House of Cards
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 and 4-6 here.
There’s this idea running through these next three episodes about how even the darkest past can be a springboard into a bright, shiny future, that who you were doesn’t have to stop you from becoming who you want to be. That is, at least, the party line: “a fresh start!” But there’s this even stronger sense that the past is ever present. Politicians who dole out favors always come to collect. An old flame can fire up at the least, or most, opportune moment. In a world where everyone is a grudge-holder, where everyone is keeping score, is it realistic to believe that you don’t have to carry your history with you everywhere you go?
Pete is attending AA meetings (I was surprised Frank didn’t hook him up with some exclusive, government-only version of AA, like what Leo had on The West Wing) with Doug as his chaperone. Is Doug really an alcoholic, or is he just babysitting Russo? I wouldn’t put it past him to have an elaborate lie about his alcoholic past just for the purpose of keeping an eye on Pete. Why not stake Pete out where he’s most vulnerable?
Zoe didn’t want the White House beat at the Herald, but with Slugline’s day-old access, she’s on it now. Interesting that Slugline would even apply for White House access, given the editor’s obvious disdain for all things Establishment. Zoe’s there to cover the signing of the Education Reform and Achievement Act. The Vice President gets snubbed — no ceremonial pen for him — while Frank walks away with a weekly meeting with POTUS and Linda, plus the last pen, which he gives to Zoe as a kind of twisted power-play consolation prize. The VP is feeling weak and isolated: “I’m supposed to just cut ribbons and go to funerals?” Someone hasn’t been watching Veep. I think one of the saddest moments in this episode is when the VP slips into the Oval Office and swipes a pen from the desk. Somehow you can be only a heartbeat away from being the most powerful man in the free world and be the most powerless man in D.C. at the same time.
Doug’s prostitute, Rachel, sends him a note demanding more money and shows up to their meeting with an enormous black eye. She tells Doug that she has no one — not sure if this is a smart play to Doug’s humanity; depends on whether or not you believe Doug is capable of being humane — and Doug sets her up with a job and a place to live. I find this whole story line odd and off-putting. What are we supposed to get out of this? That sex workers are frequently victims of violence? That Doug is decent underneath it all, because after paying for her services by slipping cash between her teeth, he sees to it that Rachel isn’t out starving in the streets? Isn’t he just doing all this to make sure she doesn’t talk? Does a show that is already fraught with troubling sexual politics really need this “Doug as savior of Rachel-the-hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold” plot?
At campaign headquarters, Pete looks like a kid waiting outside the principal’s office sitting in Frank’s basement. He has to come clean about his dirty past, and it turns out to be even dirtier than I expected: a two-week trip to Thailand where he had sex with about a dozen prostitutes while high on opium, speed, and smack. The man has mainlined heroin. He is somehow dumb enough to think that “high-end” call girls he solicited in D.C. couldn’t possibly be underage. Pete’s ready to quit, but Frank talks him down from the ledge. Frank makes Christina deputy campaign manager, she tells Pete she believes in him, and we’re back in the game.
Sidebar: One of the most annoying, infuriating themes in HoC is the ability of male characters to be scandalized by the fact that awful things happen to women, as if they are not actively engaging in a marketplace that creates the demand for such awful supply. For instance: Pete and the (presumably) too-young prostitutes; Doug’s shock that Rachel believes he wants sex for his money, even though he has previously expected sex from her in exchange for his money; Frank asking Zoe if she’s “cared for” while actively not caring for her. Why does every woman on this show, except for Claire, have to use sex to gain power over men? Does Willimon’s vision of Washington really look this much like Game of Thrones?
Janine and Zoe drunk-bond, and Zoe takes Frank’s advice — “Generosity is its own form of power” — and gives Janine the Russo profile. Pete, in turn, is a well-oiled lying machine, feeding Janine bullshit about how long he’s been sober and his “renewed faith in God.” But what Frank calls “generosity” isn’t generosity at all: Generosity with strings is a loan of kindness, not a gift. I’m curious if later episodes/seasons will explore Frank’s issues with this sort of dynamic: Has anyone ever been generous with Frank? Whenever he talks about his father, he’s bitter, angry, and disgusted; we still don’t know much about his mom. Would Frank even recognize generosity on sight, or would he always be looking for the catch?
Lucas drunkenly stakes out Zoe’s apartment and goes in for the kiss, all while Frank is watching from his car. Zoe is polite but disinterested. I am impressed at Lucas’s ability to catch a cab so quickly in Zoe’s neighborhood. When Frank gets upstairs, he and Zoe use the president’s pen to bust open a bottle of wine. The whole thing makes me even sadder for the VP, who’d give anything for the token that Frank and Zoe toss aside.
Christina shows up at Pete’s place and Pete tells her he’s just no in a place to think romantically ri—oh, wait, never mind, they have sex.
Zoe and Frank also have sex. While she’s on the phone wishing her dad a happy Fathers’ Day. Don’t worry. She’s in a really great place right now.
An almost-bottle episode! Frank goes back to his alma mater, The Sentinel, a fictional version of The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, and Pete goes home to Philly. Pete’s trip is pretty dull and predictable. His mom is in a home, his old friends are pissed at him until they aren’t, and he and Christina are back together. The one particularly revealing thing about Pete’s trip home is his visit to his mother, who is this tough Philly broad stuck bedridden in a lousy nursing home where the attendants are so inattentive, Pete has to all but threaten a staff member so that a flickering light in her room gets replaced. Pete’s mom is unimpressed by Christina (“So, you’re fucking my son?”) and, it seems, not all that over-the-moon about her son’s accomplishments in Washington. Not saying you can draw a straight line from what was obviously a rough upbringing to Pete’s substance abuse; maybe you could draw a squiggly line, though. Pete gets into a fistfight with Paul, the angry friend who visited him in D.C. when the shipyard closed, proving once and for all that he hasn’t sold out to the suits and can still break a coffee table with the best of them. (I really hope Pete pays for that coffee table, by the way. Sort of rude to take away everyone’s job and then go around busting up their furniture.)
But Frank’s trip is, I think, one of the most poignant sequences in the series. It’s a glimpse at what Frank was like before he went full—Sun Tzu, when he still had all those young-people feelings: When he yearned and sang and loved so hard it hurt. When he was vulnerable. His glee at the sight of the Riflemen and the gusto with which he joins in their song is heartwarming.
Reuniting with the Riflemen means reuniting with Tim, Frank’s college sweetheart, kind of. Their scene together in the empty old library is so lovingly staged: Frank’s “My heart is beating so fast. If I have a heart attack, it’s your fault,” his hand resting over Tim’s heart. Tim says they were “like brothers,” and Frank corrects him, “More than brothers … I was so drawn to you.” They fell out of touch, and Tim runs a rafting company out west, about as far as you could get from Frank’s D.C. life. It feels like Frank misses Tim more than Tim misses Frank.
I go back and forth on whether we should read into these scenes that Frank is gay (Tim asks if he “has anyone besides Claire,” insinuating as much) or just that Frank was in love with Tim in a way he’s never loved anyone since. It does sound like the most unconditional relationship, romantic or otherwise, that Frank’s ever had. Can you imagine anyone else in Frank’s life saying to him, “It made me happy to make you happy,” as Tim does?
Frank tells Tim the library is a sham: a bunch of political favors. He’s probably talking to one of the only people he knows who doesn’t care about politics. “The library doesn’t matter,” Frank says. “But I want to think this place did.” Later, Tim invites Frank out to the Arkansas River. They both seem to know Frank will never take him up on it.
I love the snippet of conversation among the current students who don’t even know who Frank is, right in front of Frank. “I dunno. I think he’s dead.” It’s all very “Ozymandias.”
During the library unveiling, I wonder if Frank actually learned any of the things his alma mater is so proud to have taught him: sacrifice, service, honor, duty. We are treated to yet another “I wrote a speech, but I’m not going to read it” speech. Frank says he understands now that nothing is permanent, but I’m not sure he means it. Does he care about his legacy? Does he only care about power in the moment? Is power really power if it’s fleeting? And does the power Frank has over his Washington world mean anything compared to the power Tim still has over Frank? And Tim’s not even trying.
Looks like Slugline is moving up in the world: Zoe and Janine have desks. So much for beanbag chairs being the way of the future. I like watching these two work together, but I hate this whole thing where, in the world of the show, every female journalist has sex for stories. If it were just Zoe, okay. But Janine too? And this implication that “we’ve all done it”? And, perhaps most offensive at all, the notion that any legitimate, award-winning journalist would think a White House intern was worth screwing for scoops?
I like Janine’s motto, though: “It’s not worth fucking your way to the middle.”
Zoe tells Frank she thinks they should have a strictly professional relationship. She calls him “Francis,” and somehow he’s okay with that, even though that’s Claire’s thing. He promises not to punish her, but then of course he does. “This is what professional feels like,” he says while behaving like an immature, spoiled brat.
In boring updates: Pete hits the campaign trail with the VP, who’s like the meaner, bitter version of Joe Biden: “folksy,” beloved, talks too much. Basically this is a repeat of Chapter 8, except instead of winning over his South Philly friends by being a fighter, Pete wins over the VP, also by being a fighter.
Claire wants to get her CWI filters out of Sudanese customs and the Secretary of State can’t pull strings to make it happen. Remy can, but SanCorp refuses to back Russo’s bill. Frank won’t help Claire because he can’t ask Remy for the favor. Claire’s reply: “So what you’re saying is, my goals are secondary to yours?” Frank yells at her (!!!), apologizes, and barely lets the dust settle for a hot second before asking her for a favor. Total husband fail.
This is the turning point for Claire and Frank: For the first time, we see Claire go behind Frank’s back and undo everything he’s done. She’s made it clear from the very start that she will not tolerate being excluded from decision-making, that they’re a team of equals, that they’re supposed to be working together. That’s the contract the Underwoods have. Once Frank violates the terms, all bets are off. Claire goes to Remy, who helps her in exchange for having the watershed bill killed.
Frank sees the Congressmen first. He does a little demonstration with action figures that I guess he just keeps in his desk for this express purpose. “Vote your district, vote your conscience, don’t surprise me.” He expects Claire to seal the deal, and she does just the opposite. Underestimating the power of Claire: never a smart move. Frank’s biggest screw-ups always happen when he forgets that anyone else could possibly be as powerful as he is. He should’ve known better.
Zoe caves and texts Frank, barely even waiting until they finish having sex to ask him for the vote count. Then she interrogates him about their age difference, suggesting she’s just pretending to have a good time. Frank acts like it doesn’t bother him, but I don’t think he’s the kind of guy who can accept a bad performance review in any arena.
“I can play the whore. Now pay me.”
A few more things…
* Zoe thinks Frank’s security guy is cute. I think they’d make an okay couple! Young, driven, a little too quick to pull the trigger.
* So glad Claire is learning to make origami swans. That’s just a marvelous use of her time.
* As soon as Frank said he despised children, I thought: he and Mellie “No one likes babies” Grant could be amazing together.
* “I looked up crackbaby on the computer and we don’t look like that.” Frank hates kids but Russo’s are pretty great.
* “As we used to say in Gaffney: never slap a man while he’s chewin tobacco.”
* “A great man once said that everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.”
When you’re all caught, move on to my final batch of recaps, for the first season’s Chapters 10-13.