House of Cards Recap: Battleground States

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Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix
House of Cards

House of Cards

Chapter 54 Season 5 Episode 2
Editor's Rating 2 stars

Would an app that allowed you to blend your face with the face of a presidential candidate help you “see yourself” in that candidate and thus make you more likely to vote for them? No? Sounds like some ill-advised Snapchat function you would have no interest in using? I’m with you, but apparently the Underwoods believe that everyone is dying to know what it would look like if they had a grown-man baby with Frank.

So it seems like our big plot of the season is Frank using an exaggerated terrorist threat to declare “total war.” Frank’s vision of war seems a lot like those battlefield miniatures he used to paint or assemble or play with or whatever: a completely anachronistic, not exactly useful deployment of soldiers to, among other locations, the polling places in swing states. Why on Earth would something as literal as boots on the ground be the intelligent response to a cyberterror threat? And an evergreen House of Cards issue: Why is Frank a Democrat?

Frank has spent the overwhelming majority of these five seasons angling for classic Republican goals. Save for a brief detour into gun control — which he only cared about after he got shot, classic Frank — he has been all about those conservative priorities. He wanted to rip apart Medicaid. He fought with the teachers union. He talked smack about “entitlement programs” through his astonishingly boring and stupidly titled effort, AmWorks. Now he’s getting all war-happy and is pushing for voter suppression? Sweet suffering Cashew, voter suppression doesn’t help Democrats! Voter suppression, like tax breaks for the Über-wealthy and using your initials as your nickname, is for Republicans. All of this would be fine if Frank — who already gives off those southern good-ol’-boy vibes — were just allowed to be a Republican. House of Cards has never presented a logical case for why Frank became a Democrat in the first place, and every time he engages in politics, I literally have to go back through old recaps to remind myself which party he belongs to, because Frank being a Democrat makes no sense.

I linger on this because if you’re going to make a show about objectively bat-shit stuff — an elected official getting away with multiple homicides, hospital hand jobs for former bodyguards who loved you this whole time, threesomes with your security detail — then all this infrastructure has to be grounded or it’s the kind of mess Frank would send Doug to clean up. In related news: Why the hell is Claire in the Situation Room at the end of this episode? There’s no way she has the clearance to be there. Being First Lady isn’t like being somebody’s plus-one at a wedding where you get to sit at the bridesmaids’ table just to be near your date.

But onward. Frank’s jonesing for combat, which means we watch him give speeches that sound like lyrics Toby Keith rejected for being too patronizing about patriotism — “Fear is un-American!” — culminating in an executive order so boring even Frank paraphrases it, to us, as “section blah-blah and paragraph bullshit.” The plan is to consolidate a bunch of polling places into “voting centers,” which will be flanked by armed guards and obviously depress voter turnout, particularly among Democrats, which one would think are the voters that Frank, an alleged Democrat, needs so he can stay president.

Frank also sidebars with us, his only friends, to explain not only what he is ostensibly doing, but also to spell out “what I’m really doing.” Bless you, House of Cards, a show that never found subtext it couldn’t write on the screen in bold, massive letters, and also give to Frank as dialogue to shout.

Also, Frank’s whole shtick about how we should sacrifice every civil liberty on the altar of defeating terrorism is a little out of date, no? This show doesn’t take place in October 2001. But of course, Doug, the Kenneth Parcell to Frank’s Tracy Jordan, unquestioningly follows down this idiotic path. He rings alarms for all the swing states, feigns deep offense at the suggestion that this is about anything but safety, and says shit like, “Preventing further acts of terrorism is just about all that matters, Tanya.” Is that all that matters? No one actually feels that way!

Doug spends the rest of the episode on these boring political machinations that involve getting the Pennsylvania governor a slag heap, which is not, as I originally thought, an outdated slur for a pile of prostitutes that Doug wants to bring back to the lexicon, but is actually a fun mountain of coal-mining waste. It takes some doing — which includes Frank’s Mr. Robot hacking all of D.C.’s devices and making it look like a terrorist attack, as you do — but Doug gets everybody onboard.

Because Claire is otherwise occupied (more on that in a minute), LeAnn is stuck with novelist Tom, sentient scruff, who is bitter that Claire didn’t show. See, in his improbable capacity as her speechwriter, he wrote something special just for her. Which leads me to say: SHE IS THE FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES, YOU BROODING, NAVEL-GAZING MUPPET. SHE OWES YOU NOTHING BUT THE OPPORTUNITY TO GAZE UPON THE MAGNIFICENT ARCHITECTURE OF HER FACE.

Sad Tom runs into some guy who was in a band with him a while back. (Of course Tom was in a band, please leave ideas of what their pretentious, awful band name was in the comments.) This friend is now a reporter, and Tom lets all his broken-bird feelings out of his stupid mouth, which will not go over well with his beloved.

Meanwhile, Claire is modeling a gas mask for the MTA, because, sure! She runs into Ken, one of Frank’s old buddies from the Sentinel, who tells her that Tim, Frank’s high-school honey, is missing and presumed dead. What follows is a very bizarre conversation wherein Claire pretends to be scandalized by Ken’s insinuation that Frank and Tim were more than friends, even though Claire already knows and is fine with this. Ken is a bumbling dumb-dumb who actually says, “If the world were a different place back then,” maybe Tim and Frank would’ve linked arms and skipped off into that peachy Georgia sunset together. Anyway, seems like Claire is mostly irritated that Frank didn’t tie up this loose end. Maybe they’ll have Ken killed, that seems to be the go-to method of problem-solving for the Underwoods.

I wish Claire would have Tom killed, honestly, because all he does is loiter around the residence like an actual concubine, as he half-jokingly calls himself. Claire gives him a talking-to over his sloppy interview and Tom thinks now is a great time to force a DTR talk, and then just about force himself onto Claire. I declare total war on Tom.

Frank breaks the fourth wall to tell us how to build a fire. This takes … a while. You know that just because you have infinite time in a Netflix episode doesn’t mean you have to use it, right? Also, I think what Frank really needs to master is putting fires out, because the investigation into his alleged crimes is under way. (I blocked out most of that part because they mentioned Raymond Tusk and I had a PTSD flashback to how unfathomably boring that whole plot was.)

The cyberattack makes everybody’s phones light up like Pretty Little Liars and scares all the governors into letting Frank send troops around to guard … I don’t know what. The little houses where the internet lives? The only person who sees how ridiculous this is is Conway, who pouts for most of this episode while insisting his running mate not mention that whole Purple Heart thing. (I assume this is because Conway didn’t really earn his Purple Heart, right? Not a lot of valor around these parts.) Frank blames the attack on ICO, so now we’re all basically watching: “9/11 was an inside job: No, but actually.”

We also have a new intrepid reporter to look out for: Sean Jeffries of the Herald, a style reporter under editor Tom’s wing who’s snooping around Seth.

Elsewhere on the ranch, Cathy is stuck defending Frank’s Trump-style border plan. Alas, she no longer has an ally in the VP, a man with as much spine as a potato sack who mistakes Frank’s arrogance for intellect and is also preoccupied with fantasies about how he and Claire could spend more time together, like maybe they pack one of those wicker picnic baskets with baguettes and jam and bike to Mount Vernon together on some crisp, fall day when the air smells like the first day of school. So much for Cathy’s dream of resigning in protest. Well, she could still do it. But like a romantic field trip to Virginia, it’s really not the same if you do it by yourself.

House of Cards Recap: Battleground States