If you had been consuming the new season of House of Cards at a moderate and reasonable rate, episode four may have been the one that threw you into binge mode.
So much addictive craziness was packed into this one episode that it naturally increased one’s appetite for more. We got suspicious powder on Capitol Hill; a lockdown that forced Frank to be stuck in a room with Donald Blythe, the congressman he screwed over on education reform way back in the early hours of season one; the continued entrapment of Lucas Goodwin; and, of course, that Claire Underwood interview. Lord: That. Interview.
What we learned from that sitdown with Ashleigh Banfield — aside from the fact that, in the House of Cards version of Washington, journalists permit and encourage potentially slanderous statements during live interviews — is that Frank and Claire Underwood have been operating from the same ambitious, truth-manipulating playbook for years. Nothing is off limits if it gets them closer to their political goals: not using a woman’s Alzheimer’s disease to procure backing of an omnibus bill, not getting a borderline late-term abortion when a child gets in the way of one’s career goals, and not announcing on TV that you had an abortion after being raped, even though, technically, you didn’t.
What do presidents and members of Congress always say when they have to soften their principles a bit to get things done on the Hill? Oh yes, that politics is about “compromise,” which is really a diplomatic way of saying that they had to do something distasteful in exchange for a greater good. That kind of compromise was everywhere in this episode. Claire compromised the truth about her rape, but that compromise empowered another woman, Private Megan Hennessey, to come forward — again, on live TV, with what appeared to be zero fact-checking — to confess that she, too, had been raped by Dalton McGinnis, a confession that could potentially end McGinnis’s legacy of abusing women. Jackie Sharp convinced a group of resistant Democrats that, despite their opposition to the entitlement-age-raising amendment, they needed to vote for that omnibus package because if they didn’t, thousands of people, as represented by reams of paper, would lose welfare benefits or go on furlough. It was all just like what Claire’s daddy said that time he took her to Dealey Plaza, the site of JFK’s assassination, when she was a little girl: “He made the world a better place, but sometimes that comes at a price.” Or, to put it in fake anthrax terms: Even a harmless mix of talcum powder and flour sometimes comes with a little pesticide. (In a related story: I’ve decided to stop eating all flour products.)
Okay. Now. That interview. Originally Claire and Frank were supposed to sit down together with Banfield for an intimate conversation about their personal history and adjustment to life in the vice-president’s office. But because of that anthrax scare, brought on by an aide who started tearing into the mail without taking proper precautions, Frank was quarantined in his office. So Claire decided to fly solo. Initially, it was going fine, although even Banfield’s softball questions — softball accusations, really — were coming in with a hard, fast edge to them. “Some people think your marriage may be a bit more calculated than you let on, that he needed your family’s money,” Banfield said at one point. Then she started digging into the expected line of questioning about why Claire and Frank have never had children, leading Claire to give her standard, prepared answer about choosing to devote their life to public service.
But CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield was not born yesterday. Her trademark smarty glasses should tell you that. “Forgive me, but career and timing, those are often very convenient answers,” Banfield said, noting that Claire has given the same response in previous interviews. Then Banfield went into pregnancy lightning-round mode: “Never felt the pressure? No maternal instinct? It was a choice? Was there a pregnancy during the campaign? Have you ever been pregnant? During the campaign? Was it a miscarriage? Did you terminate the pregnancy?”
Good night, Mrs. Relentless, is this CNN or a live feed from Guantánamo Bay? Dan Rather didn’t hit this hard when he interviewed Saddam Hussein, and that guy committed crimes against humanity for decades. I realize that Ashleigh Banfield is just playing a pretend version of Ashleigh Banfield who doesn’t necessarily have anything in common with the real Ashleigh Banfield. But nevertheless, after this interview, I really didn’t like Ashleigh Banfield very much.
It wasn’t clear exactly why Banfield was so aggressive with Claire, especially under the circumstances: They were doing an interview that deviated from the original plan for the interview, while Capitol Hill was dealing with a possible terrorist threat. I don’t think CNN would air a lengthy interview like this one in that kind of breaking news situation, but even if the network did, the reporter probably wouldn’t grill the vice-president’s wife like a cheap veggie burger slapped onto a Hibachi. Also: We know that McGinnis actually raped Claire, which makes it seem likely that he raped Hennessey. But CNN doesn’t know that. Banfield said, almost apologetically, that they would need to reach out to McGinnis for comment, but they seemingly still hadn’t gotten one when they threw Hennessey on the air. I am not saying McGinnis doesn’t deserve to be called out for what he’s done. I am saying that in journalism, that ain’t how it works.
Banfield’s whole line of questioning about the pregnancy seemed more than a little excessive, too. The fact that Frank’s former Republican opponent once accused Claire of possibly ending her pregnancy is old news and also not anyone’s business. Of course, it’s our business as House of Cards viewers because that revelation led to some key, additional revelations about Claire and Frank: (1) That Claire’s first two abortions occurred when she was, her words, a “reckless teenager”; (2) That Claire really was pregnant when Frank was running for office, but they decided to abort the pregnancy at 16 weeks, because they were focused on the campaign; (3) That, by process of elimination, she did not have an abortion as a result of being raped by General Dalton McGinnis, the man who attacked her during her freshman year of college.
Yet Claire marched right back onto the makeshift interview set in her living room.
By the way, I loved how Claire just bounced in and out of that live interview whenever she felt like it — and announced on national television that not only did her one and only abortion occur because she was raped, it occurred, more specifically, because of Dalton McGinnis. Claire did two things there: She took a story that could have made her seem heartless in some people’s eyes and changed the narrative so that it’s actually about being a victim with the courage to speak out. She also used her position of power to finally punish McGinnis for what he did. I can only fault her for that to a point because McGinnis is a powerful man who allegedly — See? This is what journalists do; we use words like allegedly — has been punishing women for years. It’s all just quid pro quo, which is not cool, but it’s understandable.
Claire told Connor, her publicist, that she felt bad for lying. He asked if McGinnis really did what she said. She said yes — again, which is true, but technically not true regarding the abortion part of the story. Like Jackie Sharp’s treatment of Ted Havemeyer, Claire can easily rationalize this one. By the way, it was a nice, twisted touch that Sam Page — the same actor who played Greg, the military spouse and onetime rapist of Joan Harris on Mad Men — was the one advising Claire in this situation. Banfield’s right: The whole thing is going to cause a firestorm.
Now let’s talk about Donald Blythe, because I really like that guy. As Frank said, he has conviction and, having been burned by Frank before, refused to put up with it again.
“This sort of stubbornness makes you no better than the tea party,” Frank told him.
“Except for the fact that we happen to be right,” Donald retorted. Feisty, outspoken Democrats are the best, aren’t they? The narrative construct of their scenes during the quarantine — two opponents trapped in a room while at loggerheads with each other was just so 12 Angry Men — was brilliant in a lot of ways. But it could have been even better if Frank hadn’t briefly gone into his usual fourth-wall-breaking mode.
When Frank picked up on Donald’s weakness — his concern for his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s — he immediately signaled to the audience that he planned to use that to his advantage. “I should have thought of this before: appeal to the heart, not the brain,” Frank drawled.
When Frank started plying Donald with liquor and asking about the congressman’s previously dead-in-the-water bill to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research, Frank eventually saw through it, even through the fog of that alcohol. But we had already seen through it long before he did. Imagine how much more interesting that scene might have been without that “appeal to the heart” aside. We would have suspected what Frank was up to, but we wouldn’t have known for sure; part of us might have believed that, this one time, he was actually showing genuine concern for Donald’s situation. That’s the problem with the way Frank’s character is handled on House of Cards; it’s too much hammer right on the nail, when a light tap would work just as effectively.
As for Donald, he eventually was persuaded to corral some of his people into voting on the bill because Jackie Sharp — who is proving herself to be a ballsy whip with possibly even greater political savvy than Frank — said the words he needed to hear: “I am not Frank Underwood.” She also understood that he didn’t want to go on record as having voted for raising the entitlement age, among other things, so she figured out a way that he could still help the cause without sticking his neck out. In the end, even the admirable politicians like Blythe are concerned about their reputations. This allowed him to salvage his.
And what do we call that, kids? Say it with me now: compromise.
P.S. Oh, one last thing: Lucas is totally being set up by Gavin, the hacker who’s entrapping him so that Donald’s cronies can prevent him from uncovering any more unsavory information about Frank and Zoe and the whole murder thing. He’ll probably be dead or in FBI custody before the end of the next episode. Or maybe he’ll get really lucky and, for some weird reason, be sent to the CIA for questioning. There’s a delightful agent who works there: Carrie Mathison? She’d really relate to the conspiracy theorizing that has totally sucked Lucas into its vortex, at his own, very obvious peril.