In which Frank returns to his alma mater, and Peter returns to his district to drum up support for his run for Governor…
Last week’s episode was the best one in quite some time, but while I gave it the same grade as the third installment, I still would rate the latter higher than the former if presented with the opportunity to do so. That Peachoid-centric episode might have turned off many due to the detours it took from the ostensibly central plot. But in terms of helping reveal the yawning chasm between the central halls of power and the smaller, yet often more vital struggles of those living far from it, that third hour stood as the acme of the show. Until now.
This eighth hour once again moves far away from Washington, but does so with a clarity of purpose and thematic resonance that not even the Peachoid episode accomplished. While everything related to Frank’s trip to his hometown was gold, the Peter Russo stuff was compelling but ultimately unrelated to the main narrative. It was necessary in order to tell his complete story, but nothing in it felt related to Frank’s small-town exploits. The two existed in the same episode, but unrelated spheres. But this week links Frank’s journey back to Sentinel and Peter’s journey back to Philadelphia marvelously. Both storylines ask a simple question to which there is no simple answer: What makes a person what he or she is?
That’s the question that essentially every work of art asks, and yet it’s one that House Of Cards has curiously shied away from. Throughout this series, I have wondered (both to myself and explicitly in these reviews) why Frank and Claire didn’t have kids. It seemed like something that might come up during some point during the formation of the education bill, even if it was simply someone like Spinella pointing out that a man without children probably shouldn’t be crafting an education bill. It wouldn’t have been a fair attack, but it might have been an effective one all the same. Sometimes not asking questions indicates a reticence on a character’s part that reveals intent, motivation, or inner fears. But in the case of major swaths of House Of Cards, the lack of questions has simply revealed an inability to parcel out information about its characters over the course of a season of television.
As such, it’s both a rush to get so much insight in a single episode, yet retroactively makes all that which has come before it slightly suspect as a result. Sending the show’s two primary male characters back to the crucibles in which they were forged allows revelation to naturally flow from action. But in Frank’s case, it also demonstrates that there was absolutely no way in hell to ever guess any of the backstory revealed in “Chapter Eight”. Whereas Peter’s previous meeting with Paul in episode five gave us a sliver of insight into the fighting man Russo once was, I am not sure anyone would have guessed that the memory of Frank’s intimate encounters with a male classmate would be a defining aspect of his entire life. If you got that out of Frank’s actions to date, then I want you to manage my retirement account, because you have special skills I simply don’t possess.
Now, the revelations that spill out during a drunken night with Frank’s former a cappella group The Riflemen don’t outright dub him as bisexual, a word I’m not sure these two men could even approach no matter how much whiskey was coursing through their veins. And the show doesn’t seem much to care about Frank’s sexuality, except insomuch as it lumps it in with his pursuit of Zoe Barnes and his tepid sexual relationship with his wife. Frank’s sexual desires are based about pure desire, and the object of that desire takes many shapes. But it seems safe to say that Claire is not one of those shapes, that Claire intuitively understands this, and that both have tacitly agreed to live with someone who more or less understands the political benefits of their partnership. Their form of intimacy exists in the moments they spend smoking cigarettes at their kitchen window, not in the bedroom.
The show doesn’t outright say any of this, but has finally provided enough context clues for us to try and piece it together. What I just laid out is an assumption, one that is based on some in-show fact but also a good deal of personal supposition. And honestly, that’s all I want out of this or any show: a chance to make an educated guess. Being right or wrong about something is beside the point. (After all, being wrong is usually more fun, especially when the show comes up with a much better answer.) But when a show is as emotionally opaque as House Of Cards has been, then guessing becomes not only not fun but essentially impossible. There was an equal likelihood of guessing “Frank had sex with his classmate in college and pines for him to this day” as “Frank is an alien sent from the future”. One is more likely in terms of the reality of this program, but both would have been guesses based in the precise amount of information provided to date in the show.
While Frank’s storyline descended into the hazy past, Peter’s storyline kept slamming into an angry present. We’ve always known about the man he could be, but really didn’t see a true glimpse of the man first elected to Congress until roughly two-thirds through this episode. Sure, we’ve seen a man worth of the affection of his children as well as Christina. But we haven’t seen the cold, hard, ambitious man who isn’t afraid to get dirty (or bloody) in order to achieve what he wants. Those angry at him in the town hall don’t respond to his empathetic response to their tough times following the closing of the shipyard. But their anger jogs his memory, much in the way that whiskey reveals times long forgotten for Frank and Tim Corbet.
In some ways, it’s Writing 101 to show a character repeatedly be beaten down, have a revelation, and then go through each scenario again and produce victory by deploying this newly gained insight. But it’s a trope precisely because it works, and so while it’s easy to telegraph Peter getting his mother’s florescent light fixed before the end of the hour, it’s still pretty thrilling to watch his spine reform on-camera. Even more thrilling is seeing the look of fear in Paul’s eyes when he sees Peter sitting in his chair. It’s almost a new introduction for the character, a moment in the series that clearly demarcates what has come before and what will follow. Something clicks inside of Peter, and it may very well prove to be something that will ultimately undo him. But shipyard workers such as Paul respond well to Peter’s tough talk, with Russo’s alpha dog persona winning his constituents over before hour’s end.
Peter sells the out-of-work voters that the shipyard was going to go away anyways. It’s a lie, one that we know thanks to watching Frank pick and choose which projects live or die based on political necessity. But that line also ties into Frank’s worries about the permanence of anything he has ever accomplished. Both men have their names etched into the halls in which they once walked. But another library will probably be built at Sentinal after Frank dies, and another basketball team will probably win the state championship from Peter’s high school. These are men attempting to do historic things, while understanding that history has an awful way of overwriting the old in favor of the new. It’s a fascinating avenue for the show to explore, but it’s also one that could only be explored by removing the show from Washington D.C. itself. Things there are simply too fast-paced in House Of Cards to allow any decent introspection there.
The formation of the education bill provided a lot of plot for the show, but didn’t provide much in the way of insight into those that crafted it. I’m curious how what we learn about Frank and Peter in this episode will help provide an emotional bedrock for what’s to come. The fact that Frank seems to have recovered from his nostalgic fever dream before even reaching his car heading to the airport doesn’t exactly strike me with much hope that what we learn from “Chapter Eight” will carry through into the final third of the season. Episodes like this in which shows deviate from the normal routine in order to pause and dive into character motivations are what make the medium great. But these side trips shouldn’t be hermetically sealed once the “real” show returns. It would be a shame if the time spent in Sentinel served as a mere pause in the show’s overall run.
In his speech at the dedication, Frank stumbles over his words, seemingly about to reveal his prior relationship to Tim at any moment. Instead, he catches himself upon looking at the current iteration of The Riflemen and strikes upon the theme of harmony: “It is about individual voices coming together for a moment. And that moment lasts the length of a breath. That’s what I think about my time here.” The problem for Frank? The memory of that moment lasts far longer than a single breath. Let’s hope the show’s memory of this episode lasts longer as well.
- 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.
- Peter Russo has a Nirvana poster in his childhood room, which means that he must be the same age as me, which I found surprising. I had him pegged as a decade older.
- Remy hitting on Claire at the hotel bar seems too sketchy by half, but maybe he understands their sexless relationship and felt bold enough to actually try to use it to his advantage.
- Any Doctor Who fans look at that crack on Peter’s ceiling and wait for Amy Pond to arrive?
- The use of shadows in this episode is pretty phenomenal, especially when contrasted with the bright lights of the hotel. The Riflemen don’t just break into the old library; they descend into the bowels of the earth.