People in Washington, D.C. — and I mean the official This Town-ers, not necessarily the many non-politically affiliated normals who also, swear to God, actually live in the D.C. area — love House of Cards. The reasons they love House of Cards are all right here in episode three of season two, which focused largely on behind-closed-Senate-office-door maneuvering over an amendment that would raise the retirement age (win for Republicans) while avoiding a government shutdown (win for the Democrats), all just in time for this productive bipartisan effort to be touted in the president’s State of the Union address (win for the president and, more importantly, Vice President Frank Underwood).
This episode was what I’ll refer to as a Sexy C-SPAN installment of House of Cards, one that transformed the often mundane legislative process into a moment of high drama worthy of a reality show entitled Real Senators of Capitol Hill. It delved into the particulars of how bills become laws in ways that extended far beyond what we all learned from Schoolhouse Rock. It made the attempt to reach a quorum — quorum: definitely one of the top 25 most boring words in the English language — seem exciting and suspenseful. It demonstrated how difficult it is for the two parties to work together. And it did all of this with House of Cards’s signature sense of self-important hig -drama, or what our own Matt Zoller Seitz recently referred to as its “magisterial swagger.” House of Cards is a show with an inflated sense of ego; it tells engrossing stories, sure, but it’s obvious that it also thinks it’s doing really important work. Guess what? Almost every damn person who regularly crosses the threshold of a Congressional cloakroom thinks he or she is doing really important show. That’s why House of Cards is a This Town show.
Look, I’d love to summarize every negotiation, twist, turn, and lickety-split roll call that went down in this episode, and also explain how politically plausible each moment actually was. But why do that when Talking Points Memo already did that for me? Really, the important things to know about the whole fracas over the entitlement bill are as follows:
1. Curtis Haas, Republican and mouthpiece for the Tea Party, is most definitely going to hold a grudge against Underwood.
Haas reluctantly agreed to sign off an amendment that would raise the retirement and early retirement ages to 68 and 64, respectively, and lock in that change for 15 years so that no subsequent Congress could overturn it. This was a more than reasonable concession on the Democrats’ part, assuming that you can ignore the fact that the Dems were completely compromising their principles by even having this conversation. Yet despite getting everything he wanted, Haas reneged on the agreement, prompting Senate Majority Leader Hector Mendoza, a Republican, to back out as well. That, in turn, prompted Frank to go into “medieval” mode, which involved pulling some parliamentary shenanigans that eventually led to Republicans being dragged onto the Senate floor in freaking handcuffs, and passing a bill that, by the way, Republicans had apparently been wanting for quite some time. Haas was angry that the “fine print” on said legislation prevented him from filibustering. But one has to ask: What would this guy even have been filibustering for? This stupid piece of legislation gave him exactly what he wanted. Nevertheless, he was clearly pissed. And it’s pretty clear that his irritation will probably come back to bite Frank Underwood in the backside at some point soon.
2. Raymond Tusk had better tread lightly with Frank Underwood.
Frank cooked up his “raise the entitlement age” scheme with Tusk’s blessing. But of course, when things started to look bleak for the bill’s passage, the president came down hard on Underwood and noted that Raymond felt “bullied” into agreeing to Frank’s plan. That did not sit well with the vice president, who informed Raymond that he was aware that the avid birder had been talking out of both sides of his mouth. “Jesus forgives you,” Frank told Raymond. But Jesus isn’t Vice President Francis Underwood.
3. Underwood has been vice president for approximately ten seconds and is already gunning for the Oval Office.
In one of his direct-to-camera moments early in this episode, Kevin Spacey’s Underwood noted that President Walker is “the most powerful man in the free world … for now.” At the end of the episode, when Underwood was seated just behind the president during his State of the Union address, he broke the fourth wall again to note that, “I used to be on the edge of the frame. Now, I’m only three feet away.” In other words: Frank already has that tingly “I want to be president” feeling. Everything he did concerning the retirement age effort served that feeling. After all, who was mentioned in that SotU speech as the hero who made sure Congress would take the action that led to the avoidance of a government freeze? Frank Underwood, of course.
4. Oh yeah, by the way: Government is total b.s.
When the president practiced his address at the beginning of this episode, he said, “Raising the age of retirement is an unacceptable erosion of the American dream.” By the end of the almost-hour, in the actual State of the Union, he praised the raising of the retirement age as a move that would “ensure entitlements for years to come.” It was an act of gross flip-floppery, born out of political convenience as opposed to any commitment to principles. Or, to put it in more crass terms: It was total crap. Assuming this bill passes the fictional House, a lot of fictional people in this fictional version of America will have to wait even longer to reap the fictional retirement benefits they’ve worked long and hard to earn. That means I’ll be forced to continue writing House of Cards recaps until I’m almost 70 freaking years old, you guys.
But the entitlement raising wasn’t the only example of stupid behavior in this episode. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Lucas Goodwin, Washington Herald editor and possibly the least savvy journalist to ever exist on planet Earth. And yes, I am counting Zoe Barnes.
Lucas was still determined to prove that Zoe was murdered by Frank, despite the fact that he has zero evidence to support his notably correct theory. But instead of continuing to dig, laying low and possibly delving into the Deep Web via a third party who would keep Lucas’s identity secret, Lucas did one idiotic, self-incriminating thing after another.
First he walked up to Christina, now a key presidential aide who may or may not be sleeping with the president, and announced, in broad daylight, to a White House staffer, that he thinks the vice president may have killed Zoe. Then he went to Waffle Nation — a restaurant that, like all fictional D.C. restaurants, is located in walking distance of the Cathedral Heights Metro station — where he received an iPad that contained a message from an anonymous hacker that Lucas thinks is helping him but is probably part of the Secret Service sting operation ordered by Doug to stop Lucas in his tracks.
Let’s pause for a second to talk about the weird-ass message from the anonymous hacker that appeared on that iPad, because I will be having nightmares about it for at least the next three years. What the hell was that thing? A bird with a blue, alien body, wearing a military helmet and speaking like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs? Yes, that seems like an accurate description.
Personally, if I saw that messed-up talking squawker on that iPad and heard its demand that I share my fingerprints via the Notary app, I’d be pretty much done with this “search for the Zoe truth.” Lucas, seriously: Zoe was not your wife. You didn’t date for very long. She was even pretty rude to you the last time you had sex. It’s probably not worth it to risk your life and career for her, especially since, given Kate Mara’s track record on recent TV shows, it’s entirely possible she’ll resurface in walking-dead mode anyway.
But Lucas was oblivious to reason, giving away his fingerprints and, later, the two-step verification to the Washington Herald’s internal servers, then going to that random apartment on Columbia St. NW that is supposedly occupied by this mysterious Deep Web whiz. If Lucas lives through this season, I’ll honestly be surprised, especially with Doug Stamper, professional busybody and life ruiner, on his case.
Speaking of Doug, his continued expectation that Rachel will keep quiet is getting increasingly absurd, as Rachel’s excursion to that Christian fellowship meeting illustrated. Rachel is not in solitary confinement. It’s inevitable that she’s going to meet people. In fact, by keeping her isolated, Doug is putting Rachel in a vulnerable state that makes her more inclined to reach out to anyone who offers to listen, and potentially more inclined to eventually spill the beans.
This episode demonstrated two things about Christianity: that it can breed Tea Party conservatives like Haas, and that it can provide much-needed comfort to mistreated, misunderstood loners like Rachel. Wouldn’t it be funny if, 15 years from now, right around the time that entitlement legislation hits its expiration date, Rachel winds up serving as a conservative Republican member of Congress, hellbent on mucking things up for the Democrats? If that does happen, it will be entirely the fault of Doug Stamper, the chief of staff to a scheming Democrat who’s too busy thinking about his own needs to consider how his current maneuvers may affect both the immediate future and the future that’s a not-so-distant, decade-and-a-half away.