House of Cards Season 3, Episode 4 Recap: Take Me to Church

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Underwood v. Dunbar. Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix
House of Cards
Episode Title
Chapter 30
Season
3
Episode
4
Editor’s Rating
5/5

One of my lingering concerns about HoC is how some of the most compelling, devastating things the Underwoods do just disappear from the story altogether, never to be referenced again, while the more tedious points in the plot — the education bill, AmWorks — never go away. Frank is a murderer; why has there been no follow-up on this point? Doesn’t Zoe Barnes have a family? Did no one look into Peter Russo’s suicide? It’s not so much about the plausibility of Frank getting away with it; it’s that these are opportunities for tension and drama that HoC just skates right over. If his actions have no consequences, why should we keep watching?

But this episode is promising on all fronts: For once Frank comes face-to-face, over and over again, with the consequences of his actions. He cannot pretend his ambition doesn’t have a body count.

Heather Dunbar is arguing the government’s case before the Supreme Court — this is about that drone strike that killed Mr. Mahmoud’s family and removed his legs, the one Frank gave Heather permission to release classified intel for — and she does a phenomenal job. “We can prosecute presidents, but not the presidency.” At the same time, Frank attends a service for three fallen Navy SEALs at Arlington.

Elsewhere, Claire is working on getting the U.N. to send troops to the Jordan Valley without Russia’s consent. Russia’s response to this is to arrest Michael Corrigan, the activist who attended the State Dinner with Pussy Riot. Though Corrigan was arrested while speaking out about LGBT rights, Frank, oddly enough, won’t acknowledge that in his statement to the press. He claims it’s a free speech issue. Is this because Frank has his own inner demon to wrestle when it comes to his sexuality? Otherwise, it is yet another confusing political stance for a Democratic president to take. (Why didn’t they just make Frank a Republican?)

Jackie tells Frank that the DNC is planning to choose Heather Dunbar as their candidate for 2016. His way around it? To offer Dunbar Justice Jacobs’s soon-to-be-vacated seat on the Supreme Court. He tells her something (he thinks) she doesn’t know: Jacobs has Alzheimer’s and is not long for the bench. There’s a part of me that thinks this is actually a great use of Frank’s powers, to get what he wants while doing a nice thing for another person. But that feeling dissipates as Frank then tries to bully Jacobs into retiring early, threatening to leak news of Jacobs’s illness to the press.

That night, Frank meets with Mahmoud to apologize to him personally. Mahmoud is fantastic. He demands more oversight in the drone program and declares that the numbers of civilian deaths by drone strike are obviously false. He experiences this excruciating spell of phantom pain, his face twisted in agony. Then he says to Frank: “You know what I dreamed of when I came here? Choking you with my bare hands.” Frank thinks he can still win this conversation; he trots out the old “I make choices every day” excuse. Mahmoud quotes the Quran, and Frank, reflexively, quotes it back, because of course he did his homework for this meet-and-greet. Mahmoud is unimpressed. What follows is one of my favorite exchanges of the episode (in an episode stuffed with excellent back-and-forths):

Mahmoud: You didn’t ask me here to apologize. You asked me here to forgive you.

Frank: I didn’t authorize t—

Mahmoud, wheeling right up to Frank so their knees touch: I won’t forgive you, Mr. President. I don’t want to make it any easier for you to sleep at night. And knowing a few lines of the Quran does not absolve you.

Mahmoud tells Frank that “there’s a fine line between duty and murder.” Does Frank even know where that line is? Has he ever? Does he care?

Frank associates conscience with weakness. I don’t know that I would call him a straight-up sociopath; if nothing else, his relationship with Claire is loving, and we know he felt love at the Sentinel. But he does not want to be guided by a moral compass. Frank knows that there is a cost to everything he does, but he doesn’t have the stomach to face it. Claire tells him to keep moving ahead, that she won’t “indulge” his self-doubt. Because if either of these two stopped, for just a minute, to survey the wreckage they hath wrought, they would crumble.

The next day, Heather Dunbar stands on the steps of the Supreme Court to announce her candidacy for president of the United States. GET IT, DUNBAR. She meets with Frank in the Oval Office and just levels him: She’s close with everyone on the Supreme Court, she’s known about Jacobs’s illness since the day of his diagnosis, she could tell Frank was trying to sideline her. This show is at its best when Frank is facing off with people who are at least as smart as he is; Heather is worth ten thousand Raymond Tusks and a boatload of Garrett Walkers. Frank tries to talk his way out of it — the way he resorts to rhetoric in desperate times reminds me of how our good Jimmy McGill, future Saul Goodman, negotiates under duress — but Heather is not charmed by his eloquence. In what is perhaps the best summation of Frank’s MO that we’ve heard, she asks, “Is this how you live with yourself? By rationalizing the obscene into the palatable?” She strides out of the office without waiting to be excused. “See you in Iowa.”

Frank takes a late-night trip to church to speak with the bishop from the ceremony at Arlington. (This bishop wears a leather jacket and rides a motorcycle — best bishop ever or best bishop ever?) Frank wants the bishop to tell him what justice is. Frank claims to think the laws that govern humanity are clear, but the bishop corrects him. The only two laws to remember above all else, he says, are to love God and love each other.

Naturally Frank’s kind of god is the Old Testament version, “whose power is absolute, who rules through fear.” Jesus Christ does not compute. The bishop is uninterested in telling Frank what he wants to hear. “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end. Using fear will get you nowhere. It’s not your job to determine what’s just. It’s not your place to choose the version of God you like best. It’s not your duty to serve this country alone, and it better not be your goal to simply serve yourself.” It’s hard to tell if the bishop just understands Frank more than Frank even knows, or if he just has a sixth sense about what the presidency — what power — can do to a person, or what kind of person acquires that power in the first place.

Frank asks to be left alone to pray. But this is a man who wanted privacy at his father’s grave site just to piss on the tombstone. So it shouldn’t be too much of a shock that Frank looks up at Jesus on the cross and sneers: “Love. That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.” He spits on Jesus! Damn, Underwood. Then, in trying to wipe it clean, Frank knocks Jesus off the wall and the whole thing smashes into pieces on the floor. It is a gorgeous shot, if not a subtle one. (As if anyone could accuse HoC of going for understatement, ever.)

In other news, Ayla does everything she can to get information about AmWorks. At the press briefing, when Frank tries to dodge her questions about gay rights, she pushes him hard: “Isn’t dodging gay rights a calculated move for a man not running for office?” Seth responds to this insightful, important question by having the Correspondents’ Association revoke Ayla’s press credentials. So much for free speech.

Doug’s Rachelquest continues, even though there are many, many junctures at which it could occur to him that stopping this search altogether would be the best course of action here. Like when Gavin says he needs more to go on and asks Doug if he knows anything else about her. And Doug doesn’t know squat, because Rachel is a prostitute who he hired and they were never friends and she did not love you and that is why she never revealed any important information about herself so just LET IT GOOOOO. Gavin stalks Lisa, Rachel’s ex, at an AA meeting. Can’t wait to see how that turns out for everyone.

However: I’m very intrigued by the idea of Doug, scorned by his beloved Frank, siding with Heather going into 2016. Is he hoping to get enough dirt on Heather to turn around and earn his way back at Frank’s side? Or is he fed up with the Underwoods and ready to use what he has to destroy them? Because if Doug on Team Heather means someone will leak Frank’s, to use a gentle term, involvement in the deaths of Zoe and Peter, I am all in.