In which Claire throws a fundraiser, Frank fights with an education lobbyist, Zoe finds new employment, and Peter finds himself sitting in a warm bathtub looking at a sharp razor…
There’s a lot to like in the fifth hour of House Of Cards, but it’s also work to get to those interesting bits. It’s possible that the goal established in the first episode actually hinders everything else around it. To be blunt, anytime the show gets away from Frank’s stated intent to burn President Walker’s term to ashes, it feels as if the show is simply stalling, going down roads that don’t really relate to the show’s central thesis. There’s nothing wrong with painting a broad picture of a certain subculture, whether that be Washington D.C. or Harlan County. But unlike Raylan Givens on Justified, Frank Underwood isn’t simply trying to live inside his world. He’s trying to manipulate it. That shift means that Underwood’s actions dominate the proceedings so thoroughly that secondary characters feel like distractions rather than augmentations.
To wit: this should have been something of a coming out party for Claire, whose gala fundraiser forms the overall spine of this episode’s actions. After turning down the $1.5 million dollar donation from SanCorp, she’s left with an ambitious new agenda but only a fraction of the money needed to truly fund it. Even with Frank’s help in getting some congressmen and congresswomen to donate funds, Claire is still roughly halfway towards the amount Remy offered her in episode three. On top of that, she suffers the quiet indignity of watching Frank come home after what appears to be the latest in a long line of extra-marital affairs after she herself recently turned down Adam Galloway’s advances.
Robin Wright is a strong actress, and the scene between her and Kevin Spacey as they quickly fast forward through the established script they have developed over the years is strong stuff. These two don’t need to say more to help the audience understand what’s left in the margins, and it’s a rare moment for House Of Cards showing rather than telling. It’s also a scene that helps illuminate the arrangement between them without giving away the entire backstory. The first four episodes of this series kept things so close to the vest that ascertaining anything about them was merely a fool’s errand. (Trying to decipher the meaning of the final scene of episode two, in which Claire gravely looks at Frank finally using the rowing machine, is still a head-scratcher.) Getting all the answers now isn’t important. But getting a slow sense of the complexity of their relationship is. They can’t be ciphers for five hours and make their goals meaningful in any manner.
Unfortunately, once Frank’s undermining of lobbyist Marty Spinelli threatens Claire’s party, the scene shifts once again from Claire’s perspective to Frank’s. “I can’t keep having my work take hits because of yours,” spews Claire as the two try to find a new venue after the union workers at the hotel hosting the gala refuse to work the fundraiser in solidarity with the teachers’ unions. It’s an unfortunate line, one that didn’t have to be uttered in order to convey the clusterfuck at hand. A married couple that can speak in the clipped phrases mentioned above don’t need to shift to prosaic exposition just because the show needs to convey information more clearly to the audience.
But above and beyond that, there’s a bigger problem at hand: While the montage depicting the impromptu restaging of the gala outside as a picnic-style event is pretty thrilling in the moment, it avoids the chance to make Claire a smart, capable individual worthy of the praise the show has showered upon her to date. Other than coming up with the initial idea, House Of Cards shows Frank flexing his political and personal muscle in order to help Claire’s party come off without a hitch. To be fair, Frank’s motivations for doing so are clearly delineated and make perfect sense: He’s a guy who can sleep around with other women, but will protect his wife at all costs when threatened by outside forces. That’s all well-established. But…we already sort of knew that about Frank. We don’t know a lot about Claire, other than what the show has informed us through third-party characters. We know she’s a good boss through Gillian Cole, and worthy partner through Frank, and a sexually desirable woman through Adam Galloway. But when it comes to knowing Claire for ourselves through direct interaction inside the story, there’s precious little upon which to go.
“But this is only the fifth hour!” cry the commenters below, potentially. And it would be a fair point, except Peter Russo’s arc serves as a solid example that it’s plenty possible to not give away the farm yet maintain solid, consistent, surprising interest in characters even in the early hours. House Of Cards is capable of delving into serious character work when it wants to do so. In some ways, the fifth episode of the series marks the end of one arc for Peter (him hitting rock-bottom post-BRAC hearings and contemplating suicide in Frank’s bathtub) and the start of another (the potential running for Governor of Pennsylvania). Along the way, we’ve learned crucial things about Peter, with each episode adding another layer to his character’s complexity. This is hard work, to be sure. But it’s work this show can do when it wants to actually do it.
Tonight’s episode served to demonstrate Peter’s fragility, but more importantly identified a source of strength we didn’t know about previously. A constituent visits Peter’s office early in the hour, and it’s not only someone affected by the closing of the military base in Russo’s district, but a former friend as well. Through him, we learn a bit about the man Peter was before he took to snorting lines of coke over of dangerously sharp letter openers. “Where’s the Pete Russo who threw a punch when his back was against the wall?” this friend asks. It’s a line that suggests that Frank’s plan to control Peter over the long haul might actually backfire, which is something desperately needed at a time in which Frank succeeds at literally every fucking thing he tries. The way in which Frank treated Peter in his bathroom was established in the first scene of the series (with the wounded dog) and the end of the second hour (in which he calmed the homeless man). That suggests Frank has a history of success in treating problems in this manner. But tonight’s episode suggested, FINALLY, that there’s something even Frank might not be able to predict and counter. Even if we don’t know how Pete might “punch” back in the future, we know this cocked fist is possible in some form. That’s all we need in order to maintain interest.
Zoe Barnes is another person that Frank thinks he can control, but it’s unclear if House of Cards can control this character at this point. Moving her out of The Washington Herald last week felt like a bold move, one that could have dragged out all season but instead occurred at a logical junction. But this Slugline story, combined with former Herald editor Tom Hammerschmidt’s attitudes towards new journalism, reeks of a show with only a cursory understanding of the intersection of old and new media. “Zoe Barnes. Twitter. Blogs. Enriched media. They’re all surface. They are fads. They aren’t the foundation upon which this paper was built on,” says Hammerschmidt, right before telling Barnes to get off his damn lawn already. To be fair, the show seems to indicate that Tom’s ideas are outdated and archaic at this point. But the Slugline stuff doesn’t do House of Cards any favors in attempting to depict a website that seems to have its office located somewhere in 1998. (Seriously, there’s everything besides a foosball table there to visually signify a dot-com era office.)
Zoe dons the white dress that she wore in the show’s first episode while attending Claire’s gala (and dig up dirt for Frank), but she’s still as unknowable as ever. She wants Frank to trust her, going so far as to allow him to take nude photographs of herself as preemptive collateral. But just because she stripped naked before him doesn’t mean the show has laid bare anything about what makes her tick. House Of Cards doesn’t have a woman problem because we understand Frank and Peter better than we do Claire and Zoe at this point. But it does have a narrative problem when only 50% of its central storylines engage the audience on an emotional level. Again: we don’t need to know everything now. But we need a toehold, at least, in order to understand why we need to care about these two for the next eight hours and beyond. Claire can dig all the wells she wants. But House Of Cards needs to dig into what makes her get up in the morning for me to care.
- Standard boilerplate: This space each week deals with the show only through the episode covered. I’m writing about each episode after I watch them, but given the unique nature of the release of House Of Cards, it’s incredibly likely that I’ve watched far more by the time each review drops. Please keep comments below to only events through this episode. You can read Todd VanDerWerff's review of the full season and leave comments about all thirteen episodes here.
- Spinelli was such a cartoon of a character that I ceased giving a shit about anything regarding this increasingly complex storyline about the education bill. There’s drama to be milked from two opposing political positions (as seen on The West Wing and to some extent in the Peachoid-centric hour of this show), but the face of the teachers’ unions was so over-the-top that I started actively rooting against teachers in general. That’s…not good.
- Speaking of cartoonish…the way that rally was defused through beer and soul food was silly. Even if the protestors were not all teachers themselves, the way in which the folded almost instantly defied belief. The episode already demonstrated how easily the local reporters pointed out how off-base Spinelli’s protest was (pointing out the fundraising inside was private, therefore wouldn’t affect teacher salaries or benefits in any way), but Frank had to get the more overt victory in order to trigger the imminent strike.
- Let’s make #GoZoe trend, you guys! Or not. Either way.
- Christina leaves Russo’s office this episode, but something tells me we will be seeing her before long.
- “Come on, praise me like you should!” Is Frank Underwood a Fatboy Slim fan? Did NOT see that coming.
- Best shot of the installment: Peter stumbling into his office late at night, and each light above him turning on as he moved through the hallway. It was a simple trick, but one that also showed how futile Peter’s attempts to hide from the mess he had made truly was.