In which Frank scores a big victory, the vice president starts stealing pens, Zoe meets several old coworkers, and Stamper scrambles to solve several problems surrounding Russo’s campaign…
The biggest problem in House Of Cards to date has been the fact that nearly every single character on the show functions as a cipher. We understand that there are things motivating their actions, but by and large, we have had to work so hard to understand these motivations that it turns into a series of 50-plus-minute installments of Where’s Waldo? The seventh chapter of the show owns up to this fact, which doesn’t retroactively make the first six better—but it does indicate that the program understands that prolonging this approach would have people looking for something else to watch on Netflix before the end of this first batch of episodes.
It’s a transitional episode in more than one way, with the show addressing the secretive nature of its characters while also moving into the second major narrative movement of the season. The education bill, which framed the main plot of the first six episodes, ended when Marty Spinella punched Frank Underwood in the face. Seeing the specific aftermath of that incident wasn’t necessary, and to its credit, the show immediately jumps to the press conference in which President Walker signs the Education Reform and Achievement Act. But with that done, the next phase of Underwood’s overall plan starts to take affect. In case you missed it, Underwood himself underlines this near the episode’s end, in one of the great “we don’t trust our audience to understand this at all” moments in recent TV history. In short: While Underwood could have torpedoed the education bill at any time, the president could have probably survived the blow, with only Frank suffering real repercussions from that act. But in passing the education bill, Underwood has Walker’s trust, which means that Russo’s candidacy now turns into something akin to a Trojan horse.
Key to this second phase is Vice President Jim Matthews, mentioned in one of Frank’s first monologues of the season but largely sidelined since then. “Now they are about to put him out to pasture,” said Underwood, after noting Matthews had delivered Pennsylvania to Walker. “But he looks happy enough. For some, it’s just the size of the chair.” Well, at this point, the chair isn’t big enough for Matthews, who has endured months of being frozen out by an executive branch that disrespects him. Matthews has his eye on another chair, a chair that just so happens to reside inside the Oval Office. He paws at it the way Zoe Barnes’ old colleague paws at her after a night of drinking near her apartment. Both men covet that which they do not have, and those desires can be manipulated towards the further goals of others.
In some ways, the connection between Underwood, Matthews, and Russo is too clean by half. But this is fiction, and fiction necessitates contrivance, and it’s fun to see things mentioned a few episodes ago lock into place. It would be nicer if the show didn’t feel the need to explain it, but the selection of Russo not only gives Underwood someone he can control, but also gives Matthews a chance to help Frank out in exchange for a chance to sit in that newly coveted chair. That feels as if this is where things are going, with Underwood having always planned to leverage Matthews’ feelings of inadequacy to help undermine Walker’s presidency. It’s still a largely mechanical plot, to be sure. But Matthews’ petty theft of a pen from the Oval Office desk gives a quick and clear sense that it will not be difficult for this man to sell Walker out, especially given the clout Underwood has obtained thanks to the signing of the education bill.
Russo’s run for Governor also reaches a transitional phase, one that connects his human frailties, innate strengths, and love of Christina Gallagher into a tightly constructed story that puts him through a personal crucible throughout the episode. In the early goings of this episode, the campaign staff struggles with the specific imagery around which to frame his candidacy. The word “phoenix” is thrown about, but it’s an inaccurate metaphor. Later in the episode, Underwood compares Russo to a spider in a wine glass, one that can crawl his way out if given the proper opportunity and motivation. Both comparisons imply that Russo has to rise up in order to achieve his full potential. But I wonder if the show actually believes that Russo won’t climb out of the glass, but rather just smash right through it, when all is said and done. Underwood loves to believe he’s got Russo on a set of strings, but the representative from the First District also feels like someone with such large inner reserves that controlling him at some point will prove to be impossible.
Zoe Barnes is also someone Underwood thinks he can control, through a combination of power, access, and a whole host of daddy issues. (I groaned, and not at all in a Zoe way, when she told her father, “I’m going to try to come,” while Frank was going down on her. Yikes.) Again, it’s all but certain that such control will be lost, but it’s less certain why that will occur. This isn’t about the plot being obtuse, but rather Zoe herself still suffering from an identity crisis. House Of Cards isn’t portraying her in different ways each week, but it has yet to really dig into what makes her tick. Frank psychoanalyzes her near the end of the hour, but it’s unclear if he’s providing an accurate representation of her inner workings or if he’s completely off-base. Defining what a character wants is Writing 101, and the show has failed when it comes to Zoe’s wants and desires. Why won’t she accept money and move out of her shithole apartment? Why is she trying to help Constance get a job at Slugline? Why does she draw penises made out of hearts on her widow? Not only does this lack of information hurt Zoe, but it also hurts Underwood. Since we barely know what makes her interesting, his interest in her seems like a perfunctory plot point rather than something from which the story as a whole is organically drawn.
Still, there’s far more good than bad happening right now on the show, which is settling into a semi-groove after some stumbling out of the gates. This isn’t transcendent work, but it is solidly entertaining. Storylines such as the one involving Stamper and the prostitute (Sapphire, née Rachel) that was with Russo the night of his DUI still threaten to drag the entire endeavor downward, but still might pay off in the long run. The show now has earned enough goodwill to not dismiss that plot out of hand, even if it feels designed to either pay off something in four episodes or utterly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at precisely the same time. The show hasn’t had to get truly bloody when tying off loose ends yet. We’ve seen several bruised eyes in the past few episodes. But it’s probably time for the show to introduce some truly life-or-death stakes for this to move beyond interesting television into something truly compelling.
- 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 13 episodes here.
- The less said about Claire and her paper cranes, the better, especially since the show seems to hint at some spark between her and Russo over them. If the show goes down that road, there will be no end to my eyerolls.
- “Generosity is its own form of power, Zoe.” That line theoretically explains why Zoe recruits Constance, but it’s still a bit thin in terms of motivation. In terms of explaining Frank’s techniques in bed, however, it speaks volumes.
- Speaking less in volumes, but still powerfully, is the brief exchange Frank and Claire have about her menopause. At this point, the two are essentially roommates who also happen to have a lot of shared vocational interests. It’s not a sad relationship, per se, but one that suggests things have evolved to a point both accept if not entirely understand.
- The investigator for Russo’s campaign might be my new favorite character on the show. There needs to be a spin-off where he just mentally destroys criminals. He could crack 10 cases per hour without breaking a sweat.