One of the flaws in House of Cards' first season was that it took a little time for all the ugly plot machinations to get going. We had to meet Frank Underwood first; get to know his Congressional, media-manipulating landscape; and literally adjust our eyes to the low lighting levels before the really dirty stuff — the blackmail, and the planting of career-ruining stories, and the murders dressed up to look like suicide — could begin to unfold.
House of Cards season two has clearly dispensed with such formalities. With this, its first, much-anticipated, Netflix-able episode of season two, the show has announced its intention to immediately hurtle forward from where it left off, with the unstoppable force of a speeding Metro train. (If you need a refresher on exactly where it left off, take a moment to read this primer by Amanda Dobbins, as well as the season one recaps by the admirably detail-oriented Jessica Goldstein.)
Even though this is a recap and, therefore, by definition, wading in plot spoilers, I still want to take this moment to say: SPOILER ALERT. This insta-analysis is about to delve into the major shocker of this first episode.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way: HOLY SHIT, ZOE BARNES GOT SHOVED INTO AN ONCOMING TRAIN BY FRANK UNDERWOOD AND NOW SHE IS DEAD. I did not see it coming; I suspect most people who watched this episode before reading any House of Cards–related tweets did not see it coming; and Zoe Barnes sure as hell did not see it coming. It was a moment that worked very well from a shock-and-awe perspective, even if it failed to pass the logic test. Would a man who is about to become Vice-President of the United States actually meet a reporter, one with whom he once shared a romantic relationship, in a public Metro station, and kill her? I know he was standing at the farthest, most shadowy end of the platform, and that he was wearing those glasses and that fedora. But honestly, that outfit, especially the fedora? It only made him seem more suspicious. Kevin Spacey looked like he had briefly turned back into Jack Abramoff, the very real and ethically compromised lobbyist he played in Casino Jack. That, or Deep Throat, but even he was smart enough to meet in an empty parking garage in Arlington.
No, if a vice-president were going to ice someone like Zoe, he’d get Doug, or some henchman hired by Doug, to do the dirty work. It’s far too risky for him to do the ugly shoving himself. Then again, the whole murder went down at the Cathedral Heights Metro, which doesn’t even exist in real life. Evidently House of Cards takes place in an alternate universe version of D.C., one that mostly resembles the actual D.C. but where Frank Underwood’s power of mass destruction overwhelms credibility.
Here’s another question about all this: Why was Zoe foolish enough to break away from Lucas and Janine, comply with Frank’s demands about deleting all their exchanges from her phone, and attempt to keep him as a source? The most basic explanation is that her journalism instincts, as well as her common sense, suck and always have. But the more concise, nuanced answer to that question is this: hubris. Zoe thought she could play both a long game — continuing to tap Frank for information once he became vice-president — and a short one — figuring out what actually happened to Peter Russo — without it being a problem. She also did not seem to buy that Underwood could possibly have killed Russo and staged his suicide. Given her background as a scoop-hungry, territorial newspaper reporter, it’s possible she may have wanted to keep Frank all to herself as a vessel for intel about the highest levels of government. Clearly she miscalculated, big-time. And now there are going to be massive delays on the Magenta Line — the nonexistent Metro line that obviously includes the Cathedral Heights station — because of it.
Here’s another question about the Zoe-meets-Metro moment: What did Claire Underwood know and when did she know it? She and Frank shared a deliberately vague, pre-bedtime conversation prior to Zoe’s subway-sassination. “You haven’t said a word. Where does that leave us?” she asked her husband. “I’m fully prepared and I have been for some time,” Frank responded. “I know you’ll do whatever you think is best,” Claire said. “So good night, and happy murdering.” Fine, she didn’t say that last thing. Therefore, it wasn’t clear, at all, what they were referring to. But the parallels between that scene and the subsequent scene in which Claire heard a TV report about Zoe’s death suggest they were talking about how to get rid of Barnes.
In the first scene, Claire is in the bathroom. She washes her face. She enters the bedroom. CNN is on the television. She puts some lotion on her hands and prepares for sleep. In the second scene, Claire is in the bathroom again. She enters the bedroom. CNN is on the television. She hears the news about Zoe and barely reacts. She then puts makeup on her face and prepares to start a new day. The writers and Carl Franklin, who directed this episode, clearly wanted us to connect those two moments. That suggests that Claire probably advocated for the killing of Zoe, and also means she that knows what really happened with Peter Russo. As that opening shot of Frank and Claire on a late-night jog established: these two are in the shadows, running side-by-side from whatever dares to chase them, together.
Claire, always icy and complicit in her spouse’s lust for political power, may be even more ruthless than we thought. That was clear in the way she handled the wrongful termination lawsuit with her former protégée, the pregnant Gillian: by siccing the wife of Gillian’s lover on her, getting Gillian’s health insurance canceled so she can’t take the medication she needs to ensure her geriatric pregnancy proceeds smoothly, and then offering to give Gillian her job as head of the Clean Water Initiative (“No strings,” Claire said, which can’t be possible) if Gillian drops the suit. Claire was as venomous as Frank when she told her former employee: “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required.” Try leaning into that, Sheryl Sandberg.
Clearly the plan this season is to establish Claire as someone who’s even more explicitly calculating and, therefore, an undisputed equal with her husband. But Robin Wright is still showing us little flickers of humanity that make us think there is decency buried inside her somewhere. Her trip to the ob-gyn, which surely was an attempt to dig up information on the medication Gillian was taking, also betrayed what may be the whisper of a genuine, not-so-latent desire to become a mother, one she had to dismiss after what went down with Gillian. Even Claire knows that being willing to let a child wither and die may not speak to the strongest maternal instincts.
Still, when Frank looked in the mirror at episode’s end and finally broke that fourth, glass wall, his gaze betrayed no sense of second thoughts, no hint of remorse about Zoe or anything else. But every time we caught a reflection of Claire, it suggested that her thoughts were racing to other places, that her steely facade has the potential to break. This is what makes Claire, in many ways, a far more compelling, dimensional character than Frank.
Even though Zoe is no longer with us, I’m already sensing that other women on House of Cards may serve as the series’ magnetic force this season. Rachel Posner, now being kept in the north-of-Baltimore equivalent of a Homeland safe house, may not have pulled off that knife threat. But she probably won’t stay quiet for long. And Jackie Sharp — member of Congress, war veteran, and Frank’s hand-picked replacement as majority whip — strikes me as a woman who does not suffer fools, and may not suffer Frank if he tries to enlist her in his Machiavellian schemes.
One final comment, because obviously we still have a lot of binge-watching to do: Those FU cufflinks that bodyguard Ed Meechum gave to Frank as a birthday gift? They seemed like a nice gesture, and a humorous nod to the fact that Frank’s initials also serve as an apt summary for his attitude toward ethics, his colleagues and pretty much all of humanity. But there may be more to them than that. Could they be bugged? Could Meechum be trying to take Frank down? Maybe not. But if this show can callously shove one of its main characters into a train with less heads-up than a butcher gives a pig, anything is possible.