In which Russo hits the campaign trail with Matthews, Stamper visits a local restaurant to meet its manager, Frank tries to get the votes to pass the watershed act, and Claire starts making moves of her own under her husband’s nose…
How much the events that unfold in this episode stem from what Frank went through last time out at Sentinel lies in the eye of the beholder. There’s a case to be made that his overall frustration this episode stems from his encounter with his college friends, during which old wounds and deep emotions managed to work their way to the surface. On the other hand, if that’s the case, then this ninth episode of House Of Cards does this in a way so subtle that it’s easy to pretend like that sojourn to his alma mater never happened at all. Does either interpretation really affect the outcome of the episode? Not especially. But it does place last installment’s purpose into question. Was that just a way to kill time, or to establish the parameters for the final arc of the season?
This installment was all about finally destroying the illusion of The Great And Powerful Francis. It didn’t completely undo his leverage in Washington, but did question the inevitability of every outcome he tries to affect. That’s important, because even when Underwood stumbled in his on-air debate with Marty Spinella, he still stood proud, tall, and powerful by the end of the hour. Minor dents have never truly deterred Frank to this point. But either due to his time at Sentinel, or being punctured by the action figure wielded by Peter Russo’s son, Frank became vulnerable for the first time in the show. Best of all? He didn’t realize the extent of his wound until the final vote tally for the watershed act went four votes against his expectations. The man who hates to be surprised got blindsided in a moment of expected triumph.
Engineering this defeat was Claire, who used her steely exterior to her advantage this week by creating the façade of helping Frank when instead she sought to publicly humiliate her husband. With him unable (or, in her eyes, unwilling) to help liberate water filtration systems earmarked for the CWI still tied up in Sudanese customs, she spends the hour doing the opposite of what Frank wants her to do. Not only does she seek Sancorp’s help in cutting the red tape holding those filtration systems back, but also undermines the watershed bill by convincing two on-the-fence representatives to vote against it.
As discussed last time around, Frank and Claire have more of a partnership than a marriage. That’s not to say it’s loveless, but it’s based more on a quid pro quo than fiery passion. That doesn’t devalue their relationship, but it does contextualize it. In the fifth hour, we saw Frank marshal his forces in order to help Claire throw a fundraiser. In return, she helped craft the watershed act. This isn’t just balance, but their form of affection for one another. Yet now, after all her help getting in crafting Russo’s watershed act, Claire feels left high and dry. It doesn’t help that Frank doesn’t really bother hide his continuing indiscretions with Zoe, either. If the CWI were working at optimal capacity, perhaps things like that slide in her mind. But when things aren’t, then they become ammo in her arsenal.
What makes the final vote so dramatically strong is that it ties together nearly every disparate storyline on display this week, from Janine’s work at Slugline, Russo’s campaign in Pennsylvania with Vice President Matthews, Linda Vasquez’s trip to Stanford to help her son gain admission, and Zoe’s tenuous relationship with Frank. It’s probably the best use yet of tying dry political machinations to pulpy, relatable stakes. It also works in terms of undermining narrative expectations. The Vasquez storyline feels designed entirely so Frank can call in a favor at a future strategic date. By getting the bill passed without her need to press the phones, Frank thinks he’s earned another “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards. To date, that is how both Underwood and House of Cards had operated. Instead, not only is Frank pissed, but Linda is now fairly fucked. Lying to the President is one thing. Having that lie potentially tied to the failure an important piece of legislation tied into the very fabric of the Democratic majority in the House? That’s something else entirely. (Success of the bill correlates directly into success for Russo’s campaign. Without that legislation, his campaign is crippled. Should his Republican opponent become Pennsylvania’s governor, redistricting might be a possibility, yielding new districts more favorable to Republican congressional candidates.) In the final moments, we see elation turn to fear and anger in the eyes of all watching the results on C-SPAN.
And really, that’s the best thing that can come out of the episode’s end: desperation. We really haven’t seen a lot of that on display this season. There have been some tense moments, to be sure. But they have also been subsumed in muted tones, with the stakes important but rarely intimate. At one point in this hour, Frank breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience how much bleeding heart liberals hate the thought of spilling blood. House Of Cards has that problem as well, with good ideas abounding but little in the way of urgency on any front. Russo has provided the majority of these moments over the course of the season, from his desperate attempts to stay clean to getting in fistfights in order to sway Pennsylvanian unions to his side. But they haven’t truly made him someone who will do anything it takes to push his way to the top. Sure, there’s a sense that he wants to be Governor. But does he need it?
What people actually need in House Of Cards is still a difficult thing to establish. We’re nine hours into the show, and only now are getting the barest of hints as to why Claire and Frank don’t have children. It would be one thing if the show had kept giving us in-show signals about why this might be the case up until now. But the show has basically all but ignored this facet of their lives, making tonight’s children-centric episode slight overkill. First off, we get this less than subtle aside from Frank: “I’m not gonna lie. I despise children. There. I said it.” After that, Claire spends a scene dropping off Peter’s children at work. Then, Claire learns that Gillian Cole is pregnant. On top of that, Zoe Barnes angrily tells Frank any daughter he might have had with Claire would now be older than she is. This is all valuable information, and sure, better late than never. But it’s not enough to simply realize you’ve not addressed a major component of a couple’s dynamic and then overload an episode with details that could have been gradually layered in throughout.
That overload applies to Zoe herself, who goes from zero to “completely and totally pissed at Frank” in less than the course of an episode. We’re as blindsided as Frank when she launches into a verbal assault immediately after a booty call reestablishing their temporarily-paused intimacy. Up until that point, she had continually pushed Frank to reveal the vote count on the watershed act to pass onto Janine, who warned Zoe that “fucking [her] way to the middle” won’t help her career long-term. After breaking it off with Frank, Zoe found herself on the outside looking in, only agreeing to start sleeping with Frank in exchange for information. Yet even after a brief yet utterly unsexy round of boinking, Frank still wouldn’t give up the numbers to Zoe, citing her tone. “The fuck wasn’t enough? You need a special tone, too?” she barks at him. The reaction is viable, but the show didn’t earn this reaction. It has simply done too little with Zoe’s character to have this seem like a sensible thing to be coming from her mouth. Claire’s actions work tonight since they were a variation on an established theme. Zoe’s reactions tonight felt like they belonged to another character altogether.
That’s the problem when you have a program populated by people who keep things close to the vest for the majority of their onscreen time. Shows like Downton Abbey traffic in characters unable to express what they mean, but the denizens of that show always convey what they can’t say through gaze, gesture, or posture. I don’t know if Kate Mara is doing a bad job at conveying Zoe’s inner life, or if the Zoe simply hasn’t given her enough to do at this point. But increasingly, the Zoe/Frank stuff feels like a story-driven relationship rather than a character-based one. House Of Cards needs these two to be in each other’s lives specifically so that something can happen down the line. And while that something might be cool, we still have to live with these people in the imperfect present.
The most intriguing plotline this week existed almost entirely in the present, and certainly outside the realm of an otherwise thematically-related episode. Stamper’s version of Restaurant: Impossible has absolutely nothing to do with anything else that is going on in the show right now, yet I’m more drawn to his attempts to get Rachel Posner back on her feet than Frank’s attempts to undermine the White House. Here’s a relationship that started when he paid for her silence (and then paid a little more for his own pleasure), yet takes on a father/daughter relationship. (See? Kids again!) The background research Stamper did on the restaurant manager than ritually harassing his female employees probably took him five minutes to do. But it’s five minutes that he didn’t have to spend on her at all, even if she’s a potential threat to leak her story to the press and undo Russo. That threat seems incredibly unlikely, however, so what we’re left with is a bizarre friendship dropped inside a rigorously told narrative.
It feels like an accident, but it’s a happy accident in a show that could use more of them. I appreciate how everything in this week’s episode more or less arrives at the same point (the watershed vote). But now, it’s time to shatter the elaborately structured house that is House Of Cards and raze it to the ground. The vote offers up the perfect opportunity for the show to start getting messy, to start inflicting wounds, and above all, to start drawing blood. Whether or not blood is actually spilled, blood should at least fill the cheeks of those involved. The side-trip to the Sentinel offered up a brief glimpse of how Frank works. It’s time to see how everyone else works. And what better way to learn then by seeing how they react to pressure?
- 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.
- I’m wondering if Remy’s overture to Claire at Sentinel might be re-extended in light of this week’s episode, and if her reply might be different this time.
- The less said about that FOX News-esque talking head, the better.
- “I prefer vodka to scotch. You should get your facts straight.” Peter Russo knows how to charm the New York Times.
- Vice President Matthews is still essentially a non-entity at this point, but I do wonder if he won’t be absolutely key to something before the season’s over.
- Weirdest moment of the episode: Zoe called Underwood “Francis” for the first time. Paging Dr. Freud!
- I’d watch a show called Frank Underwood’s Washington Action Figure Theatre.
- “This is not the end of the world.” Man, I hope Claire is wrong, in terms of this show’s status quo.