Fade in on a peaceful country lane in Gaffney. All is calm, all is bright. A motorcade cuts through the quiet. President Frank Underwood steps out of the car with flowers in his arms. He’s in town to pay respects to his dearly departed father. And by “pay respects,” I mean literally piss on his dead dad’s tombstone.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be here if I had a choice,” he tells us, waiting approximately 30 seconds before breaking that fourth wall. “But I have to do these sorts of things now. Makes me seem more human. And you have to be a little human when you’re the president.”
This is what we want from House of Cards. Symbolic acts of destruction foreshadowing real acts of destruction. Ruthlessness and ridiculousness in equal measure. Kevin Spacey talking directly to us.
This is what we get from the rest of this episode of House of Cards: Doug Stamper.
Did you spend the HoC off-season wondering about this gent’s whereabouts? Did you assume, as I did, that he was dead in the ditch where Rachel left him, yet another supporting character to be tossed aside when his usefulness ran out? A recapper can hope, but nope: Stamper lives. And so we are treated to, I kid you not, 27 uninterrupted minutes of Doug Stamper, recovering like the tortoise ran that race (slowly, steadily). He is told by his doctor that because of the nature of his injuries — the technical term, I believe, is a “Hollywood fracture,” wherein a person’s arms and legs may be damaged but the face, that all-important face, remains unscathed — he can look forward to the fact that “motor skills will be a struggle and your emotions will be unpredictable.”
Everything that happens with Doug in this sequence, and in fact for the rest of the episode, can be prefaced with an exaggerated, say-it-with-a-heavy-sigh-and-an-eye-roll of course. Allow me:
Of course we get ominous music every time Doug’s doctor mentions prescription drugs, because Doug is a reformed alcoholic; of course we get close-up shots of those drugs whenever they are on-screen; of course we get a dramatic crumpling of the scrip that Doug valiantly refuses to fill, but then of course as the pain sets in, we find Doug pawing around his pockets praying one stray pill will turn up after all. Of course we cannot put this Rachel story to bed, as if it hadn’t already taken ten turns for the worse last season, and of course in a moment of weakness and need, Doug summons a prostitute to his bed who looks just like Rachel, and of course when said prostitute promises to “be gentle” Doug replies by pulling her hair and saying “don’t be gentle,” and of course Doug brings home a bottle of booze that he, oddly, decides to consume through the syringe he has for his meds. For portion control? The creepiness factor? Little of both?
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, Claire comes to visit the swankiest-looking hospital I’ve ever seen. Is Doug being treated inside a West Elm catalogue? Claire gives Doug a phone “for emergencies.” She knows Doug remembers what really happened and is just at his bedside to coach him on what he should tell the police: “a carjacking, a man, it could be anyone.” Claire tells him she can “fix” the Rachel problem. One more fair maiden for the Metro tracks! The police obviously ask Doug what the hell he was doing in “that part of Maryland” anyway; Doug cracks and is like, “I was stalking this ex-prostitute who I sort of fell in love with, but she had a new girlfriend and she doesn’t want anything to do with me, so she tried to kill me.”
No, sorry, that was in my dreams. In the show Doug said he was “driving.”
Gary, Doug’s brother, is looking after Doug even though they haven’t spoken in a decade. Gary insists on sticking around to help, as Doug’s doctor advised, but Doug needs to be alone in his apartment so easily preventable accidents can maul his fragile body further, so he tells his bro to skiddaddle. Best thing that ever happened to you, Gary. Be free, you innocent man.
This brings us to what is, by far, the best part of the episode: Frank Underwood on The Colbert Report. Come back to us, Stephen! Frank is introducing the “America Works” program (“Oh, so it’s a fantasy novel!”), which he says will be on the scale of the New Deal. Apparently Frank has been POTUS for all of six months and unemployment has skyrocketed and 80 percent of Americans think he has no leadership skills. Colbert sums up Frank’s plan, unfortunately abbreviated as “AmWorks,” like so: “It’s a socialist redistribution of wealth wherein the baby boomers will latch on to the millennials like a lampray and just keep sucking until they’re dry as a crouton.” Later, Colbert asks if Frank plans to “privatize Social Security and then raise revenue by hunting the elderly for sport?”
Doug tries to use his batphone to reach Claire and Frank, but naturally a middleman, Seth, picks up instead. Seth chastises Doug like a third-grade teacher grilling a student who wants the bathroom pass: “Is this an emergency?” Sorry, Doug, your bottomless pit of sadness and self-pity does not qualify as an urgent situation. Doug cries.
Desperate times mean it’s time for the return of Gavin (but not Cashew! Is he okay? #JeSuisCashew), who agreed to work for the FBI so charges against him would be dropped. Doug wants help tracking down his loose end, but Gavin isn’t having it. He does, however, report that no one at the FBI is talking about Rachel, which, why would they be even? Anyway, this is just super; there’s nothing I love more than to see a smart, young, capable woman be used as a plot device in a man’s story.
No journalists can get a handle on what AmWorks actually is, and it turns out this is because Frank and his crack team haven’t put it together yet. Frank wants all “the entitlement programs sucking us dry” to be back on the table because they are “bankrupting us.” Frank is a Democrat who became POTUS, I thought, just so he could have muscle and flex it for fun, so this makes absolutely no sense even by the internal laws that govern this series, let alone the rules of logic that dictate how things work in the real world. Frank says this will be unpopular, but “we have to do the things that people won’t like.” (Motto for this episode? Zing!)
Paul speaks up to suggest, ever so kindly, that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are “the bedrock of the American Dream.” Thanks for playing, Paul! Remy will have your things sent to the lobby. Let’s keep this quiet.
I would applaud the equal-opportunity nudity we see here as Doug attempts to get into a shower that, for reasons unclear, has not been equipped with a chair he could have ordered for 30 bucks off of Amazon on his way home from the hospital. Oh, it’s so he could fall in the shower! One more of course for the road, everybody. Doug starts to call 911 but then has the definitely better idea of making a splint for himself out of duct tape, MacGyver-style.
Donald Blythe, the lefty from last season who believed passionately in education and was caring for a wife with Alzheimer’s, is now a widowed vice-president who does whatever Frank asks because Frank promised him a research center in exchange for this loyalty. He and Frank are meeting with a Supreme Court justice suffering from, what do you know, Alzheimer’s, and they convince him to stay on the bench instead of spend time with his family, all to help Frank pass AmWorks (doesn’t really get any better the more you type it, alas).
Doug appears for his long-awaited meeting with Frank, and what ensues is just a very uncomfortable conversation: All Doug does is grovel, and all Frank does is patronize him. Doug is desperate for his job back, and Frank plays the “the best thing you can do for me is take care of you” card. Doug is also busy apologizing for that-thing-he-can’t-talk-about-here. “I should’ve taken care of it when I had the chance. Haven’t found her yet, but when I do, I’ll make sure that no one else does.”
Or, you know, they could not! I honestly doubt Rachel wants anything to do with the White House or Doug or any of these scumbags ever again. Maybe just let her do her own thing off the grid somewhere. Just a thought.
Finally — finally! — we get to the most interesting person on this show. Claire, who I had suspected would have zero interest in the mostly ceremonial duties of the First Lady, wants to be the ambassador to the U.N. Frank pretends to support her, but he doesn’t want her messing up his plans; he has loved her as a supplicant, a support system, an intellectual equal willing to sit on the sidelines. She is a force to be reckoned with, but he’d rather not do the reckoning.
She reveals (to us, surely Frank’s known for a while) that she wants to run for office someday. The Underwoods agreed to this plan before they ever moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but Frank’s looking for loopholes. No dice: Claire wakes him up in the middle of the night to insist he follow through. The two of them take a little midnight stroll to the Situation Room, where Frank raises her security clearance just for this one classified thing, a move that seems suspect, but I’ll roll with it.
Claire watches Frank give the go-ahead to take out a target. He means it to rattle her, to give her cold feet about the ambassador position. She isn’t shaken by it at all, and why should she be? It’s nothing she hasn’t seen before.