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House of Cards Season 2, Episode 2 Recap: Political Animals

Molly Parker in season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards." Photo credit: Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.

After a first episode (read our recap of that one here) that dropped a bomb, episode two of House of Cards’ second season turned its attention to the dynamics of Washington, or at least, Washington as House of Cards sees it.

This installment was a portrait of people who can switch morals on or off like the Internet connection that allows Frank to play God of War. Everybody — from Frank Underwood to Claire Underwood to Congresswoman Jackie Sharp — compartmentalized and rationalized out of perceived necessity, so they can keep living well and living with themselves. As Howard Webb told Wes Buchwalter, referring to the House Ethics Committee and delivering the best line of the episode: “All you can offer me is Ethics, which nobody wants.” (Second best line of the episode, from Lucas’s Washington Herald boss to Lucas: “We can’t have an editor looking more disheveled than his reporters.” Uh, I’ve worked at newspapers and: Yes. Yes, you can.)

Here’s a question: Does Frank Underwood have any hard and fast opinions on political issues? During the Chinese cyber-attack diplomacy debacle, he shrewdly stated his opinions based on whoever was listening at the time and whatever would most readily allow him to maintain allies in the moment. When Raymond Tusk — billionaire, trusted adviser to President Walker, pseudo-nemesis to Frank Underwood — advocated one thing, Frank sided with him. Then, when Tusk was no longer in the room or on the line, Frank urged the president to strongly consider Secretary of State Durant’s position about taking a firm stance with China. At no point were the real details of all this China business really spelled out, and at no point did Frank seem to consider how any of this might jibe with his own record or attitudes on foreign policy. It was all about responding to whichever way the wind blew, something that, with zero hint of irony, he criticized the President for doing.

Claire Underwood seemed to share her husband’s inability to draw connections between her own feelings and those of others. When Frank’s vice-presidential duties required him to present a medal to General Dalton McGinnis, Claire revealed to her husband that McGinnis was the boyfriend who raped her during her freshman year of college. Frank flew into a lamp-smashing rage and appeared to be on the verge of bursting out of the ladies room and assaulting the guy, at which point I thought: Good God, am I watching House of Cards right now or Downton Abbey? Claire calmed Frank, then, later, recounted the brutal way McGinnis violated her. “Every time I think of her pinned down like that, Francis, I strangle her so she doesn’t strangle me,” Claire said, referring to the abused innocent she once was. ”I have to. We have to. The alternative is unlivable.”

It was jarring to hear Claire talk about the violence inflicted upon her by another man when, a few scenes prior, we had just seen the surveillance video, frame by frame, of Zoe Barnes getting splattered by a Metro train. Of course Claire has to sublimate her memories of being abused. She has to for her own emotional well-being, but also because if she didn’t, she’d have to confront the fact that she goes to bed every night beside a man who’s capable of equally horrible things, a man who did fatal harm to another young woman who clearly didn’t ask for it. She might even have to consider that Frank’s done those things with her encouragement. (Also, Claire may have been extra shaken by McGinnis if that rape resulted in a pregnancy and one of those three abortions we know she previously had. After deciding to give up on fertility treatments, this was an odd, extra upsetting moment to run into the guy.)

Now, about that video, which conveniently makes it look like Zoe must have jumped or fallen on the subway tracks: Don’t the police notice that there’s a huge construction barrier right in front of where Zoe was standing that completely obscures their view of what actually happened? And doesn’t the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority have more than one camera in its Metro stations that can capture more than one angle on the activity that transpires on its platforms? I’m pretty sure WMATA does. In any case, there was a definite irony in the fact that security cameras were being installed all over the Underwood home, as required by the Secret Service, while the one camera that could have captured the Vice-President committing murder managed to miss him in the act.

But with Lucas now digging into the Deep Web in an attempt to restore records of Zoe’s many Underwood texts and phone calls, perhaps Frank’s crime won’t stay secret for long. Maybe. Either way, if I were Lucas, I’d probably avoid taking the Metro for a while.

But back to the tunes of political animals and how quickly they can change: Perhaps the most provocative switcheroo in this episode came from Jackie Sharp, who had stood by longtime family friend and House colleague Representative Ted Havemeyer for years, making sure that his financial support of his illegitimate daughter Emily, who has cerebral palsy, continued quietly, without the public or Ted’s wife knowing. With the increasingly tantalizing opportunity to become Majority Whip right in front of her, and with Representatives Webb and Buchwalter playing hardball about moving out of her way, it became clear that the only way she could ascend was for Ted to descend. (That was largely because Buchwalter insisted that Ted be ousted from Congress because of residual anger over some slight from more than a decade ago. Was it intentional or accidental that Buchwalter conjured thoughts of Governor Chris Christie?)   

The only way for Ted to descend, apparently, was for the truth about Emily to be revealed, an idea Jackie rejected at first, out of loyalty. That prompted Frank to wonder if maybe she doesn’t have what it takes to be Whip after all. That was all he had to say.

Jackie leaked the story and gave Ted a head’s up that he was about to be ruined. But instead of crying or unleashing the floodgates of guilt, she pointed out that Ted hadn’t done one thing for his daughter over the years, failing to visit her or even acknowledge her existence. All of these things were true, of course, but Jackie only started lobbing out those truths when she needed them to make herself feel better.

On the other hand, though, why should Jackie give up on taking a House leadership position out of deference to a man who has emotionally neglected a child who needed him, because of one more public official who committed a marital transgression? Ted hasn’t shown much respect for women — Emily, the nanny with whom he had the affair that led to Emily’s existence, his own wife — so why should Jackie sacrifice on his behalf? That’s a powerful argument, one that surely confirmed Jackie’s sense that her wrong paled in comparison to the larger right.

“I hate myself for it,” she said of how the news would affect Ted’s family. “But I’ll get over that.” Like her other politically minded friends and frenemies in Washington, she has to. The alternative is unlivable.

Photo: Nathaniel E. Bell/Netflix