In House of Cards’ fifth season, one element of the plot that can be a bit confusing to viewers is the allegiance of Mark Usher, who starts off working for Will Conway but who, about halfway through the season, starts suddenly dealing with the Underwoods. So what exactly happened here? At what point did Mark Usher start working for the Underwoods?
Early in the season, Mark Usher is introduced as someone who joined the Conway campaign late in the game. In Chapter 57, Usher says that the Conway campaign needed help, which is why they hired him. Based on the events of last season, he was probably hired after the revelation that Will Conway interfered in a House Intelligence Committee decision. Usher also states that it was Heather Conway, Will’s wife, who really pushed for the hire, which explains why Will himself seems a bit skeptical of him.
It’s established that Usher is getting some information from inside D.C., as he is friends with Congressman Romero, a Democrat who hates Frank Underwood and feeds him some information about the Congressional Black Caucus.
In Chapter 58, Usher speaks with Will Conway in his private plane. Conway is upset that Usher convinced him to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, and he tells Usher that if he loses the election, Usher will be out on his ass. Usher tells Conway that if he ever talks to him like that again, he’ll make sure Conway never wins another election in his life.
Moments later, Will Conway has his outburst on the plane in which he demands the pilots let him fly because he’s the president. Usher tries to calm Conway down, but Conway yells at him, saying, “I’ll fire you. I’ll leave you on the God damn tarmac.”
Later, Will Conway is on a call with the speaker of the House of Representatives, and Conway again freaks out and starts lecturing her. Usher hangs up, and he proceeds to tell Will that he has to call the speaker back and apologize. Instead, Will just walks away. Usher says “enough,” as if he has finally given up on Will Conway.
Four minutes later, there’s a scene where Mark Usher is suddenly in the White House speaking with Frank and Claire Underwood. At this point, he’s still working for Will Conway; he’s there to make a deal about holding new elections in Tennessee and Ohio. He also makes a deal with the Underwoods concerning a Supreme Court nominee, saying that he can make a recess appointment happen. Frank Underwood does speak about Mark as if he knows him, saying that Usher is always at someone’s throat, but Frank could just know that from observing him on the campaign trail. We can get a sense now that Usher is willing to join the Underwoods, but he has not technically done so yet.
In Chapter 59, Usher meets with Frank and Claire Underwood again in the Oval Office, and they play him a tape they have acquired of General Brockhart, Conway’s running mate, saying that Frank Underwood should be killed if he attempts to close the U.S.’ borders. The scene ends there, but we can assume that at this point, Usher has realized Conway’s campaign is over, and so he decides to start dealing with the Underwoods knowing that they will be remaining in the White House.
During the next episode, Frank Underwood speaks with Mark Usher at the Crow of Elysium, where Will Conway has not been invited. Frank directly asks Mark what he wants – perhaps to be named to Frank’s cabinet – but Mark doesn’t give him anything, not wanting to talk business at the club. Later, they talk as if Usher is still definitely a part of the Conway campaign. Underwood says that he’s never trusted Mark Usher because Usher once told him he would work for free, and Underwood says that no one works for free.
At the end of Chapter 60, Mark Usher again meets with Frank and Claire Underwood in the Oval Office. They reveal that they have a second audio recording, this one of Will Conway freaking out on the airplane, and they suggest that Usher join up with them. Usher says he can set up some meetings with them, and he’ll make sure that Republicans don’t defend Conway once the tape comes out.
By this point, Mark Usher has clearly jumped ship and joined up with the Underwoods, but he’s still technically a part of Will Conway’s staff, and he still appears with Conway in scenes. But he urges Will Conway to concede the race. Later in that episode, Usher speaks with Doug Stamper and Frank Underwood in the Oval Office, and he is now officially working for the president. It’s unclear what his actual job title is, but he’s probably some sort of senior advisor.
At the start of the season, then, Usher was officially working for Will Conway. However, he hedged his bets by maintaining some amount of contact with the Underwoods. Then, as soon as Usher realized that the Underwoods had some damning audio tapes that would surely tank Conway’s campaign, Usher jumped ship, and he is now working in the White House.
By the end of the season, Usher has positioned himself as Claire’s vice presidential candidate, and he waves to the camera at the inauguration just like Frank did in Season 1, suggesting that Usher may have actually had all of this planned from the start.