A full year has passed since we've been able to indulge in any new episodes of Kevin Spacey's snarling molasses drawl or Robin Wright's circa-2010-Cindy-McCain pixie cut, but as of 3:00 a.m. ET this morning, the political animals have returned with their claws sharper than ever. We pick up right where we left off with the Underwoods, on their late-night scheming jog in all-black running gear — a little visual cue of their fearlessness and recklessness. Frank's fixer Doug Stamper awaits them when they return, informing Frank that his former fling Zoe Barnes and her colleague Janine Skorsky have been sniffing around in more threatening ways than usual.
To back up: At this point, the Scooby Doo team of Zoe, Janine, and Lucas Goodwin know that the late Congressman Peter Russo, who Frank murdered in a complicated scheme to secure himself the vice presidency, was involved with a prostitute named Rachel Posner, and that Frank is somehow connected to her. Doug's taken Rachel on as his personal charge, fixing her up with an apartment, a job, and plenty of mascara to cry through.
Frank tells Doug to handle the Rachel situation and heads over to get a post-jog cigarette. Claire's put the kibosh on this little Season One ritual, though. "We can't have a Vice President who smokes."
Cut to Lucas and Zoe having a bit of the old in-out, in-out, but Zoe's face looks a little like a cat getting its temperature taken: confused, hostile, and slightly skeptical. "Can you finish?" she orders Lucas. "I'm good." Frank's done a number on her psyche, and she can't shake him.
Emotional intimidation is just what Frank does. In the next scene we see that he has framed photos of Lyndon Johnson demonstrating his famous persuasion tactic, "the treatment," on his office wall. With him is a new character, three-term Congresswoman and war veteran Jacqueline Sharp, who Frank wants to take his seat as House majority whip. Experience-wise, she's about a decade away from being qualified, and there are two other more seasoned congressmen in line for the position, but Frank sees something in her — likely, a pawn.
Doug visits Rachel at work and orders shepherd's pie in the surliest way imaginable. He also tells her to quit her job and abandon her new life, because those meddling kids are on to her. Rachel's not ready to do that, though; when Doug stops by her apartment later, she pulls a knife on him. Doug overpowers her and drops her to the floor.
Meanwhile, the Washington Herald Slugline coalition keeps digging into Russo's "suicide." Lucas meets with his cop informant, who gives him the police report noting that Russo was found on the passenger side of his car. At the same time, Zoe meets with Frank in a park and lays just about all of her cards on the table. Frank straight-up lies to her about Russo, saying that he was on the passenger side because he had second thoughts before he died. Uh-huh.
We then get a brief scene at the dirtiest rib shack in all of the Capitol. Frank's enjoying some of Freddy's new-and-improved ribs, sourced from agonizing, slow-bled hogs, whose very illegality somehow makes the meat that much sweeter. (Not true: Even Temple Grandin asserts that animals treated humanely before slaughter taste better. Just sayin'.) Then again, it makes sense that Frank likes his pork tough and terrified.
Back at the Clean Water Initiative, we learn that Claire never planned to go to trial with Gillian. Instead, she forged Gillian's signature and cancelled her insurance, which puts the expectant mother at a decided disadvantage. "I'm willing to let your child wither and die inside you, if that's what's required," Claire says. (How can you not love her more than sharks love blood?) Having flexed her muscle, Claire offers an exchange: She'll resign from her position at CWI and Gillian will take her place, but only if she withdraws the lawsuit. This seems a little too good to be true for Gillian, but we'll see.
Zoe goes to rendezvous with Frank again, this time on a crowded subway platform. Sure, that sounds safe. Frank tells her to delete all of her phone records with him, after which they can resume their professional-but-sub-rosy relationship. Zoe's still dogged by Russo's death, though, and wants to know that she didn't have anything to do with his politically fortuitous demise. At the mention of the word "murder," however, Frank shoves her in front of a D.C. Metro train, sending her off to nervously bite her thumbnail in heaven, forever.
Didn't we know this was coming in one way or another? That Frank wouldn't just stop at killing Russo, and that having Zoe "wipe the slate clean" was just his way of tying up loose ends? What makes him more fearsome is that he might not be as calculating as he seems. Consider that when Frank killed Russo, it wasn't entirely premeditated: He took advantage of the situation in the moment, and that suggests some kind of psychotic impulsivity on top of all his well-executed connivances.
Same thing with Zoe — he might not have planned to throw her off a platform, but he made the decision to eliminate her well beforehand. Still, it might've been a bit too impulsive. Can he expect that there won't be a little bit of scandal? When do scrappy political reporters just fall in front of subway trains?
Once the news has broken about Zoe, Janine's not too keen on sticking around to see if it's her turn next. Lucas stops by and insists that they have to keep moving forward with their investigation, but Janine's more than ready to let Frank crush her sense of justice and journalistic duty. To drive the point home for her, someone — presumably Doug — stuffed nude photos of Zoe in Janine's mailbox. Creepy.
Everything else is going to plan. Frank is still maneuvering Jackie Sharp into his former seat — he tells her he admires her "ruthless pragmatism" because she bombed a bunch of women and children to death. Rachel has a new sad apartment, where she shares a very depressing meal of Indian takeout with Doug.
Frank, even more pleased with himself than usual, waits until the very end of the episode for his first Shakespearean aside, staring right into the camera: "Welcome back."