House of Cards
Does foreshadowing count as clunky if it seems inelegant in hindsight? I don’t know how to feel about what — looking back on this episode — reads like a forced conversation about the novelist’s friend who committed suicide. In Scorpio, the character based on this friend died of AIDS. Why the change? “Because it’s fiction. Suicide is too selfish.”
Upon arriving in Russia, we watch Claire and Frank enter their respective arenas: Claire goes into Michael Corrigan’s prison cell, Frank into Petrov’s office. Surely they anticipated it would be Frank with the harder task of getting Petrov on his side. But it is Claire, it turns out, who has the uphill struggle. Who would’ve thought Michael wouldn’t want to be released from prison?
Nearly every scene in this episode takes place in a small, enclosed space: Air Force One, a prison cell, Petrov’s office. (Even Lisa’s apartment and the doctor’s office feel cramped.) Everyone feels trapped, backed into a corner, even when they’re not, even when there’s an emergency exit they could take if they were willing, or able, to see it. “Chapter 32” isn’t quite a true bottle episode, but it’s something close to it: We’re away from Washington, on someone else’s turf, for a limited period of time. There’s this ticking clock in the background, or maybe it’s a bomb: If Claire and Frank don’t make deadline, everything is going to explode.
The trouble with Michael begins almost immediately: He will not read the statement that has been crafted for him by state officials in both the U.S. and Russia. It requires that he apologize, admit regret, the usual boilerplate. Claire stresses to him that this is prerequisite for his release. He is being kind of a punk about it, wanting to know why Claire can’t liberate 27 Russians from their cells who were arrested alongside him. Gee, probably because they aren’t American citizens and Claire has no jurisdiction here? Just a wild guess.
Claire thinks Michael is being childish, naïve, and impractical. “You don’t have to mean it,” she tells him. “You just have to say it.” She tells him they’re just words. But, as Michael points out, Petrov’s law is “just words,” too. He confides that he attempted a hunger strike and failed after six days, caving to his need for food. Another prisoner persevered, was to be force-fed, but died. Michael has been asking himself: Is he truly willing to die for this?
Claire doubles down: She will not leave the cell without Michael. Petrov is wary from the start, and Claire having the bug from the prison cell removed does little calm him. This latest development — that Claire won’t abandon Michael — gives him one more reason to distrust the Underwoods’ motives. It’s funny that Frank is always playing someone, but right now, he really does mean everything he says to Petrov; yet this is the time Petrov suspects foul play.
And I wonder what Michael would think if he knew Petrov does not believe in the very law that got Michael arrested: “Is the gay propaganda law barbaric? Yes, of course it is. But religion, tradition, for most of my people, it’s in their bones. This law was passed for them.” Michael is making a principled stance against a man who, essentially, shares his principles, but is just savvier about how and when to express them. Frank tells Petrov “there won’t be a revolution because you freed one man.” But Petrov is unmoved. “Revolution sneaks up on you, one small step at a time. I don’t take chances, even with the smallest of steps.
Claire and Michael switch gears for a bit, digging into marriage. I’m sort of amazed that Michael would be so bold with the First Lady of the United States (and I am quite skeptical that he would know, just by looking at her for the past few hours, that she and Frank aren’t having sex). Claire, who has been married more than half her life, repeats her go-to line, that “I love Francis, now more than ever.” But Michael doesn’t believe her. He’s cheated on his husband and wishes they could split up, but the face of the fight for marriage equality can’t exactly run out and get a divorce. “Bad for business,” he says, just like it would be for Claire. It’s interesting that Claire doesn’t refute Michael’s allegation that she and Frank aren’t sleeping together; maybe she thinks it doesn’t merit a response.
In a last-ditch effort to help Michael see the light — understanding, perhaps, that the “don’t you care about your husband?” angle will not do the trick — Claire insists that Michael’s staying in prison will “help no one.” Michael isn’t buying it. “I can’t betray myself. What would I be then?” “A politician,” she tells him. She is getting angrier and angrier. “Be a fucking adult about this, Michael!” Despite his firm footing on the moral high ground, Michael is being a child: petulant and stubborn and careless, ignoring the huge global forces that had to align to release him from prison, willfully pretending he doesn’t comprehend how he can lose this battle and go on to win a war.
Michael says he needs to think alone. Claire lies down to sleep “for a few minutes.” Which, naturally, means she will pass out cold and sleep through the night.
She wakes up to find Michael swinging from the bars in his window, her scarf knotted around his neck.
Frank and Petrov appear to have come to an understanding: The deal will go on, and they can just say Petrov was planning to release Michael today. Claire goes along with the script at first, but then veers off course. In an admission I can’t imagine will go well for her or Frank, she says she spent the night in Michael’s cell and that he hanged himself with her scarf. “Michael was willing to die for what he believed in. He was brave, and his voice deserves to be heard. If it weren’t for this unjust law and ignorance and intolerance of your government, Michael would still be with us. Shame on you, Mr. President.” She bolts out, Frank on her heels. Mike drop, or something like it.
I’ve always thought that, between Frank and Claire, it’s Claire who feels more intimately the consequences of their actions. And it feels like this outburst, while triggered by Michael, is about so many of the other terrible things she and Frank have done, and for what? She found herself face to face with a man who, for all his obvious flaws, had a sense of purpose that was pure. He had something to die for, and he died for it. What does Claire have?
Frank is outraged. He tries to take the usual Underwood tactic — “It happened, let’s move on” — but Claire presses him. And then, possibly, we watch 28 years of marriage implode in just a few minutes.
Frank rattles off all the “chances” he gave Claire, how he never should’ve given her the recess appointment. Claire wanted Michael’s death to be meaningful, but Frank, either because he can be objective about a man he barely knows or because he has a heart that’s three sizes too small, has no empathy for Michael. “No one forced him to protest in Moscow, and we sure as hell didn’t make him tie your scarf around his neck!”
“He was a coward,” Frank says. “And I’m glad he’s dead.”
Claire’s reply: “He had more courage than you’ll ever have.”
We finally see where that clip from the first trailer for this season comes from. Frank riffs on courage, how it takes more courage to hold your tongue than to kill yourself or to word-vomit on television. And Claire says, “We’re murderers, Francis.” “No, we’re not,” he says. “We’re survivors.
But my favorite exchange is this one:
Frank: I should have never made you ambassador.
Claire: I should have never made you president.
It’s vicious, but it’s elegant. Very Underwood-appropriate. And the syntax echoes Petrov’s earlier insult to Frank: “I should never have invited you here.” Who are Claire and Frank without each other? And without a shared vision, can they accomplish anything at all? They both have enough ammunition to demolish each other, but it would be mutually assured destruction. Michael had asked Claire if she ever regretted being married. And it’s interesting that neither Frank nor Claire, in this moment, stuck the knife in that spot: “I should never have married you.” Or “I should have never loved you.” (“I love Francis now more than I ever have.” Is that so?) Their regrets are all political. But with these two, the political is as personal as it gets.
In the background: Gavin, pretending to be “Max,” engages in elaborate subterfuge (just pretending to be H.I.V. positive, like you do) to get Lisa to open up about Rachel. This leads him to a trail in New Mexico where surely Rachel would like to be left alone to peacefully live the rest of her days, far from paranoid Washingtonians. Doug is flirting with yet another age-inappropriate brunette who would never be attracted to him in real life; attractive 20-something women just fall at the feet of all the balding, middle-aged dudes in this show, probably because the HOC showrunner is a 37-year-old man.