off with Frank – and puts the phone down, telling us in the audience that his blood pressure seems fine.
Later, Frank and Claire discuss her upcoming meeting, which is with Julia Merman (Erika Rolfsrud) of the NRA. The show relies on one of its well-worn tropes, splitting time between Claire and Frank coming up with language and points to use, and Claire deploying them in the meeting the next day. Claire uses everything, including paraphrasing Charlton Heston's "cold dead hands" speech to get Julia – so sorry about this – spitting bullets.
Conway has convinced General Brockhart to resign over Frank's seeming refusal to bomb ICO, but Frank won't accept it. Frank smells the filthy hand of Conway behind all this, and that extends to him telling us how he can smell conscience and that lies are even smellier. He must use some nuclear deodorant, because by that line of thinking, he has the very stench of hell about him. Underwood says he'll go ahead with the mission, but wants the general in charge.
LeAnn isn't thrilled with the plan to go a-bombing, since if ICO is eliminated, they lose their justification for the domestic spying plan. But Frank needs to keep Brockhart in place. They all discuss the spying plan again – Claire, Frank and Stamper are still all against it.
After a Frank/Claire strategy session, we see them meeting the party mucky-mucks again. Bob and the gang are roundly outthought when it comes to the Vice Presidential ticket. There's even a mention of tactics including nominating a supreme court justice in an election year. Accidental topicality, folks!
After Tom Hammerschmidt meets with an emotional, nervous Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer, cropping up for the first time since Season 2), he starts to learn more about Lucas, and keeps that plot line bubbling if you've forgotten it.
Conway, angered over the General caving into Frank like a cheap bit of wood, goes on the charm offensive with a web broadcast in which he promises to release all of his records, emails and videos to help him regain the trust. He even ropes in an unsure Ben to pimp the idea that Pollyhop is being transparent. It has an instant impact, taking over the news cycle and angering Frank, who still, in case you were not aware hates kids. But that's only because their bones get stuck in his teeth.
After talking with Claire about the idea, Frank decides to call off the attack – while making sure General Brockhart sticks around to squirm at the latest change – and is later seen in bed, where Claire calls him to point out a particular part of the Conway archive online. Oooh... sex tape? Nope, just a video from New Year 2013, where Frank and Conway met and talked about tall men and presidents, referenced when they chatted on the phone before.
After that little flashback, Frank walks to Claire's bedroom. "We're going to destroy them." "Yes, we are." Cue the dramatic closing credits score entitled "Frank Decides To Strike Back"!
Yes, we finally, properly meet Will Conway, who is everything the Underwoods aren't, but might lack the experience and skills to take them on. Still, Joel Kinnaman is a good fit for the role of the youthful governor, and should hopefully prove a worthy opponent for Frank before he's inevitably undermined and defeated. Kudos to the creative team for the use of colour, tone and mood when shooting the Conways, though – the subtle choice pays dividends.
Spacey and the writers are able to indulge in another long batch of Franksposition, but while the gun themes aren't exactly subtle, they do make for some dramatic monologues. And after her starring turn earlier in the season, it's reassuring that Claire hasn't just been shunted off to the side to back Frank up: Robin Wright gets some chewy material, especially her take down of the NRA representative. Our only complaint? No Ellen Burstyn, but we suppose that Elizabeth isn't exactly vital to the plot at the moment. We do want her to come back at the right time, though. Preferably wielding a sword. Just because.