The series shocks from the very beginning, opening with Congressman Underwood killing a dog with his bare hands while explaining that sometimes people need someone to do the necessary thing, no matter how unpleasant that thing may be. Underwood is devastated when he finds out that he is passed over for Secretary of State, because President Walker prefers him to promote his agenda in Congress. However, the power-hungry politician quickly hides his disappointment and starts plotting his revenge, while still posing as a loyal ally to the President.
Claire, Frank’s wife, runs an organization, The Clean Water Initiative, which she uses to cultivate her own influence. She proves just as ruthless and power-hungry as her husband when she fires half the staff, including her office manager. She also acts like an enabler to Frank, supporting him and pushing him to always do what’s necessary to bring them one step closer to gaining more power. Underwood starts a complex scheme to obtain a cabinet position. He gets involved with an ambitious young reporter, Zoe Barnes, and convinces her to publish damaging stories about his political rivals. At the same time, he manipulates another troubled Congressman, Peter Russo, to help him undermine the President’s pick for Secretary of State, Kern. He manages to eventually replace Kern with his own pick, Senator Catherine Durant. Underwood also uses Russo to pass an education bill, which President Walker greatly appreciates.
In the meantime, the new Vice President is the former governor of Pennsylvania, which means that a special election must be held for governor. Underwood convinces Russo to run, but then uses a call girl named Rachel to break his sobriety and damage his public image. When Russo wants to come clean about his role in Underwood’s schemes, Franks kills him mercilessly. He then convinces the Vice President to step down and run for his old position of governor, leaving the vice presidency open for Underwood to accept.
Things don’t go quite as the Congressman hoped, since Walker initially asks Underwood to vet Missouri billionaire Raymond Tusk for the job. However, Tusk agrees to influence Walker to nominate Underwood, as long as the latter accepts to perform certain favors to benefit the billionaire. The two eventually make a deal. The season ends with Underwood receiving and accepting the nomination for VP. However, Zoe begins piecing together clues that might help her get to the bottom of Underwood’s scheming.
Zoe and two of her colleagues, Lucas and Janine, continue to dig up information on Underwood and stumble upon Rachel, the call girl Frank used to manipulate Russo. Doug Stamper, Frank’s aide, takes Rachel to a safe house, while Underwood takes care of Zoe by… pushing her in front of a train. Now that’s a visual we won’t forget anytime soon.
This causes Janine to abandon the investigation, but Lucas doesn’t give up so easily. He continues to search for clues by himself, and enlists the help of a hacker, Gavin. It is eventually revealed that the hacker is working for Stamper, and the reporter ends up caught in an FBI sting and accused of cyber-terrorism. So much for the media being the Fourth Estate. Doug is busy developing an unhealthy obsession for Rachel, which makes the girl worry about her safety and her future. She eventually hits Doug with a rock and abandons him in the woods in order to escape.
Meanwhile, Claire befriends the First Lady and they support a bill to reform the military’s prosecution of sexual assault. This happens after Claire reveals in an interview that she underwent an abortion when she was younger, after she was raped. She also finds out that President’s marriage is on the rocks, a bit of information that will turn out to be pretty useful to her husband later on.
Tusk still has a huge influence on the President, but Frank aims to change that. He meets with Feng, one of Tusk’s allies, to allegedly engage in diplomatic negotiations. Underwood sabotages these negotiations and makes it appear as if Tusk was equally responsible for the failure. This hurts the relations between the U.S. and China and leads to a spike in U.S. energy prices. Tusk opposes the President’s efforts to manage the crisis and realizes he’s now at war with Underwood. To retaliate, he transfers a big chunk of the campaign money for the upcoming Midterms away from the Democrats and towards the Republicans. When Frank sends Stamper to investigate, he discovers that Feng was the one funneling the money, and convinces him to end his partnership with Tusk.
When the Department of Justice finds out that Stamper was videotaped in the casino, they start to investigate Tusk, Feng, and the White House. Underwood, conniving as always, manages to break the bond between the billionaire and the President. He convinces Tusk to turn against Walker, which leaves the president no choice but to resign. The season ends with Frank being sworn in as the new President of the United States.