We’ve reached episode 10 out of 13 in this second season of House of Cards and everything, it seems, is on the verge of blowing up: tensions between China and Japan and, by extension, the U.S.; the controversial nature of Raymond Tusk’s Chinese-casino connections; Claire’s military sex abuse bill, which Majority Whip Jackie Sharp doesn’t support; the romantic relationship between Jackie and Remy, which apparently is supposed to be based on real emotions; and actual explosives, which were brought to the Underwood residence by a former Marine intent on obliterating Claire Underwood.
Just in case the potential-for-detonation vibe didn’t completely convey, the House of Cards writers supplied this episode, directed by star Robin Wright, with plenty of wordplay to make sure it was very clear that things are getting in-tense.
“If we launch that missile, it could blow us up, too,” said Doug Stamper of the casino-Tusk Wall Street Telegraph leak that subsequently kickstarted a federal investigation into Raymond’s dirty money.
“Nobody walks away from something like this without bruises,” said President Walker regarding that investigation.
“I am your fail-safe, sir,” said Doug to Vice-President Underwood, who questioned whether Doug really was his fail-safe in a way that suggested Doug’s days on the Underwood staff — or perhaps Doug’s days in general — are numbered. Doug must sense that, too, which is why he was trying to cram in as much book-reading as possible, by using Rachel Posner as his own personal Audible.com.
All of this super-charged action and rhetoric — not to mention the hat trick of high-profile broadcast journalist cameos from Hannity, Maddow, and Matthews — suggests that House of Cards season two should be at its moment of peak binge-worthiness, when no amount of will power can stop viewers from gobbling up the episodes that remain. But it doesn’t feel that way. Instead of “CAN’T. STOP. EATING,” it’s more like, “Eh. I could grab a bite, I guess.” This is what happens when you take Freddy and his ribs out of the show; we all lose our appetites.
Not only is this season of House of Cards failing to match last season’s in terms of addictiveness, its episodes are actually suffering from being watched in rapid succession, the exact opposite of what the Netflix massive-content-drop approach hopes to achieve. If I were watching these installments with a week’s break between them, I might be more tolerant of the repetitive nature of the Tusk-Underwood conflict and all the predictable flinging of mud, accusations, and, occasionally, steak it entails. But with each House of Cards chapter unspooling back-to-back-to-back, the redundancy becomes that much more glaring. Consequently, what might be merely frustrating in a once-every-seven-days context is actively making me so insane that I might have to check myself into a mental institution and tell the doctors I am suffering from an acute case of Tusk-Underwood Intolerancy Syndrome that demands immediate medication and bed rest. (“I want Tusk gone ... you think Tusk isn’t planning his next attack as we speak?” Frank said to Doug and Seth during one scene. “Frank doesn’t have the same liberty — public opinion can demolish him. You need to make sure that happens,” Raymond told Remy a few scenes later. OH MY GOD, WOULD YOU BOTH SHUT UP AND RUN THE COUNTRY AND YOUR CORPORATE ENTERPRISES, RESPECTIVELY, SO THE REST OF US CAN LIVE IN BLOODY, FREAKING PEACE?
The maddeningly one-dimensional directives are not just limited to Frank and Raymond. Far too often, far too many of these characters — especially President Walker — sound like they’re delivering an oral book report without having actually read the book. Exhibit A is this comment from the President, during that briefing on the rising conflict between China and Japan: “See if there’s a concrete ask. If they don’t have one, let’s create a list of options.” Why not just have the guy say, “Blah blah blah stuff about China and Japan yadda yadda yadda the end”? The effect is the same. Honestly, the adults in a Peanuts cartoon “wah-wah-wah” in a more persuasive fashion than this commander-in-chief speaks actual words of English.
At this point, even the relationships between people who are supposed to genuinely care for each other are not coming across as convincingly ... well, caring. For the past several episodes, I’ve been waiting for Remy and Jackie to reveal that each has been playing the other for political gain. But in this episode, when Jackie directly asked Remy whether he’s been sleeping with her to dig up dirt on Frank, he responded, “I care about you more than I should.” And just in case that didn’t sound believably heartfelt — which it didn’t, quite — Remy’s reaction to Raymond’s demand that he start attacking the Democratic leadership, including Jackie, made it clear that he really doesn’t want to hurt her, and might even love her. Which is commendable, but also pretty inconsistent with what we know about Remy, not to mention with how that relationship has been portrayed. I’ve never been convinced those two were really falling for each other. They both seem too strong-willed, stubborn, and, frankly, intelligent to get attached to a person who’s playing for the opposite team.
Frank and Claire’s marriage — which is based on calculated, shared career goals and a mutual respect for each other’s steeliness — is a bit more believable, but also not a relationship that engenders much in the way of feeling. As they demonstrated in this episode, their idea of cuddling is snuggling up to watch old interviews of themselves after Frank’s just confessed to watching internet porn and asked his wife if she misses the man with whom she had an extramarital affair. There’s affection between them, but no heat; that’s not because the heat has gone out of the marriage but seemingly because it was always absent, by mutual consent. They’re a couple with a marriage like a copper pipe: It’s made out of solid material but hollow on the inside. It’s hard to root for their success but more than that, it’s pointless; why bother when there’s no there there?
Speaking of no there there, certain major plot issues also are being dropped without adequate explanation. After all that conversation about the perceived intimacy between Walker and Christina, the president mentioned in passing in this episode that he let Christina go after Linda tendered her resignation. We didn’t see it happen, and we have no idea what happened to Christina afterwards. She’s just gone. Meanwhile, Claire’s bill in support of civilian oversight over military sex abuse cases is going forward, even though Megan Hennessey completely melted down and was unable to testify before Congress, turning Claire into the lone voice accusing Dalton McGinnis of rape. Shouldn’t that make Claire vulnerable in some way, vulnerable beyond targeted attacks from mentally ill Marines and the possibility of Jackie Sharp not co-sponsoring the bill? The show isn’t telling us.
Speaking of Sharp and that military bill, I was actually glad to see the Majority Whip say no to the Underwoods. As a woman, it seems a little nuts that she doesn’t want to support this kind of legislation, but as a woman who also has military blood running through her veins, it’s not entirely surprising that she finds it a bit extreme. The important thing is that she’s actually making a political call based on her actual beliefs, which Claire simply couldn’t comprehend. “Are you trying to distance yourself from us because of the Galloway scandal?” Claire asked. No, Claire. She’s making a decision based on her personal convictions. Contrary to much of what we see in House of Cards, people in Washington actually do that sometimes.
At this point in the season, with just a trio of chapters left, what I ultimately want to see is Frank Underwood being outed for the murders of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes. With Lucas Goodwin stashed away in jail to serve out the terms of his plea agreement, that seems unlikely. On the other hand, Gavin Orsay reappeared in this episode, stroking Cashew, the guinea pig equivalent of Dr. Evil’s cat, while tracking Doug Stamper’s whereabouts via GPS. Why is he doing this? Is Gavin exacting revenge on the feds who, in his view, unfairly stuck Lucas in prison for several years at Doug’s behest? Is he fixated on Doug’s location because he’s working for someone else who wants to keep tabs on Underwood’s right-hand man? Or — and this is my probably unrealistic hope — is he picking up where Lucas left off and attempting to expose Underwood and his cronies for the sick, sociopathic life-crushers that they are?
At this point, it’s hard to imagine anything stopping Frank and his underlings at their diabolical game, especially when we already know there’s a House of Cards season three coming. The vice-president knows no boundaries when it comes to cutting Raymond Tusk out of the picture and positioning himself closer to the Oval Office. In this episode, via the anonymous tip sent by Seth Grayson to Wall Street Telegraph reporter Ayla Sayyad, Frank even Deep Throated his own administration. “Follow the money,” said that Chinese missive, which came with a card from one of Raymond’s casinos.
That line, of course, was originally made famous by All the President’s Men, which is an extraordinarily bold political-thriller comparison for this show to invite on itself. When that term was used in the Redford and Hoffman version of the Woodward and Bernstein story, the audience knew the stakes involved in what was happening. We understood exactly what Woodward and Bernstein were digging into, and that a government cover-up like the one they were investigating could actually happen, because it already had.
But nothing on House of Cards feels quite real. The stakes don’t seem remotely as high. If Sayyad continues to follow the money, it’s not clear what, if anything, she’ll find. I still don’t even understand how she had enough concrete evidence of a damning connection between the White House, Tusk, and the Chinese to run with a major news story in the first place.
In other words, if I may co-opt another phrase made famous by a political moment: I know All the President’s Men. All the President’s Men is a friend of mine. House of Cards: You’re no All the President’s Men.