“Welcome back.” F.U.
Those are, respectively, the closing line and the concluding image (in the form of monogrammed cufflinks given to Frank Underwood on his birthday by trusted bodyguard Edward Meechum) of the House of Cards season premiere, and both seem equally appropriate. What better way to sum up Frank’s brand of political gamesmanship, in which the words he says are never what he really means? The spoken message may be friendly, but the underlying one is nearly always the same: F.U.
That’s what some people hate about House of Cards. The show’s cynicism is so ingrained in its fabric as to choke off any narrative possibilities beyond deceit and treachery. The series isn’t about politics in any meaningful way; it’s about the pursuit of power for its own sake and the lengths Frank (and other characters, for he’s certainly not alone) will go to attain it or prevent others from getting it. But that’s also what’s fun about House of Cards when it’s working. When the scheming and backstabbing really get percolating, it’s almost Survivor: District of Columbia.
“Chapter 14” picks up exactly where the first season left off, with Frank joining Claire on her run through the park. (Yes, the second season literally hits the ground running, as House of Cards is no more subtle in its visual cues than in its barbecue-based metaphors...but more on that in a moment.) Frank is days away from being sworn in as the new vice president, but there are still loose ends dangling from the machinations it took to get him to that point, namely Rachel and Zoe.
These two problems are dealt with in very different ways, as laid out by our favorite philosopher-chef Freddy in describing the secret to his tasty new rib recipe. He’s using a new butcher, one who slow-bleeds his hogs. Freddy’s not so sure he wants to stick with the new method, however; the more humane solution is to make it quick, like a shovel to the back of the head. In the world of House of Cards, this means Rachel gets the slow-bleed treatment as Doug forces her to quit her restaurant job (where Zoe can find her) and pack one suitcase for a trip to a safe-house of his choosing. Her life is no longer her own, but at least she still has it.
That leaves the humane solution for Zoe. Seemingly within minutes of Netflix making the second season available, social media was already abuzz with news of a “big twist” in the first episode. Once you have that piece of information in your head, it’s almost impossible not to see what’s coming when Zoe agrees to meet Frank (in stealth hat and sunglasses) at the far end of a subway platform behind an “under construction” barrier. Once he’s satisfied that Zoe has erased his texts and contact info from her phone and convinced that she’ll never stop digging into the circumstances of Russo’s demise, the only option remaining is to shove her into the path of a speeding train. (In the old days the mustache-twirling villain would settle for tying the woman to the railroad tracks, but Frank’s a busy guy. Good thing that subway came along at the exact moment he needed it.)
As a “holy shit” moment, this one is hard to top. There aren’t too many shows that would dispatch their third-billed star only 40 minutes or so into the season (although, again, I do wish I hadn’t been tipped that the episode contained a big spoiler, since 99 times out of 100 that means “somebody dies”). But does it work in terms of the series’ long-term prospects (even setting aside questions of plausibility, of which there are many)? The Zoe character was admittedly problematic is some ways, but she was the closest House of Cards has come to establishing a worthy adversary for Frank. (Perhaps Gerald McRaney will become a legitimate threat, as he was in Deadwood’s final season, but that remains to be seen.) And if Frank is willing to go this far to protect his interests, does Rachel’s continued existence really make any sense?
There are other developments in “Chapter 14,” of course. In dealing with Gillian Cole’s wrongful termination lawsuit, Claire demonstrates again that Frank isn’t the only ruthless member of the Underwood household. By forging a medical consent form and arranging to have Gillian’s insurance terminated, thus depriving her of an experimental drug that maximizes blood flow to the placenta, Claire holds the life of Gillian’s unborn child in her hands. But Claire’s demand comes as something of a surprise, as she offers to resign her position at CWI so Gillian can take her place.
Lucas Goodwin looks to carry on Zoe’s investigation even as Janine flees to her mother’s house in Ithaca. We meet a new character, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), a congresswoman Frank is grooming to take his place as whip. (Much more about her next time.) And Frank’s transition to the vice presidency provides a few moments of levity when his insistence on remaining in his own home rather than moving to the Naval Observatory necessitates a massive installation of security infrastructure. Can there be any doubt that Frank has his eye on the Oval Office at this point? And given the wet noodle of a president House of Cards has installed, will that really pose much of a challenge? And if Frank does become president...what’s left? These and other questions may or may not be answered in the weeks to come.
Here’s how this will work going forward: We’ll tackle two episodes at a time starting next week, and it would be awfully nice if the comments didn’t jump ahead of the episodes under discussion. No doubt many of you will have binged on the whole season already, in which case I direct you to this spoiler space I’ll be avoiding for now.
- “Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had.” When Frank finally addresses us directly at the end of the episode, it’s with a winking meta reference to those who have criticized the show’s signature narrative device. Some might have been lulled into thinking House of Cards had dropped Frank’s asides to the camera, but there was never much chance of that. I rather enjoy them myself, although the occasional Spacey eyeroll is worth a thousand words, particularly when Frank is in “Master of the Obvious” mode.