For this episode of House of Cards, the letter of the day is "A," which stands for "autoerotic asphyxiation."
Then again, maybe that's not quite accurate. After all, when we open on Chinese billionaire Xander Feng as he's tied to a fireplace and in the throes of a reverse, double-barrel bisexual blowjob, someone else has put the bag over his head.
We don't linger on Feng's peccadillos, however, and it feels a little weird to open on such a salacious red herring. Instead, we're immediately transported to 1860s Virginia, where a bunch of loony Civil War reenactors have converged on Spotsylvania County in costume to eat swamp cabbage stew, play fiddles, and pretend to die. As intrepid reporter Ayla Sayyad later puts it, "This is dress-up for grown men with toy guns."
Seriously, I can understand role-playing and a deep fascination with war and our country's history, but wanting to dress up like a Confederate soldier and go full Brando by staying in character for a solid week? That's troubling. (I also can't shake the image of that May-December romance between a couple of Civil War nerds on TLC's Extreme Cougar Wives. And, yes, I do watch that show. Shut up.)
Frank's also in Spotsylvania, ostensibly to lead a groundbreaking ceremony for a new museum. As much as Frank is an amoral murderer, at least he doesn't support the Confederacy: "Avoid wars you can't win and never raise your flag for an asinine cause like slavery." (I might've gone with "inhuman" instead of "asinine.") The real reason he's there, however, is to back-channel with Feng, who is a business partner of Raymond Tusk and has deep connections to the party leadership in China, with whom the U.S. is still in trade negotiations.
As Frank is led through a tour of the Civil War battlegrounds, he's confronted by an actor pretending to be Augustus Underwood, Frank's great-great-great-grandfather. He greets the VPOTUS by saying "I died here," in the creepiest way possible. I do not understand the significance of this little plot twist, and I won't go into it in detail.
The real plot point is China, which is supposed to build a bridge over the Long Island Sound. Feng initially agrees, but only if the U.S. does not drop its suit against China for currency manipulation in the World Trade Organization. Frank, believing that to be a maneuver by Tusk, tells Secretary Durant to do the opposite.
After HEROnymous hands off his little spy-dongle, Lucas heads to the data center under the pretense of writing a story on the facility, but he might have given himself away by not taking any notes in his notebook. (By the way, do not Google Image search for pictures of actor Sebastian Arcelus, because then you will find this picture of him as Buddy the Elf on Broadway, and you will not be able to look at Lucas seriously, ever again.) He manages to conspicuously jam the dongle into a server, but is immediately arrested by the FBI. Bye, Lucas.
Meanwhile, Claire is lobbying the First Lady to join her in enacting sexual assault reform in the military. We're also introduced to the willies-inducing Seth Grayson, a higly motivated sleaze who goes to visit and intimidate the sweet widow of a dead doctor, who just happened to have performed a hush-hush abortion on Claire. (The same abortion she admitted to in her CNN interview, but for which McGuinness was not actually responsible.) Seth convinces the old lady to hand over her husband's secret abortion journal and takes it straight to the Underwoods as a sort of informal resume. They decide to bring him on the team, but they're wary of him.
Back in Spotsylvania, the fiddles keep fiddling as the back-channeling begins to break down. Feng threatens to hold up the bridge if the suit isn't reintroduced, and Frank is more than willing to call his bluff. Having the suit dismissed means a loss of potential billions for Feng and Tusk both. Frank could care less about the money, though — the embarrassment at having one of his campaign promises stalled makes POTUS mighty pissed at Tusk, and that is Frank's only goal.
That's the problem with this season: So far, almost all of Frank's actions have been directed toward discrediting Tusk, either out of spite or as a part of some far-too-complex long-game to take the President's place. It's hard to believe, however, that even Frank could be 16 steps ahead of everyone else in order to make that happen. While we might not empathize with Frank's character, we're still supposed to secretly root for him to win, but that becomes a lot harder when his only motivation seems to be petty revenge.