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'House of Cards' Season 4 finale recap: This means war

We made it. Are you ready? Let's see if our political lives can be salvaged, shall we? It's time to review the season finale, Chapter 52.

The big news

With lives on the line, Claire and Frank take drastic measures to handle the hostage crisis. But should they manage to succeed, they still face the possibility of their empire crumbling, with Tom Hammerscmidt set to publish and the NSA close to uncovering the surveillance program.

This was a very bad day for the Underwood family, and it made for a chaotic finale.

Episode recap

With the crisis coming to a head, Claire travels to Virginia and has Yusuf Al Ahmadi flown in to a government safe house there. At the same time, Frank chooses to play hardball with the Millers' captors, going against the wishes of his advisers. "I want to include Ahmadi," Frank tells them. "You release the Millers, then we put him on," Frank says, betting that a chance to speak to their leader is leverage enough.

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He gets a partial win, securing the release of the daughter and the mother, leaving Claire's attempt to convince Ahmadi to play ball with the Americans as the key step in saving the father's life.

Conway throws a hissy fit about bringing Ahmadi into the equation. "Watch me tell the press you put words in my mouth," he says, threatening Frank. If you come at the king, you best not miss, and this guy just missed.

The guy who looks like he would finish in fourth place at the Olympics in pommel horse, the guy who looks like he belongs in the "Sk8er Boi" video, ratchet Matt Damon over here, just threatened Frank. Frank shoots him down, telling him to check with his people about the story that's about to break. "Conway Lied...", the headline reads. Our boy is toast.

Back in Virginia, Claire meets with Al Ahmadi. She offers him a shower and fresh clothes. "There's no reason to keep up the facade," Claire tells him. She says that despite his front, he isn't a fundamentalist Syrian, but an Iraqi, and a former government official under Baathist rule there.

As their dialogue continues, Seth receives word that Tom Hammerschmidt has been trying to reach him. He checks his messages and sees that Tom is about to break his story, but has offered Frank the chance to comment on it before he does. "How did this happen?" Frank shouts at Seth. "This is as much on you," he says to Doug, jabbing his finger at him. "I want Hammerschmidt here," Frank orders. In other, also very bad news for Claire and Frank, the NSA continues to lean on Aidan. I other, other news, I don't want Kevin Spacey to be mad at me. Ever.

Claire offers Al Ahmadi the prospect of the Baathists regaining control of the government in Iraq, in exchange for him telling the captors to release James Miller. "We need to give the appearance that we've neutralized ICO," Claire tells him. "These people die, and it gives us all the justification that we need for a full offensive ... Or, we can quietly work together," she adds. I like Claire, I really do, in spite of everything, but this is not her finest hour.

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Things threaten to get even worse for her when Yates pokes around the White House looking for her, and LeAnn confronts him about his relationship with her.

Frank calls Claire to commiserate. She admonishes him not to cave in to Hammerschmidt while he puffs on a cigarette. She knows he's smoking, somehow, and scolds him for it. Pot, kettle. "If this story comes out, it won't be the smoking that does us in," he says.

Tom comes to the White House to meet with Frank. The president comes out firing, discrediting Walker and dismissing Remy and Jackie as, "two people, with very big chips on their shoulders, fabricating all this nonsense to justify their infidelity."

"The only thing I care about is the truth," Tom says.

Frank continues to spar with Tom, who admits that he doesn't think Frank had anything to do with Zoe's death. "I never believed you were a murderer, and I still don't," he says. "You're corrupt. You destroy whatever's in your path," he says. Frank says that every president is ruthless, but that doesn't make them corrupt.

He goes on to admit that he had a professional relationship with Zoe and that he was her source. "I've told you the truth," Frank says. "Do you believe me?" "Not for a second," Tom says. Unable to co-opt Tom, Frank refuses to go on the record, and the damaging story will see the light of day in hours.

"I don't know how we survive this story," he tells Claire over the phone. Something tells me you will, or else Season 5 will be quite dull.

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"I'm frightened, Claire," he admits. "There is a solution. There always is," Claire tells him. And we're about to find out what depraved solution they can cook up.

Their personal troubles have to be tabled, though, as the terrorists make contact with the White House. With two-thirds of the Millers safe, Claire's negotiating tact seems to work, as Al Ahmadi agrees to say what the Americans want him to on video. When cameras roll, though, Al Ahmadi goes off-script and orders his soldiers to kill James Miller.

As things deteriorate on all fronts, Seth has a meltdown. Doug tries to calm him by telling him to "eat some food", in a way that clearly communicates that Doug Stamper is an android. Aidan and LeAnn give Doug more bad news, telling him that they no longer have control over the surveillance program.

The FBI raids a potential hideout, but the terrorists are long gone, with their hostage. They announce that they will make a live broadcast on the Internet that evening, almost surely an execution on video.

Claire returns to Washington and huddles with Frank. This was an acting master class. "Three weeks, then the election," Frank says. And everything ... gone." "We can't fight everything off one by one, Francis," Claire says. "But if we make this ... we make it work for us," she trails off.

"Create chaos," Frank offers. "More than chaos," Claire says. "War." "Fear. Brutal. Total," Frank says. "I'm done trying to win over people's hearts," Claire says. "Let's attack their hearts," Frank chimes in.

A WAR OF FEAR ON OUR HEARTS. ARE YOU PREPARED FOR THIS?

Claire brings Yates in and has him write an address to the nation. Frank delivers it from the Oval Office, promising to ramp up a war on terrorism. He promises to never release Al Ahmadi, and to cut off all communication with Miller's captors. "ICO will be destroyed. We are at war," he says. "There will be pain. There will be suffering."

After the address, the Underwoods gather with their national security team to watch the live broadcast. Miller's throat is cut, and Claire and Frank look on, unphased. "We don't submit to terror. We make the terror," Frank tells us.

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The real terror is having to witness Stamper's dating life unfold before our eyes

Final thoughts

After a dozen hours of television, and writing thousands of words about it this weekend, a long episode with deep philosophical conversations between Claire and Al Ahmadi felt like a drag to me. And although this show has always used violence at key times, I didn't find its use here to be true to the show's DNA.

One reason for the series' popularity has been this quality of absurdist entertainment. Bringing terrorism into the mix takes the show out of that theater and into the same realm as shows like "24" and "Homeland," and that's ground that has been covered ad nauseam on television in the last fifteen years.

Judging the season as a whole, I largely enjoyed the main plot, but found the secondary stories to be a waste of time. Going forward, the idea of Claire and Frank, their masks gone, more ruthless than ever, sounds like fun.

And I hope that the show can maintain that fun, almost campy element, and doesn't devolve into another "ripped from the headlines" pseudo-thriller.


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