In a nutshell: Congressman Frank Underwood is seeking revenge on the president for not naming him Secretary of State. Frank's clearly got a well-honed game of usury and manipulation, and this seems to grant him superhuman powers to play people with a margin of error that hovers around zero. It's not particularly believable, but it's definitely fun to watch. So, when Frank gets passed over for the globe-trotting gig, he hatches a plan. A big plan. This means launching a smear campaign against the Secretary of State choice; ensuring his nomination putters out before he can be confirmed; whispering another name into the president's ear; taking ownership of the administration's all-important education bill (to win the president's trust); screwing over the teachers' union to get the bill passed; setting up Congressman Peter Russo to fail at a bid for Pennsylvania governor; murdering Russo and disguising it as a suicide; and finally, getting the vice president, who is conveniently the former governor of Pennsylvania, to take his old job back. By then, guess who's all cuddled up to the president looking like a good little VP? You know it!
None of this could be achieved without the help of two very important women: his scrappy journalist sex buddy, Zoe Barnes, and his well-poised, equally cunning wife, Claire. Zoe is HoC's token millennial. She has youth, audacity, and a Twitter account — and that's all Frank really needs from her. An awkward mix of ambition and naïveté, Zoe introduces herself to Frank by sending him a sort-of suggestive photo (à la Obama and the girl in the reddish dress). He takes the bait — believing she can be controlled — and her reporting career takes off. And, though Frank warns that he'll discard her eventually, she, twist, beats him to it. By the end of the season, Zoe's got the ol' Washington Herald band back together, and they're quickly figuring out Frank's role in Peter Russo's rise and fall.
Now, Claire is all up in Frank's machinations — except when she's destroying them in her own revenge — but it's not clear that she's privy to all the dirty details. Claire knows Frank arranged a brick to be thrown through their window, but does she know that her husband personally killed Peter? This matters, because the thing that makes Claire so fascinating is how she struggles with being a good person. Or, wanting to be a good person. Or, wanting people to see her as a good person.
So, let's take stock. Frank's got his VP nomination. Claire's turing inward, thinking about babying up before her hot flashes get any hotter. And Zoe? She's a few questions away from breaking a story that could bring Frank's house of cards down. Except, Frank's about to find out first. If we were Zoe, we'd pick up the dog-park beat, stat.
Watching Season 2? Follow along with our House of Cards recaps over the next 12 days.