In which Frank regroups after the watershed bill fails, Claire takes a trip to New York City, Zoe takes a trip to her former coworker’s bedroom, and Russo takes a trip to the bottom of a bottle…
House Of Cards is by and large a show driven by the minds, not the groins, of its characters. The tenth episode is an exception to that rule, with half the cast seemingly exchanging one bed for another. In some cases, it’s to try on another life. In one case, it’s to indulge demons that never truly left. Uniting them all is The Great and Powerful Francis Underwood, once again asserting complete control over nearly all he surveys mere days after one of his biggest setbacks in the series thus far. Kevin Spacey’s name and face were used to sell this series to the public. But what happens when the show seems to only exist to serve his character?
Shows with charismatic antiheroes need not be one-actor shows. Looking back at the evolution of Breaking Bad, it’s clear the show got great once it allowed all participants to shine as brightly as Bryan Cranston. Were House Of Cards told totally through Frank’s point-of-view, the overwhelming amount of energy devoted to his end of the story would make sense. But the show has an omniscient eye, turning its gaze from one character to another and displaying things Frank couldn’t possibly know. That lack of omniscience plagues Frank this hour, as he sets plans in motion to quell what he terms “rebellions on all fronts” by playing a giant game of chess with Claire, Zoe, Peter, Remy, and Linda. (In case the chess metaphor wasn’t apt, this episode shows him playing chess by himself, because you know, SYMBOLISM.)
Of the three characters that bed hop this hour, Claire’s sojourn makes the most sense. Opaque to the point of almost comic absurdity through eight hours, she now stands as a steely, maligned figure finally ready to act after months of inertia. There’s still part of me that dies a little every time Adam Galloway appears onscreen, but at least this time she doesn’t bring him around simply to raise then instantly crush his hopes. With Frank’s increasingly brazen disrespect for the importance of the CWI, she’s more willing to explore her feelings inside the world’s most stereotypically New York-based artist’s loft. It’s less about sex than trying on a different life to see how it feels. In this life, she can actually flirt in bed, attend parties where she can dance with bohemian women, and actually laugh once in a while. That laughter is key here, since until this point Claire has been defined both by her severity and her loyalty to her partnership with Frank.
I used “partnership” on purpose, as opposed to “marriage”, since it’s been increasingly clear over the last four or five hours just how much their pairing makes sense from the perspective of convenience and synergy. Much in the way two companies might merge to gain the strengths of the other side, so too do Frank and Claire compliment one another in order to further their respective goals. That’s why Frank can fuck Zoe and then go home to Claire and talk about the spider he captured in her apartment without fear of reprobation. And yet, even though Claire confronts Zoe with this information in this installment, it’s not about regaining power over a potential Achilles’ heel. It’s about getting Zoe to think about the possible paths her future might take.
Claire scaring the shit out of Zoe is almost sweet in this sense, and certainly serves its purpose. Soon after, while cleaning out her fridge and disposing of her leaky garbage, Zoe looks at her apartment anew. She sees the dirty bed lying on the floor. She sees the stains in the carpet. She sees the moldy cracks on the ceiling. She’s worried for her immediate safety in the wake of Claire’s visit, but also her long-term health inside her current lifestyle. Sure, she gets linked by The New York Times within five minutes of posting to Slugline. But her power is a façade, one story away from flying away at any time. Like Claire, she also tries on another life in this episode, reaching out to Lucas for a glimpse into the life she might have had had she stayed with The Washington Herald. But also like Claire, she hitched her wagon to Frank in order to get ahead. Byline-wise, she has succeeded. In terms of having a fridge full of food that doesn’t look like it’s trying to escape? Not so much.
Speaking of escaping, let’s turn to Peter Russo, who regressed back to his boozing, a-holish self this week after the watershed act failed to pass. This installment asks a pretty basic question: Did Peter really change after not committing suicide in Frank’s tub, or did he just put lipstick on a bald pig? Given the speed at which he reverts back to his baser instincts, House Of Cards seems to lean heavily on option number two. You could play a fun game of “Who’s just the WORST?” when it comes to this storyline. Is Peter the worst for falling off the wagon? Probably not, since alcoholism is no joke. But he’s probably the worst for not recognizing Rachel Posner, right? Then again, as Rick James would tell you: Cocaine is a hell of a drug. Is Rachel the worst for ruining his life? Given where she’s come from, and her feelings of paternal affection towards Stamper, I’d say no. That leads us to Stamper, who not only essentially deploys Rachel like a prostitute, but also gets the man he’s sponsoring in AA to fall off the wagon at the behest of his boss. I think we have our winner.
Immediately after Russo blows an important call with a Pittsburgh radio station, the overall pieces snap into place. An episode spent re-positioning Russo as a candidate under the thumb of Sancorp turns into Frank subtly flipping that company the bird. Frank’s pleas to Gillian Cole to get Linda Vasquez’s son into Stanford yields an important card for Frank to play down the line. The Vice President’s resentment looms large. And yet, for all of Frank’s machinations, there’s one thing he couldn’t have foreseen: Russo’s attempted suicide in the shower immediately after realizing his political future was now over. It’s the type of human cost this show normally either glosses over or marginalizes. (I mean, do we really care if Marty Spinella kept his job as head of the teachers’ lobby?)
But how human are these costs? I ask this not because I have an answer, but because I’m curious to see how much House Of Cards pays off some of the things laid out this time around. We have all the signifiers here of human drama, but we lack the depth to make these revelations ring emotionally true. I’ve been a fan of Corey Stoll’s work this season, but a lot of what happens in this hour doesn’t line up with the Russo we’ve seen since starting the campaign trail. Zoe’s breakdown in her apartment is artfully shot, but lacks any previous examples of her loathing her existence. Neither Russo’s relapse nor Zoe’s tryst with Lucas are particularly out of character. But they also require the audience to not simply connect the dots, but make huge intuitive leaps. Russo’s actions in this installment don’t need much in the way of groundwork to make this land more effectively. A glance at a glass of scotch here, a lingering gaze at a campaign worker’s ass there. With just those small things, a crack in the façade would have emerged that would have made his inability to resist Rachel tonight all the more understandable.
Yes, we know Russo is a weak man. But House Of Cards went to great lengths to build him up. That’s far different from Frank Underwood going to great lengths to build him up. The latter selling him as the future is one thing. But the former selling it is quite another. There’s nothing saying Russo couldn’t fall from grace. Characters take two steps forward and three steps back all the time. Similarly, Zoe’s attempts to extricate herself from the Underwood shortcut makes all the sense in the world. But not after a season in which there were complications about the specifics of the arrangement, not the moral underpinnings of the arrangement itself. These are small differences, but they are the differences that would transform this show from merely “consistently good” to “something special.”
And that’s too bad, because putting aside all the “is this the future of television” bullshit surrounding the release of this series two and a half months ago, there’s a lot of strong material here that, if more finely tuned, could have kept the conversation going far longer than it seemingly has. The ability to binge watch an entire series upon its initial release is fine and dandy. But there needs to be more than instant access in order to make a lasting impression. Looking at the comments for past reviews, one can see a real-time memory loss occurring amongst those that spent a single weekend watching every episode yet are now struggling to remember basic details about it. What sticks with viewers long after they have watched any television show are the characters, not the plots. House Of Cards has been moving its plot along with almost ruthless efficiency. But it’s also made its characters subservient to that story, which means they often make decisions based on what the show needs versus what they want.
When characters make tough choices, those choices linger. When the show fails to properly articulate why characters make these choices, it becomes much more difficult to care about it in the moment and to remember it later on. House Of Cards isn’t disinterested in character, but will always put it in second position to story. Nothing in the Claire, Peter, or Zoe stories rang false. But the notes they sounded could have resonated much more had the show put in the work to flesh out their hopes, fears, and desires at every step along the way. It’s incredibly hard work, but it means the difference between people making hard, active choices versus people passively moved around on someone else’s chess board.
- 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.
- With that in mind, please refrain from discussing the outcome of the final scene in the comments below. There are people who are watching one episode a week to follow along with the reviews, and people who may read these one at a time when watching in the future.
- “That was never part of the bargain!” “Is it the hot flashes?” Frank Underwood, Sensitive Husband.
- Pork is brain food, according to Freddie. I need to eat ribs while writing these reviews, apparently. Done and done!
- Zoe and Rachel would have a lot to discuss about the power of cleavage.
- I’ll confess to already forgetting who Kapeniak was when his name was mentioned multiple times tonight. (He’s the guy who Russo visited to get dirt on Secretary of State candidate Michael Kern in the second episode.)
- Ed Meechum knows things he probably shouldn’t know at this point. But he’s so beholden to Frank that I doubt we’ve seen the last of the shady things Ed will do for him.