It’s time to discuss yet another House of Cards episode that focused on the ongoing political sniping between Frank Underwood and Raymond Tusk, while laying on the legislative and legal jargon as thick as the sauce on a rack of Freddy’s ribs. But unlike the episode that preceded it, this House of Cards installment did something illuminating from a gender perspective: It demonstrated a key difference in the way Frank Underwood and Claire Underwood are currently handling their business.
Let’s look first at Frank, who saw the energy crisis that’s jacking up electric bills across the nation for what it was: an opportunity to make Raymond Tusk’s life hell. That’s right, no one in this country could afford to pay for their air-conditioning in the middle of the summer, and Frank chose to deal with that by pissing off the rich guy whose business interests are intertwined with that energy crisis, solely to satisfy his own ego. Vice-President Frank Underwood: If you don’t already hate him for murdering two people, hate him for doing a terrible job of representing the American people.
As he noted in that episode-opening aside, Frank is a pugilist by nature, one who sensed Raymond’s weakness and attempted to knock him out with a gut punch and a left hook to the jaw. Throughout this episode, Frank handled all of his problems that way: with hitting, hitting, and more hitting.
He aggressively attempted to jeopardize Raymond’s refinery project with the Chinese and send the message that Frank, not Raymond, is the one wielding all the power in this increasingly tiresome dynamic. To that end, the veep threatened the advisor to POTUS with samarium subsidies (I know: that old trick), antitrust amendments, suggestions that the government should take over Raymond’s nuclear energy distribution centers, and, finally, ultimatums that allowed Kevin Spacey to deliver the Rainier Wolfcastle–esque line “The ball is in your court,” while tossing a baseball at Raymond. (That line admittedly would have worked better if there was an actual court in baseball.)
For his part, Raymond landed some serious punches, too, refusing to cave in on that subsidy issue and even (allegedly) causing an East Coast blackout that struck just as Frank was about to throw the opening pitch at an Orioles game, while wearing an awesome old-school Orioles jacket. (Hence, the aforementioned baseball metaphor.) Frank thought he could knock out Raymond while he was “on the ropes,” but Raymond proved he was ready to take every jab and hit back harder.
While both men were completely open with each other about their mutual disdain, they kept their war a semi-secret from the president. Frank outright lied to Walker about the nature of his conversations with the business mogul, emphasizing that the country needs a leader right now who won’t “bend to Raymond Tusk.” With his enemy, Frank was transparently ruthless. With the commander-in-chief, he was simply a supportive member of the administration who only cared about a win for the team. It was no problem for Frank to switch back and forth between those two roles because he’s done it many times before and also, he’s a deranged sociopath.
Frank was just as aggressive and two-faced in his approach to the Lucas Goodwin problem, which intensified after Lucas refused to take a plea deal and convinced his old editor, Tom Hammerschmidt, to continue digging into the Frank-as-murderer angle. While staring rather obviously at a painting of a Civil War battle, Frank the Commander told Doug: “We need to invite a full-frontal attack, and then hold the line.” So Frank met with Hammerschmidt but maintained his stance that it’s completely ludicrous to suggest he had anything to do with the deaths of Peter Russo or Zoe Barnes. When Tom asked super-direct questions — questions such as “Did you kill Peter Russo?” — Frank deflected (“Tom, you’re embarrassing yourself”) without addressing them directly. That certainly didn’t give Tom enough substance to run with a story accusing the vice-president of two homicides. After his cordially uncooperative meeting with Tom, Frank instructed Doug to put the matter to bed, so the guinea-pig-threatening henchman turned up the heat on Janine, Tom wrote an unpublishable story draft that made Lucas seem like a nutcase, and Janine told Lucas to take his plea and accept that Frank Underwood can get away with murder. So that’s what Lucas did -- all because Frank never stopped swinging until he got what he wanted.
You have to think that Frank’s killer instincts could wind up costing him at some point, right? Tom rightly mentioned that there are other players involved in the Russo/Barnes situation who could be tracked down, people like Rachel Posner, who is getting increasingly impatient with being held prisoner in a north-of-Baltimore studio apartment. Also: What about the families of Peter Russo or Zoe Barnes? Peter’s wife probably is too focused on helping her children get over the loss of their dad, but what about Russo’s father or mother, and what about Zoe’s? Wouldn’t they be inclined to ask more questions about the circumstances involved in those deaths? Frank can’t threaten and silence everyone under the hot, summer sun, but he appears to have done that to the only ones who care to inquire. It’s not clear yet whether Frank’s problem-solving approach is working on Raymond, but it seems to have succeeded in shutting-up Lucas and stopping all inquiries regarding the blood on his hands.
Now let’s talk Claire, who is just as ambitious and power-hungry as her husband, but in a much more refined way. Claire still has issues with having Christina — yet another person who could easily put two and two together regarding Peter Russo — so close to the president. So she tried to sabotage that, but in the nicest, friendliest possible way that never, at any time, betrayed any negative feelings.
First Claire casually mentioned to the First Lady that it still bothered her that Christina had been romantically involved with Peter, her former boss, even though it was none of her business. But never mind, Mrs. Walker, let’s not speak of it anymore, especially now that Christina, seducer of authority figures, is now working for your husband. Claire was subtle and casual in just the right ways, demurely planting a key seed of doubt in the First Lady’s mind. Then Claire worked on Christina, advising her to reach out to the First Lady and let her know that she is there to support both her and the president, in whatever ways they need. This all sounded like nice, female-mentor advice, which Christina took at face value and followed up on, thereby only making Mrs. Walker even more suspicious that Christina was trying to hide something. Claire’s plan was working, it was working!
Unlike her husband, Claire didn’t get aggressive with anyone and she didn’t do anything that could be construed by Christina or Mrs. Walker as anything other than completely genuine, upfront, and helpful. She created a situation in which two women will potentially be at odds with each other, but she did it without ever resorting to threats, shouting matches, or baseball metaphors. Don’t be fooled, she’s still up to some pretty evil business. But she conducts it so cleanly and with such an elegant smile that you almost want to praise her for it.
One could argue that Claire is much more female in her approach here while Frank is more stereotypically male. But just to be clear: Claire can get as blatantly mean as her man when she wants to (please see: Claire’s insistence on letting Gillian’s unborn child wither and die inside her if Gillian wouldn’t drop her lawsuit). Still, she does that sparingly, whereas attack-mode is Frank’s default position. This is why, so far this season, Claire is a far more interesting character than Frank. We always know exactly what Frank’s thinking because even if we haven’t already figured it out, he’ll turn straight to the camera and spit out the obvious. But Claire’s not a fourth-wall breaker. To figure out what she’s up to, you have to read her body language and peer between the lines of her comments. For example, with Christina: What is her long game? Is Claire trying to get Christina fired so that she’ll be out of the White House, farther away from the president and therefore no threat to Frank if she, by chance, decides to start rethinking the circumstances surrounding Peter’s death? Maybe. But I think Claire’s more of a “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” type. Perhaps she wants to make the First Lady uncomfortable enough to want Christina off her husband’s staff, at which point Claire will swoop in and offer to put Christina on Frank’s team, where both Underwoods can keep tabs on her.
The point is: We really don’t know, the same way we don’t know, exactly, why Jackie Sharp decided to sleep with Remy. (It can’t be as easy as “Jackie drank too much and Remy looks hot without a shirt on,” although those factors should not be underestimated.) Jackie’s probably playing a long game of some kind, too, and the fact that we can’t entirely determine the nature of it yet is the kind of thing that makes House of Cards fun to watch and, as it happens, much more fun to watch right now when the women are taking center stage. I’m also far, far more intrigued by what’s happening with Rachel — who used her feminine wiles to assert her own sense of power over Doug — than I am by anything that involves Raymond Tusk.
But since I mentioned his name: It was interesting to see how Raymond changed his demeanor when he exited his kitchen argument with Frank and bumped into Claire. He softened, turned polite, and toned down the charged rhetoric he’d just lobbed at Frank in the other room moments before. When the House of Cards men are around other men, everything is on the table, out in the open, dripping in testosterone and cliché. But when the women deal with things, they traffic in subtlety and keep us guessing. And when a show actively begs its audience to binge-watch it, its chief objective should be exactly that: to keep us guessing.