“Chapter 17” casts its net too wide to qualify as a bottle episode, but it does confine Frank Underwood to one location for most of its running time as he tries to work congressman Donald Blythe for his block of votes on the entitlement bill. Frank and Blythe are quarantined in Jackie’s office due to an anthrax scare, and it’s a measure of the level of unreality I’ve come to expect from House Of Cards that I assumed from the beginning Frank had sent the white powder himself as some sort of masterful ploy.
That doesn’t turn out to be the case, and in fact, the result is one of the few times Frank comes up empty. Given all the time in the world and a captive audience, he still can’t manage to work his magic on Blythe, who holds a grudge over last season’s education bill. So often on this show Frank is Lucy holding the football and every other character is Charlie Brown, so it’s refreshing that Blythe, once burned, isn’t falling for Frank’s bald flattery or feigned sincerity over the Alzheimer’s research budget. Frank may be a master strategist but sincerity and human empathy aren’t his strong suits.
Contrast that with the episode’s other major one-on-one sitdown, Claire’s interview with CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield, in which Claire manages a convincing simulation of the sort of warmth and humor that don’t exactly flow naturally from her. We know it’s calculated performance, both because we’re familiar with Claire’s usual icy demeanor and because we see her running her lines with new communications director Connor Ellis, trying to make her rote answer to the “Why no kids?” question sound more natural. When Banfield knocks her off her game with pointed questions about whether she’s had an abortion (because, you know, those CNN interviews are always so hard-hitting), Claire out-Underwoods Frank by twisting the moment to her advantage, confessing to the abortion but falsely pinning it on her rapist, General McGinnis. Wright does some of her finest acting of the series so far in these scenes, making Claire sympathetic even at her most calculating.
As far as political theater goes, however, Jackie Sharp takes the cake. She accomplished what Frank was unable to do by confronting Blythe with reams of paper she claims contain the names of everyone in America who’ll be affected by the government shutdown. Blythe still won’t cave, but he allows enough members of his faction to defect in order to pass the bill. “I’m not Frank Underwood,” she claims, but on House Of Cards Frank Underwood is a virus and everyone gets infected to one degree or another.
Everyone except Lucas Goodwin, who has absolutely no game at all. His brief and pathetic attempt to avenge Zoe Barnes pretty much comes to an end in “Chapter 18,” in the most abrupt and predictable way imaginable. Goodwin never came close to being a worthy adversary for Frank, or even a believable newspaper editor (Jimmy Olson has more gravitas than this guy). It’s as if the writers decided there was no point in stringing out such a non-threat any longer and dropped the guillotine as quickly as possible.
A more viable antagonist is introduced in “Chapter 18” in memorable fashion, as we meet Chinese billionaire Xander Feng in the midst of some kinky three-way, erotic asphyxiation action. Are you telling me this guy is bad news, House Of Cards? Feng is partnered up with Raymond Tusk, and he’s conducting back-channel trade negotiations with Frank, who sees this as an opportunity to piss off the president and hope his anger falls on Tusk. The back-and-forth over whether the United States should drop a currency manipulation lawsuit and how this affects the president’s pet bridge-building project is all a bit tedious and business-as-usual. The upshot is that both Frank and Tusk draw the president’s ire, but only Tusk is really upset about it.
The setting of the trade talks, Spotsylvania, Virginia, site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, adds a much-needed new texture to the show as Frank gets to know a reenactor portraying his great-great-great-grandfather, who was killed in the battle. These scenes are a bit reminiscent of the season one episode in which Frank returned to his alma mater to reminisce with his school chums. For a few moments, Frank’s interest in his “ancestor” almost humanizes him. Of course, it doesn’t last; Frank’s stated desire to pay his respects is simply cover for a face-to-face with Feng in which he asserts that all the money in the world is no match for the power he wields. Lucas Goodwin would probably agree with that, but House Of Cards would benefit from a genuine threat to that power.
It says nothing flattering about the human characters on House Of Cards that the most suspenseful and emotionally fraught moment of the season so far came when Orsay’s FBI handler threatened to squash poor Cashew under his shoe.
“Chapter 18” introduces Seth Grayson, another Underwood-in-training who seeks to unseat Connor as communications director. His tactics prove he’s a perfect fit, as he manages to track down evidence of Claire’s real abortion under false pretenses, then not-quite-blackmail her into giving him the job (or at least, a position from which he can antagonize Connor into vacating the job he wants).
I’m not familiar enough with Ashleigh Banfield to say if she was accurately portraying herself or if her performance was intended as self-parody. Maybe there’s no difference.