In which Frank seeks to end the teacher’s strike, Claire visits an old friend in the hospital, and Russo has a breakthrough about his political future…
The sixth hour of House Of Cards has a lot of heavy lifting to do. There’s the teachers’ strike, Peter Russo’s nascent run for Governor of Pennsylvania, a dying member of the U.S. Capitol Police, and the mystery surrounding the brick that went through the Underwoods’ window. To its credit, the episode balances those stories in a way that doesn’t provide much depth of field but certainly paints a broad canvas for things to play out in later episodes. There’s plenty of space for the show to go in its future, but there’s certainly more attention paid to the emotional stakes of the here and now than in previous hours.
“Chapter Six” focuses most of its time on the Underwood/Spinella fight, with this hour taking place roughly a month after the fundraiser/protest that kicked off the teachers’ strike in the first place. But it’s Claire Underwood who gets the most compelling storylines this week, as the show starts to scrape away the steely surface and see what really makes her tick. We’ve understood certain elements already: She’s driven, she’s loyal to Frank, but she’s also curious about what life with a man who all but idolizes her might be. But these have been signposts more than character traits, suggesting elements that the show hadn’t taken the time to fully explore.
That’s a problem with the show in general, which focuses as much on process as character development through this, the nearly halfway point in the first batch of episodes we’re still calling a “season” of “television.” Both need to simultaneously exist in order for House Of Cards to operate at maximum efficiency, but the show hasn’t struck the balance effectively to date. A show that simply featured Frank and Freddy talking over ribs might be a more entertaining watch in the short term, but would be self-indulgent over the long haul. A Law & Order approach would likewise not be satisfying over the course of 13 episodes. What these people will do is less interesting than why they might do it in the first place.
This episode’s exploration of Claire’s motivations finally provides greater context for the things she has done previously, and will hopefully provide background for anything the show needs her to do going forth. In early episodes, the show substituted “running montages” for “character work,” but has found ways to explore her psychological makeup in a more compelling way since. The Adam Galloway stuff hasn’t been exactly Must See TV, but at least has offered Robin Wright a different note to place. In her dealings with Steve, the former officer assigned to protect Frank for the past eight years, we get a little more understanding of not only why Adam might be appealing to her, but also why she’ll never fully commit to him. Adam thinks it’s out of misplaced loyalty to her husband. But it’s Adam’s idolatry (shared by Steve) that truly puts her off. Claire doesn’t want to be someone put upon a pedestal, but rather someone who puts her side-by-side as both wife and partner in all things.
That makes Claire not simply someone who sacrificed her own goals in order to allow Frank to achieve his. Their goals turn into one and the same, and it’s no coincidence that an episode in which Claire is most closely aligned with Frank’s professional life also features the smallest amount of Zoe Barnes. Without her, Frank’s plans would ultimately collapse, and he turns to her not out of desperation but rather from a place of absolute trust. It’s easy for shows to paint characters such as Claire as sympathetic victims, but when Frank uses her as a prop in his botched CNN debate with Spinella, she’s not upset to be put on camera as leverage. She’s upset because the two didn’t decide on that course of action together.
The fact that she and Frank are in on the brick mystery from moment one is meant as the episode’s narrative sucker punch, but while the reveal is thrilling in the moment, it also seems too clever by half upon any type of real analysis. This plot is House Of Cards at its best/worst, a show obsessed with demonstrating how much smarter Frank is than everyone else at the expense of making him seem superhuman in the process. The aforementioned CNN debate is probably the best scene in the show to date, one that demonstrates that Frank isn’t always absolutely perfect and puts him on the real defensive for the first time in the series. Sure, he’s been put into corners throughout these first six hours, but there has always been the sense that he’s just waiting for the chance to play the last card in his hand. Post-debate, he looked defeated for the first time. That color looked good on Underwood, since it was so different from everything else we had seen thus far.
Instead, the debate was just a blip on the radar, with just about everything else going Frank’s way. Sure, having Stamper throw the brick nearly lead to Steve’s replacement Ed Meechum firing a bullet into Frank’s chief of staff. But the brick incident not only helped Frank defeat Spinella and earn back the president’s trust, but it also put a trigger-happy ex-Marine in his pocket. (That firearm is Chekov’s Pistol, one that seems destined to go off again in the coming episodes.) On top of all this, Frank still has time to get Russo $4 million in DNC money to run for Governor of Pennsylvania, with Claire working with Peter to use the land on the now-defunct shipyard as a watershed that can develop thousands of new, green jobs. It’s all so clean.
But House Of Cards works best when it’s messy. Frank’s ultimate defeat of Spinella comes not from the brick incident but a random act of violence that kills a child who otherwise might be in school. It’s nothing that Underwood himself engineers. But it’s something that he prays might actually happen when he realizes his best-laid plans might not actually win him the day. He doesn’t overtly wish for a child to die, but does sit idly by with Stamper, listening to the police scanner in hopes to hear something that can be used for political gain. That incident allows Frank to establish supremacy in the final scene, to be sure. But what’s glossed over is the fact that Underwood never has a moment to contemplate the fact that he all but wished this type of tragedy in order to regain a position of power. Instead, Stamper and Underwood react to the news like kids on Christmas morning and never look back.
It’s one thing to see Frank fail professionally. But it’s another to see the human costs of that failure. The former drives the plot of this episode, but the latter drives what really matters. Whether or not Frank actually succeeds in pushing this education bill to the floor of Congress is ancillary to who gets hurt along the way. When House Of Cards emphasizes the latter, it works like gangbusters. But it’s not always clear that the show understands where the real power of its show lies. People like Peter Russo and Ed Meechum are just cogs in Frank’s machinery. But they are also people with recognizable faults and frailties. Frank’s theatrics are great. But what happens when the curtain closes on that performance will linger longer than the grand gestures made for those in the back row of the auditorium.
- 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.
- While The Washington Herald is a fictional paper, having real personalities such as Bill Maher and actual correspondents from CNN helps ground the show’s political machinations.
- The homeless man and his $20 origami swan felt imported from another, more esoteric version of House Of Cards. I like that version, but it’s another example of the program’s occasionally poetic flights of fancy clashing with its more prosaic stylings. Both of those clash with Frank’s performative asides to the camera. It’s one thing for a show to employ more than one narrative approach. It’s another to throw a bunch into a pot and pray for savory soup.
- “How many characters in a tweet?” Oh Frank. Just keep playing your PS Vita and stop worrying about social media.
- Were the president more than a cipher at this point, Frank flatly telling him “no” in their scene together would have had more impact. Ostensibly, everything Frank does is to screw this man over. And yet, the president has been onscreen a total of 15 minutes at this point. It’s understandable that Frank needs to work his way up to truly cut the president off at the knees. But the president’s absence makes Frank’s approach feel formless in execution. He’s battling an institution, not a person, at this moment.