House of Cards Recap: Billboard Dad

Derek Cecil as Seth Grayson. Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix
House of Cards

House of Cards

Chapter 42 Season 4 Episode 3
Editor's Rating 3 stars

Much like its characters, House of Cards can’t stop making the same mistakes over and over again. In this episode, we see a classic error, which, in the summer of 2013, one would have called a Low Winter Sun failure: Mistaking darkness for depth. Just because something has all the trappings of “serious” doesn’t automatically make it worth taking seriously. House of Cards is operating under the misconception that it is a real-deal top-tier prestige drama. But it’s basically Scandal without a sense of humor.

Lucas is cleaning rental cars, generally enjoying the thrills of his new WITSEC job, when he sees a print newspaper tossed on the floor. It’s a relic of his old life: He learns that Heather Dunbar will be in Ohio on Tuesday, and so begins Lucas’s elaborate plot to blow up Frank’s elaborate plots. There is obviously an obstacle here — the existing obstacles, wherein Lucas has been given strict rules by which he must abide lest he lose the freedom and government protection he fought so hard to secure, apparently not being enough — and that obstacle is the coworker who goes for that one-two punch of demanding he pay for this favor with ~sex things~ and blackmailing him so he has nowhere to go but the backseat.

Lucas manages to get face time with Dunbar by pretending to be a journalist — how poetic, his fake identity is his real identity — and his former colleague, Cynthia, who is now Dunbar’s campaign manager, vouches for him. He tells Dunbar everything; she, understandably, dismisses him as a wackadoo liability and leaves him sobbing and begging for help in a stairwell. Yeesh. But later on, we see her have a change of heart about his conspiracy theory. Might just be hope yet for this hopeless bro.

Lizzie update: Sadly, we see very little of Claire’s mom this week. She stole Claire’s earrings, which would have been a cool power play if she had (a) done a better job of hiding them or (b) been more brazen and just worn them. Lying about it when the earrings were literally in the most obvious place — the drawer of her vanity — is so amateur. And as soon as Claire finds them, Elizabeth says, “You’re taking my money. I took something of yours.” She tells Claire not to come back; Claire brushes it off. These extended battle scenes are much less interesting than their moments of tenderness. Why keep reverting back to combat? Claire is fighting enough people, and ruthlessness gets dull if it’s all we ever get to see.

Frank is visiting a church in his hometown of Gaffney. Celia and Doris are letting their constituents know that Frank is not like a regular white guy, he’s a cool white guy, and they’ll all be better off if he stays in the White House. We get another one of these private life/public life cuts (PSA: Robin Wright directed this episode) as we see Frank privately murmur his speech to himself, pacing around his room, and then, with the twang cranked up to eleven, deliver the rousing address in public.

Wait, sorry, did I say “rousing?” I take that back. This episode is (*checks watch*) 78 percent stump speeches, so it’s 78 percent boring. This kind of stuff is barely entertaining when it’s the real election and the fate of our union is at stake. Why am I supposed to be invested in — nay, interested in — the pandering, cliché-riddled efforts of a non-existent human to lead this fake America? (Fun fact: In this fake America, gas is about to be seven bucks a gallon. For context, in the summer of 2008, one of the priciest-at-the-pump seasons on record, gas was $4 a gallon. This is what an Underwood presidency hath wrought.)

I think the problem here is that HoC thinks it’s the radical dystopian vision of American politics, but it can’t even come close to the actual dystopian reality of current American politics. Like, the craziest idea HoC can come up with is that, stashed away in a safe deposit box, Frank has a photo of his dad shaking hands with a dude in the KKK. Then, because I guess after Slugline faded from the scene this show decided to ignore the internet, Claire has someone she knows with a printer blow it up and hang it on that Peachoid. But meanwhile in reality, Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee for president of the United States of Americawas endorsed by David Duke, former grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, and then proceeded to pretend that he didn’t know anything about Duke or the KKK and wouldn’t be able to condemn either without doing “research” first.

The only truly batshit thing that happens in this episode is Frank’s phone call with Cathy, the secretary of state. She tells Frank that the only stronger response at their disposal for the Petrov problem would be to invade Russia — she says this as a JOKE — and Frank is like, “Actually let’s literally do that, we’ll take that Milken dude and ‘put him in a room with other dissidents’ in a border country and just … see what happens,” as if this is some geopolitical version of The Real World. Frank is so irritated any time someone calls upon him to actually do his job, which brings me back to one of my perennial House of Cards questions: Why did Frank even want to be president?

Claire goes to Frank’s place in Gaffney, which appears to have been decorated by the same person who did up their White House residence and their digs from the first season. Claire offers to join Frank at a campaign event and I write in my notes, I expect her to subtly sabotage it. In this way, I am not disappointed. I stand by my assessment of the relative levels of “evil” and “genius” within the Underwood marriage, and the fact that Frank could be so obtuse about Claire’s change of heart is either totally implausible or proof that he’s never been the brains in this couple. I thought she’d blow her own cover by being so friendly to him, inviting him to sleep in her bed — though her eyes were filled with dark voids as he nestled into place beside her — and reminiscing about their mattress-on-the-floor days. It’s the Underwood equivalent of Barack and Michelle’s “remember that hole in the floor of your car and the coffee table you found in a dumpster?

Tired of being grunted at by Doug, Seth does some damage of his own — sharing a photo of Frank with a Confederate Civil War reenactor — while trying to turn Meechum into the villain. But oh, Seth must not know that Meechum and Frank are special friends. All Frank needs to do is stare, lovingly and unblinkingly into Meechum’s eyes, to see the truth of his soul.

After the KKK photo explodes, someone shouts at Frank, “Mr. President, was your father a racist?” Which, I mean, imagine if we asked that of every candidate. Would we ever even have a president?

Frank offers a not-exactly-reassuring or moving explanation for the photograph’s existence: His father needed a bank loan and the only person who could help him get one was in the Klan. In private, his so-dumb-I-can’t-even justification for holding on to this obviously damning photo is because it reminds him of the one time he was proud of his father. Ooookay.

As one might expect, Frank loses Celia and Doris — Doris tells Frank they can get back together again “when we stop getting beaten and shot,” so, could be a while — and I wonder: At what point in our history is this election taking place? In the world of HoC, does Obama exist? Did the Charleston shooting and the subsequent controversy about the Confederate flag ever occur? I assume not, because someone would feel obliged to mention it. (Plus, wouldn’t it have been at the center of the speech Frank gave at the church?) I’m bummed that the show insists on ignoring this stuff that viewers can’t not think about. So many missed opportunities.

As Claire intended, Frank also discovers the earrings that Leann stashed in the safety deposit box. He sees that the mastermind behind his failure was beside him this whole time. “I knew it, but I didn’t want to believe it,” Frank says to us, and I think, Did you know though? Claire is so much smarter than you.

Claire, chill as always, points out that Frank never listens to her unless he likes what she has to say. Claire references America Works and how it doesn’t … work. She is more popular than Frank is, and they both know it. “You can’t win without me,” she says, which is true. Frank says Claire doesn’t “deserve this” because she’s never been poor (not great logic, to be honest) and because she’s never been elected. Does he forget how he became president? Because I sure don’t.

So, Claire did all of this to land that prestigious, most-desired office in the land: vice president. Wait, what? Does Claire watch Veep? Frank is appalled. He blurts out “Spite! REVENGE!” like he’s having some Shakespearean panic attack. The only way I will accept this plot is if Claire has a magnificent scheme to help Frank get reelected and then murder him so she can run the country.

House of Cards Recap: Billboard Dad