House of Cards
Heather Dunbar’s bid for the presidency is over, but the action is finally beginning. Yes, we are out of our Sadness Cave and into the blinding light of the Zeitgeist. Frank and his very worthy opponent must navigate an election in which the most valuable currency isn’t fund-raising dollars, but (technically) private voter data.
After an entire season of Frank wasting political capital on issues that seemed suspiciously Republican — ending entitlement programs, battling the teachers’ union — he is now throwing his strongest political muscle, Claire, behind the big blue issue of gun control. And the murders of Zoe Barnes and Pete Russo are being investigated by an off-brand Spotlight crew, who, I have to believe, will find the proof that has eluded them so far. We are IN IT, friends.
With Dunbar neutralized, Frank is the presumptive nominee for his party. Across the aisle is Will Conway, governor of New York, with his telegenic British wife (the only kind of foreigner even xenophobes will get behind) and two children who are so camera-ready, I won’t be convinced he didn’t kidnap them from the Crewcuts catalog until I see both birth certificates. As Claire tells Frank at the end of the episode, America will never love Frank and Claire the way they’re already falling in love with the Conways. (The Underwoods, naturally, subscribe to the theory that it’s better to be feared. We’ll see how that works out for them.) Conway enlisted in the military within 24 hours of 9/11 — “When you want a career in politics and the Twin Towers fall in your lap, the timing couldn’t have been better” — and is running on the classic red-state platform of “less government, more freedom.”
The other fascinating thing about the Conways is how old they make the Underwoods seem. And I don’t just mean their physical appearance: They have an apparent ease with, and fluency in, technology. Though they’re on the older end of this generational spectrum, they’re basically a millennial couple, comfortable documenting their every art-directed move on their phones and down to share their every text, email, photo, and video with the entire electorate. Conway is in cahoots with the founder of search engine Pollyhop, and this relationship has provided him with oodles of borderline-legal insight into the American subconscious. The release of Conway’s “personal” information is his team’s effort to get ahead of the story that he’s rifling through his would-be voters’ private information. And his speech about why Pollyhop releasing search data to Conway is so kosher and not anything to worry about at all — “A president should know his constituents, and the internet is the best tool for that … I can’t meet everyone. This is my way of listening to millions of you” — is a pitch-perfect echo of the tech-bro language deployed by do-no-evil types at Google and our “friends” running Facebook.
One of the best Frank fourth-wall monologues follows, as he paces through the halls of the White House, invoking various presidential portraits as their subjects enter his narrative. “Imagine a duel: me and Conway. Conway has a powerful gun, a search engine. He can tell what you think, what you want, where you are, who you are.” I’m so into, and terrified by, this whole notion of “you are what you search.” Very Ex-Machina. As POTUS, Frank goes on, he has a bigger gun: the NSA. Finally, HoC is engaging with reality — not by making self-aware references to real-life events, but by channeling our real-life fears. “I can see you,” he says, speaking right to us. “And I can use what I see to rig this election.” Just to clarify: “I’m talking about tapping into every single home in America, and a weapon like that could blow up in my hand.” Frank’s Plan A was to simply expose Conway’s illegal use of the search engine; now, though, that seems like a pointless course of action.
Frank eyeballs Reagan and Kennedy. “All three of us dodged bullets,” he says, lingering over the Kennedy portrait. It’s the one by Aaron Shikler that Jackie commissioned after his death. According to a 1981 article in People magazine, she was “tired” of images of John “with the bags under his eyes and that penetrating gaze,” so Shikler used a picture of Ted Kennedy at John’s grave as a model: Arms folded, head bowed.
“Well, I know why we’re smiling,” Frank says, with a head tilt at Reagan. “We survived.”
Conway gives Frank a call to accuse him of planting a reporter at an event and, by extension, planting a question about Pollyhop. Conway seems to wilt under the pressure of being on the phone with the president. “You should have called me when you had some actual leverage,” Frank tells him.
Claire has taken on gun control as her cause of the moment, something meaty for her to wrap her magnificent brain around. (Also, post-shooting, something timely.) The sequences that cut back and forth between rehearsal and performance are so well constructed: Frank’s coaching and edits, and the Underwoods’ near-mystical ability to predict exactly what their foes will say, giving Claire all the edge she needs over both Julia, the NRA president, and Frank’s aides. The show has a particularly vicious take on the NRA, by the way, presenting its leader as someone heartless enough to toss off a line like, “You can have 20 kids massacred in a school shooting” and nothing will change, or, “I’m sorry your husband got shot. But not enough to roll over.” Claire gets the last cutting word: Julia can either look back on her life in 30 years and “be proud of all the lives you saved” or be completely forgotten, “clutching to the past with your cold, dead hands.”
It’s not totally clear to me what Frank is up to by asking Donald to be his running mate — did he know, in advance, that mealy-mouthed Donald, the man with a spine made of two sparkly pipe cleaners twisted together, would balk at the prospect of ever being a heartbeat away from the presidency again? Or did he think it would be good to lock up a guy whom America bafflingly trusts, and who could be controlled? Either way, it’s laughable to think of an all-white-male Democratic ticket, even in the House of Cards alterna-America.
So, Frank and Claire are up to something. Are they trying to secure her a spot on the Supreme Court? Assuming these two remain allies indefinitely and Frank gets re-elected, that would totally dismantle the separation of powers. Look, here in real life, I think it would be very cool if Barack nominated Michelle to Scalia’s old seat, but there are some good reasons why that won’t/can’t happen; of course, Frank and Claire have no tolerance for good reasons. (How perfect was it when someone asked, “A Supreme Court nomination in the middle of an election?” like they were about to jump out of the screen and into reality with us?)
As for the slow, steady, secret investigation into Frank’s multiple homicides: Tom looks up Janine, Zoe’s old Herald colleague who is adjusting to post-Underwood life by popping a Xanax every other minute and spiraling in the aftermath of Lucas’s death. She tells Tom that everything Lucas wrote in his suicide note is true; she thinks Lucas left her out of it to protect her.
In international news: The ICO are a group of Muslim extremists taking over oil fields in Syria, and Doug wants to take military action against them. Leann is against it; I’m not entirely sure why she’s so invested — it is somehow connected to her desire to use her data-dude and the powers of the NSA to spy on citizens? — but, if nothing else, she is making an enemy of Doug. She sets up a Watergate-style meeting in a garage with her data whiz; Doug gives him a once-over and, immediately bored, preemptively threatens Aidan (“You take the fall if anything goes wrong”) before bouncing. Back at the White House, General Brockhart, who has been leaking classified information to his old battle buddy Conway, tries to resign over Frank’s ICO inaction. He promises to stay onboard because Frank promises a strike, but then is trapped after Frank calls backsies on the strike at the last minute.
The episode ends with a flashback, as one of the old videos released by the Conways reminds Claire and Frank of the night they first met this new opponent. It was a New Year’s Eve party, way back when Garrett Walker was the president-elect. Claire and Frank are still sleeping in separate beds, but Frank gets up and walks (with surprising vigor, considering his recent liver transplant) to Claire’s room for a little late night pep talk. “We’re going to destroy them,” he says, voice full of glee. “Yes,” Claire says. “We are.”
*A previous version of this recap said that Frank looked at a portrait of Nixon. He was looking at a portrait of Reagan.