House of Cards
We have finally arrived at the platonic ideal of House of Cards: Just the right amount of impossible. I mean, it’s insane! This whole convention is bonkers. It is outrageous that Will Conway and Frank would arrange for a private meeting in the middle of everything and that they would be so candid about their mutual disdain. Even that is not as full-on bananas as Frank and Claire’s stealthy behind-the-scenes moves, smooth as a Michael Jackson moonwalk, to make it all turn out exactly as they desire.
“Chapter 48” takes place at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, strip club capital of America. As the first voice of support for Claire pipes up from Kentucky, the elegant Mrs. Underwood feigns embarrassment and surprise and oh, who, little old me? as she maintains her public support for Cathy. But Donald — per Claire’s instructions, right? — is already leaking the truth of what went down in Russia: “Nothing would have happened if it weren’t for Claire,” he says, as his pupils transform into tiny cartoon hearts. Frank is trading television coverage for votes — Make America Great Again: Bring Back the Barter System Edition — as he reminds us through the fourth wall that “a politician is the one who would drown a little of kittens for 10 minutes of prime time.”
And then: Texas casts ALL OF ITS VOTES to “our daughter, First Lady Claire Underwood.” 237 votes, holy smokes. Leann and Celia worked together to cut a deal. Unfortunately, this plot twist does not bring back Cecily Tyson as Doris, but maybe soon? A recapper can hope! I just want her to be in the same room as Elizabeth Hale before she kicks it, because can you even imagine.
Claire is still very demure: “I already have a job: First Lady of the United States.” She is slick as hell and says, “You have nothing to worry about, Cathy, honestly.” But in private, she tells Frank it’s time to loop Cathy in. If they don’t get to her first, Claire says, “She could turn on us.”
Doug leaves this meeting just in time to watch Leann waltz in, even though he told her that the Underwoods were meeting privately. Tiny demons shoot out of Doug’s eyeballs in Leann’s direction. Seth tells Doug that Leann is clean. Doug growls: “I refuse to believe that.” Doug, I’m not sure that your Bat-voice is as effective as you think it is.
We cut back and forth between two conversations: Claire meets with Senator Baker, a VP hopeful who is technically hopeless, and Frank meets with Cathy. Cathy’s a quick study — bless her heart, as they would say in her home state — and I am so grateful that at least one of Frank’s opponents will not go quietly into that good political obscurity. It’s clear that Frank thinks he has the upper hand, but Cathy knows something is up; the way she lets him steer the conversation suggests she is already wise to his plans. Both Baker and Cathy leave their lunches with the promise to be secretary of state under Underwood. The Underwoods are doling out fake promises like Oprah gives away cars.
Meanwhile, the Conways are not thrilled by this turn of events. The DNC is more compelling than their dopey home videos and fluffy Vanity Fair story, and no one is Pollyhopping over to their website anymore. Will says that the convention has “stolen our thunder” and, much to my dismay, no one shouts, “MY WHOLE LIFE IS THUNDER.” Instead, Hannah tells him to “steal the thunder back,” and Will stops just shy of standing in front of a massive American flag as “The Star-Spangled Banner” blares in the background: He summons Brockhart to stand by his side outside the convention so they can live-read from ICO’s Twitter feed. This “media-savvy” terrorist group is “recruiting around the globe,” Conway says, and the dire situation requires that Conway abandon the tradition of “sportsmanship,” much as it pains him to do so, and call out Frank for his inaction.
“How many wars has the president fought for his country?” Will asks. I thought that was a rhetorical question but he keeps going: “I think we all know: None. You hear me, Mr. President, I demand that you do something about ICO, and I demand that you make an apology to the general, and I’m not leaving Atlanta until you’ve done both.”
Frank’s reaction is a perfect mixture of disgust and admiration: “I wonder if this was his idea, because it’s almost something like I would do.” Seth and Leann agree to nip it in the bud; Doug thinks that, in the 95-degree heat, they should wait for Conway to drown in a lake of his own sweat. Neato strategy, Doug, but Frank sides with Seth and Leann, and all the happiness Doug has ever felt — that first silver dollar he received from the tooth fairy, that childhood memory of sliding down the banister on Christmas morning — turns to rot within him.
Frank makes a public statement, assuring the media that he’ll listen to what Conway has to say — “A smart president will steal good ideas from anyone” — and then he gives Conway a call. I love that Frank makes Conway and Brockhart pass the phone back and forth on his command; it makes them look like children talking to a grown-up. (“Can you put Mommy back on?”) Conway sounds like a G.I. Joe toy brought to life, agreeing to meet with Frank “if it truly leads to securing our freedom.”
These types of scenes — two people in a room, trying to outsmart each other, power shifting between them with every sentence — are HoC’s best. (Makes sense, given showrunner Beau Willimon’s roots as a playwright; conversations like this sound like they were written for the stage.) Frank does a little math out loud: Ben Grant owns Pollyhop, and the Conways own Ben Grant. “Isn’t that what power is?” Conway asks. “The people you collect?” Kind of an unpredictable currency, other human beings, but Frank doesn’t seem to mind.
This interaction gets at a fundamental divide between Frank and Will: Frank finds Will’s very Millennial insistence on “sharing” to be desperate: “It’s a bit embarrassing though, isn’t it? […] Just that you have to stoop so low to win everyone’s love.” Frank believes that a president has to win “with dignity,” and to win without is tantamount to losing.
Both men also acknowledge — finally! — that they are preposterous representatives of their parties: Frank, the South Carolina Democrat, and Will, the Republican governor of New York. They do a little “if you were this and I were that” dance, and I think, are they actually enjoying each others’ company? I wonder how many friends Frank would have if, whenever he found worthy sparring partners, he didn’t try to have them killed. Frank is too far gone to change, but I hope the rest of you take that cool life advice to heart re: friendship, murder.
Part of me thinks that there’s going to be more to the way Frank was playing that knockoff Pac-Man game, a real clunky metaphor even by HoC standards: Eat the dots that are smaller than you before you get eaten by the dots that are bigger than you. In case you missed the subtext, allow Frank to make it dialogue: “It sounds a little like running for president.” But he’s interrupted by a call that we later learn is from Cathy, who knows she can’t rely on Frank and Claire anymore. What a power play: Taking a private phone call while you’re in a meeting with POTUS. Just imagine if you were hanging out with Barack and somebody called you, and instead of screening it/throwing your phone in the nearest fire, you were like, “So sorry man, I have to take this.”
Seth tells Leann about Doug’s scheme — she must have a Spidey sense that tells her when Doug is doing some digging — and she has nothing to offer, because this girl is whistle-clean and suffers no Sadness Caves.
Cathy gets Louisiana to cast their president and vice president votes for her. They want to bust this convention WIDE OPEN. Now it’s Cathy’s turn to pretend to be stunned by this turn of events: “My goal is to run with Frank, not against him.” But juuuust in case, she also secured the secretary of state spot in the possible Conway administration.
In other news, Frank invites Meechum’s mom over and introduces her to all the people who got her son’s organs. Doug is incapable of going an entire season without finding someone to obsess over, late into the night, and so his new obsession is Anthony Moretti, the man he bumped from the top of the donor list so Frank could live. I am VERY WORRIED because Moretti has a widow, and she is a pretty brunette, and I feel like … is Doug going to stalk her? Try to befriend her? Fall in love with her? DOUG NO. DOUG, STAY. BAD DOUG.
Also, have I expressed my deep, unwavering dislike of novelist Tom? Because it continues to escalate. Tom is the Guy In Your M.F.A., and somehow, we are supposed to buy that it is Tom, and only Tom, who sees through the Underwoods and knows Claire is their choice for VP. She’ll need a killer speech, of course, and Tom rolls up with a new draft. I know that he has spent time in the Underwood inner circle before, but I am just not buying how flippant and intimate he is with Frank and Claire. There’s still some respect for — and nervousness around — the offices they hold.
On the plane to Texas, Tom reaches out and lifts Claire’s chin and I mean, what would happen if some snotty wannabe Tom Wolfe character pulled that move with Michelle Obama? She would take his hand in her own and break all his fingers at once. Claire responds by sexily removing her glasses. Ugh, you know what, I don’t know what I was expecting; flawless Claire has one flaw, and it is her taste in paramours. Remember Adam? I know you tried to forget, but it is my duty to remind you that he is basically Tom, just slightly older and armed with a camera instead of a pen.
Tom, precious writer bunny whose words cannot be tainted by the input of others, is alienating the other speechwriters. He, unsurprisingly, takes issue with this criticism. “Their mediocrity is what’s alienating them,” he tells Claire. “I work better alone.” Tom is a nightmare.