Turn off 40 percent of the lights in your apartment for that David Fincher effect, stick a flag pin in your lapel, and start talking directly to the camera: It’s time for House of Cards. Season two of the Netflix original series debuts on Friday — all episodes at once, just like the first time. Are you currently getting up to speed on season one and looking for someone to talk it out with? Well, all week, we will be recapping three episodes a day (four on Friday) for those of you who are new to HoC or just want to brush up before Valentine’s Day. You can find our recap of episodes 1-3 here.
We’re back, and this second trio of episodes deals not with sex or violence but something more scintillating: the education bill! This is fine for HoC’s devotion to veracity — policy is slow, often dull, and apparently involves a lot of negotiating over urinals — but unfortunately, this requires us to spend a lot of time watching Frank, Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez, and the least effective TV POTUS since Scandal’s Fitz talk about collective bargaining.
Back at the Herald, Zoe gets promoted to White House Correspondent. But Zoe has no interest in the Herald ladder or the White House Correspondents' Dinner. (This is kind of hilarious when you remember that Kate Mara attended last year’s WHCD along with show writer Beau Willimon and her HoC castmates.) Frank considers the job offer a total turnoff. What is it with this show and women getting awesome job opportunities that douchey guys coerce them into passing up? Tom, the Herald’s editor-in-chief, calls Zoe “an ungrateful, self-entitled little cunt.” WHOA, TOM. Zoe tweets his invective with the chilling warning. “These days, when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand.”
Kate Mara has an ice-for-eyes look that’s only outdone by Claire’s killer stare. Zoe is far from the best-written character on HoC, and she’s made to behave in ways that make her profoundly hard to support. She’s like a fever dream of all those anti-millennial trend pieces: scrambling for online fame, typing faster than she can or cares to think, insisting she has a right to be heard before taking the time to fact-check what she wants to say. But Mara nails the physicality of Zoe — the nervous tics, the imperfect posture — and the sound of her, too. Even when Zoe is hungry for scoops, Mara’s voice captures that unimpressed tone of a twentysomething. The girl does good vocal fry.
In a very realistic bit of casting, one of the only people who survived Claire’s CWI layoffs is an assistant type who looks even younger than Zoe. Remy — formerly Frank’s press secretary, now an almighty lobbyist for natural-gas company San Corp, says his people will donate $1.5 million to CWI and that he wants nothing from Claire in return. But Frank is skeptical, and Claire refuses Remy’s money. Lady and Mister Macbeth don’t need anybody else. That said, Claire clearly thinks Frank is overstepping. And this, alas, brings us to Adam.
“I found her in a village,” this British gent says. “She died shortly after this photo was taken.” WOW, ADAM, YOU HAVE ALL THE FEELINGS. YOU ARE DEEPER THAN THE DEEPEST WELL IN CENTRAL AFRICA. He doesn’t book round-trip tickets, not this wandering soul, this freest of spirits! But when Claire ends something, she ends it. “There are no mistakes, Claire.” Fun fact: Adam is fluent in “inspirational quotes from Starbucks cups.”
Much as I hate Adam, the human cliché, this pattern of Claire’s is worth noticing. When Frank disappoints Claire, Claire calls Adam. Adam, who is basically the polar opposite of Frank. Who seems to provide something Frank just … can’t. Or won’t.
Frank and Doug, Frank’s chief of staff, start war-rooming, moving human beings around like pieces in a board game. They’re going to have to close the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Good-bye, 12,000 jobs! Peter reacts to this bad news by coming home (surprise!) shitfaced, so Christina quits and dumps him.
Zoe seal-slicks her hair, throws back a few, and calls her favorite source. Frank’s disgusted face at Zoe’s neighborhood is perfection. Things go from zero to weird in less than 60 seconds: “Are you cared for? Do you have an older man who cares for you?”
What’s really striking about Frank and Zoe’s affair is that it’s almost entirely initiated by Zoe. Does she really think she’ll get better dirt if she puts out, or does she just conflate proximity to power with actual power? Or does she believe that, if Frank desires her, she can shift the balance of power in her favor? Or — always an option! — does she want him, just because?
Pillow talk with Frank is all business. Zoe is fielding job offers. “Slugline will be what Politico was a year and a half ago,” she says of the ludicrously named Politico/Gawker/BuzzFeed mash-up. Zoe visits the office, and look at all the youths! Look at the graffiti-style art on the walls, the beanbag chairs! (Seriously, why bean bag chairs? Working for Douche Bro from 30 Rock?) Zoe’s job interviewer is an editor, if your editor did not require you to send him anything before you posted it (so if your editor did not edit, is what I’m saying).
Frank walks the morning after his tryst with Zoe, and this happens:
Claire: The reporter?
Claire: Just this once?
Frank: I’m not sure.
Claire: What does she offer us?
Frank: A mouthpiece when we need one. She’s been very useful so far.
Claire: What does she want?
Frank: Access. A seat at the table.
Claire: Sounds like she’s getting the better side of the bargain.
Frank: She can be controlled.
Claire and Frank’s fascinating, Machiavellian marriage is the most compelling relationship on HoC. Claire and Frank do love each other, in their own Slytherin-y way. Though everything about the way they relate feels intimate, from their knowing stares to the shared cigarettes by the window — for now, they have no secrets from each other — their home is a sex-free zone. Wonder how many times the Underwoods have negotiated the net worth of infidelity before. (I can’t imagine Frank finding value in Adam at all, but maybe that’s part of the appeal: Frank sees Adam as harmless.) When Frank tells Claire he’ll call the whole thing off if she asks him to, the offer seems beneath her. I don’t see Claire exerting her power over Frank in that way. And how strong would her sway over Frank really be if she had to ask him to stop?
Tom, like Claire and Frank, doesn’t like underlings he can’t control. “Zoe Barnes, Twitter, blogs, enriched media, they’re all fads.” Are we really supposed to believe that Zoe was the only journalist at the Herald on Twitter? No wonder the place is operating at a loss. Anyway, Margaret (fake Katharine Weymouth/owner of the Herald) puts the Hammer down and forces Tom to resign.
The DNC is looking for someone to replace the former governor of Pennsylvania (now the vice president). Frank wants someone he already owns: Peter Russo. But Peter is dealing with his own drama: His old friend from a Bruce Springsteen song takes a break from loading crates on the dock to speak on behalf of “the ones who got you fucking elected in the first place.” The Pete Russo who could throw a punch is gone. Still rolls a pretty impressive joint, though.
When the Hotel Cotesworth bails on the CWI gala, Claire throws the bash on the steps. Marty Spinella, Teachers Union lobbyist and rabble-rouser, orchestrates a protest across the street. At the gala, Zoe is wearing her signature dress, ostensibly because it’s a in-joke with her and Frank, but really because she’s on a journalist budget and can’t afford more than one nice outfit. Later, she files from her phone like some wizard from the future.
Peter shows up drunk and depressed on the Underwood’s stoop. South Philly Pete doesn’t care about the Clean Water Initiative. He lost his phone. Now he’ll never be able to write for Slugline!
On a more serious note: Corey Stoll is just killing it. It’s easy to overdo the “addict off the wagon” bit, but he is all barely contained rage and heartache and utter self-disgust. And there is this sense, in Stoll’s portrayal, of a good man struggling to rise to the surface. He and Frank are a lot alike: both up-by-the-bootstraps types from working-class backgrounds who made their way to the Hill. But Peter is weak where it matters most: He has no follow-through. He can’t keep promises, to himself or anyone else, and his inability to do so will keep him indebted to Frank.
“Are you done? Get up.”
Frank dangles the possibility of a run for governor in front of Peter, then sets up a suicide kit. “Cut along the tracks, not across them. That’s a rookie mistake.”
How far will Frank go to get what he wants? He has a brick thrown through the window of his home so he can pin the attack on the Teachers Union. Later, he and Doug wait for a kid to die so they can turn his death into a plea for an end to the teacher’s strike. If you believe in karma (Doug doesn’t, but Frank does), then you could attribute this murder to Frank’s re-employment of Ed, the security detail he got fired after the brick-throw.
Frank has an endgame here — revenge and the Oval Office — but that’s not the only thing driving him. He loves this. You’ve got to be in a special league of monstrous to celebrate when an elementary-school student takes a bullet to the brain at the opportune moment. And that doesn’t even get into the lives he casually derails in the process, like Ed, who ran outside and fired his weapon (because if there’s anyone who can’t be calm under pressure, it’s a former cop/Marine who served in Afghanistan.). Frank started this series with a hit list:he wanted to ruin everyone who wronged him. I doubt he’s upset that his battle is starting to build up a body count.
Claire visits their dying ex-security man, Steve, who secretly loved her. This is all very awkward, but we do get more insight into Claire and Frank’s relationship. Frank was and remains “the only one who understood” Claire. He never put her on a pedestal. Claire has no need for pedestals. She wants to be equals.
Then Claire gives Steve a hand job in a hospital bed until he begs her to stop. (Vulture TV Hand Job Hall of Fame entry, by the way.)
Robin Wright is excellent as Claire. She’s not cold so much as unknowable. She is always in control. She carries herself like royalty; even barefoot, she could make everyone around her seem smaller, meeker. She wears her skin like armor. It’s easy to see why Frank, who is impressed with virtually no one, is dazzled by her and heeds her counsel. So why the hell is she sidelined with these weird riffs? The homeless guy who makes origami swans out of cash, sick Steve, the graveyard runs, Adam: All of it is so beneath Wright’s performance and Claire’s character.
Frank prepares for his CNN debate with Marty by talking about how awesome he is. It’s all such sloppy foreshadowing. Hubris will not go unpunished in the Greek tragedy world of HoC. Frank’s debacle — A, E, I, O, U, welp — is so bad I can barely watch it. But Frank never lets a loss sit for long. Soon enough, he’s meeting Marty at the Capitol, taunting him until Marty clocks him across the face. Oops, looks like someone committed a felony.
I wish HoC would let Frank flail around in failure a little while longer. I’d love to see how Frank deals with being cornered, when he doesn’t have the upper hand.
A few more things …
* In case you’re wondering if Peter Russo lived through the night, rest assured: He is alive, sober, and running for governor.
* “We’ll cleave you from the herd and watch you die in the wilderness.” I hope they come out with a HoC line of Valentines.
* Zoe lets Frank take naked pictures of her. I think if those photos leaked Zoe would capitalize on the publicity, not see it as a career-killer.
* Being rich sounds fun in theory, but watching the Underwoods and the Holburns makes me think it might actually be horrible. Every dinner invite costs you a few tables at a gala. “People in this town don’t go out of their way to be nice to each other.” (This Town references: 1.)
* “I’m a white-trash cracker from a whit- trash town that no one would even bother to piss on.” Is this the most illuminating thing we’ve learned about Frank so far?
* “I was hoping you’d answer the door naked.” “That would be play.” “That would be work with a view.”
Have you moved on to the next batch of episodes yet? Then read my recap of the first season's Chapters 7-9.