There are spoilers to be found here, so tread carefully and don't fall afoul of Frank Underwood's tactics.
The latest episode kicks off with the return of writer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), who you might recall from last season as the man for whom no sentence was complete without the most florid prose. Though the Underwoods, to whom he got quite close, canned his book about them, he still has it. And now he's meeting with Will and Hannah Conway about possibly publishing it. Surprise! Funnily enough, getting it out in the world before the election would hurt Frank and Claire and benefit the Conways. But how to make it happen? Turns out the C-dubs have some pull with Vanity Fair. Very sneaky... Bet they never live-stream this part of their lives, though we're shocked Hannah doesn't try to take a selfie with Thomas.
After the credits, we're introduced to Senator Dean Austen (Sean Cullen), who, we're told through a Frank-O-File briefing, is the party's choice for his running mate. Frank's not convinced, especially since Austen is a friend to the NRA. But he figures there's a need for balance given that he and Claire are pushing their big gun control bill. Who wants to bet he's only agreeing to Austen as a possible candidate so he can manipulate the situation? Oh, put your hands down, everyone ever.
Claire, meanwhile, is meeting Bob Birch and Senate Minority Leader Casey Giallo (Ian Blackman) about that very gun bill. If they want Austen as VP, they'll have to push the bill through. Frank arrives with Dean in tow as if summoned by dark magic. We're now wondering if he was just lurking behind the door waiting to make this entrance. Bob and Casey are insistent there be no leaks about Dean before the announcement. Good luck, boys.
Claire leaves to do an interview, and Frank asks her to leave the door open on her way out. Can't think why.... Except that Claire will be talking to Kate Baldwin, and they can conveniently bring her past the open Roosevelt Room so she gets an eyeful of Dean sitting there with Frank and the gang. The Underwood machinations aren't even subtle these days!
Aidan MacAllen, meanwhile, is showing a couple of NSA goons around his data setup, explaining how he's got the sort of data-mining tech they'd sell their grandparents to acquire. But even he needs old fashioned methods to get information to the Underwood campaign, which means he'll be leaving coffee cups containing USB drives on park benches for LeAnn to find. Nice touch having "Shame" as the name scrawled on the cup, but it does make us worry that rogue pigeon agents will intercept the cups.
The Conways are doing the glamour thing – posing while taking a selfie, of course – at a Vanity Fair photoshoot for their cover. Turns out the editor, Dana Treister (Julee Cerda) is an old college pal of Hannah's. Mrs. Conway suggests to her old pal that she might just have another story for her...
...But wait! Thomas also meets with Stamper in a coffee shop and offers the Underwoods access to the book. He mentions the Conways' interest and pushes the idea of a meeting with Frank to discuss options. He won't tell Stamper what he intends to say, because Doug, in his opinion, is just a messenger. And because of this, we predict Thomas might one day end up a corpse stuffed inside a wall cavity.
Claire's recording a robocall (how we wish it was Will Conway in this scene so we could make a Joel Kinnaman/RoboCop joke, but never mind), and the team backing her bill has also coincidentally just received a huge data drop on potential supporters. Wonder where that came from! Claire lays on the emotion thickly talking about how she felt helpless at Frank's bedside after he was shot. Robin Wright has a Golden Globe on her mantel for the show, but Claire could get one for this performance.
And as Aidan starts crunching some numbers, we're treated to the unorthodox sight of him dancing shirtless with headphones on. It's... odd. But funny, and it kicks off a quick montage of people swarming to make calls to Dean and other politicians about the bill.
In the residence, Claire finds Frank having a cheeky cig and scolds him, but takes a drag herself. Frank's been reading the chunk of Thomas's book that the writer gave Stamper, and he critiques its florid style. You're one to talk, Frank! Still, they both realise that Thomas seems to be able to bore through to their dark hearts. It's a wonder he's still sane.
Tom Hammerschmidt gets a call from Zoe Barnes' father Ted (Mark Borkowski), who is drunkenly driving (don't drink and drive, kids). He doesn't have much to offer, so Tom will continue his research elsewhere.
Dean Austen hosts his NRA pal Julia Merman, who is concerned about reports that Dean was seen meeting Frank. Wonder how that got out? She then visits Claire, who informs her that Dean will support the bill. We can all see where this is going: Dean is coerced into backing Frank up on the bill, Julia withdraws her support, Dean drops out of the nomination and the Underwoods get their own choice. Let's see, shall we?
In the midst of all that, we get a quiet moment for Frank, who discovers that the Meechum hand print he drew before the shooting has been painted over. It's a satisfying, if predictable emotional beat for Frank. He goes to see Claire, who is taking a bath. It's awkward. But they get around to discussing Thomas Yates, and whether he could be useful.
After Hammerschmidt confronts a homeless woman near the address that Frank and Zoe used to use for their rendezvous, we cut to Conway meeting General Brockhart to discuss ICO and how him sticking to his plan of resignation (see the last episode) might help them both, as he wants to make Brockhart his running mate. Also on Team Conway, Dana is meeting Kate Baldwin about potentially writing the Thomas Yates piece. Kate's not on board.
But Frank and Claire are planning their own strategy for Thom... They'll let him shadow them again if he also works as a speechwriter. His writing plus Frank's delivery? Ears are going to bleed. There's talk of Thom keeping an eye on them while they keep an eye on you, which is a little unsubtle given the domestic surveillance plot going on.
Frank is back at Hammond college, the site of the shooting, to pimp the gun control bill. He invokes Meechum yet again and mentions the calls from the public about the bill. And then he introduces Dean! Who backs the bill himself. Totally called it.
It conveniently – a little too conveniently – dovetails with Tom Hammerschmidt's investigation, as he's talking to a local pizza restaurant owner about whether Zoe and Frank ever showed up. The man doesn't recall them, but he sees Meechum's face on the TV during Frank's speech and says the ex-Secret Service agent (and formerly alive man) came in for coffee a few times. You can see the light bulb switch on above Tom's head.
After reading some of his own writing back to himself, Thom decides to take the Underwoods up on their offer. Which angers the Conways, who show some of their darker side when they discuss it later. Will even uses the "P" word, and we don't mean "petticoat". It's enough to give you the vapors. But they figure that can pivot the Vanity Fair story towards their agenda instead.
After a visit from a furious Julia, Dean decides to pull out of the Underwood ticket, and now Frank and the leadership need a new name. The party gang push their list, but Frank wants Secretary of State Cathy Durant. Really? After her clashes with Claire recently? But Frank seems insistent and wants the party to "choose her".
General Brockhart is getting his picture taken by the Vanity Fair team. He's resigned, and Kate will be chatting to him. Looks like Conway has his Veep. Frank and Claire find out via a picture of Brockhart that Dana sends Seth, and they know they have to control the news cycle. Doug, in private, blames the new twist on LeAnn and orders a newly obedient Seth to find some dirt on her.
Tom, meanwhile, has calendar pages taped to his windows and is ready to dig in to public records of Meechum's travel to start looking into the links between Zoe and Frank. As the camera slowly zooms out, we're done for the episode...
Were you somehow thinking that Will and Hannah Conway would forever be depicted as loved-up, perfectly aligned and almost completely scrupulous? Clearly, you were watching some other show. Nope, in true Cards style, we're seeing their more devious, calculating side come out. There's some choice political manipulation going on with Claire and Frank too, and it's great to see them working together again properly, despite the shadow of their split sticking around.
Stamper seems to be letting professional jealousy and concern get him a little too worked up about LeAnn, so we're hoping that doesn't lead to him yet again getting into trouble when it comes to his obsessive need to protect the Underwoods.
So Season 4 continues to be an interesting one, with the Conways providing the needed counterpoint for Frank and Claire, and Team Underwood's guarded reunion giving Spacey and Wright both the opportunity to play the hell out of their scenes. We're already enjoying it more than the neutered feeling of Season 3. Though if we didn't already know that the show has been renewed for another season, the sheer number of people returning for this one would make us wonder if it wasn't the team taking one final lap before wrapping it all up. But where is Cashew? We want Cashew!