House of Cards
Frank likes Claire when she’s formidable. Unfortunately, he’s still a terrible, deeply insecure man, which means that when he says he wants her to be powerful, what he really means is “… but not quite as powerful as I am.” So obviously he spends her swearing-in ceremony snarking at us through the screen. “I’m proud of her. She deserves this, even if it’s only a couple of weeks.” If “Chapter 58” has a theme, it’s this: Wow, these arrogant, internally weak man-babies do not handle setbacks well.
Claire is balancing what must be inner elation with what she knows needs to be a measured external response. Her attire for the occasion is military chic; we’ll see her in more than one dress this episode with rows of gold buttons, a projection of her new status as commander-in-chief. Conway tells a phalanx of press that he’s confident he will become president and that Claire will step down in the event of his victory which … why would he say that? I know I’ve brought this up before, but it still holds: For someone who has spent the better part of two years out on the road campaigning, giving speeches, and fielding questions from the press, Conway sucks at providing prepared, bulletproof answers to the inquiries any reasonably intelligent person in his position should be able to anticipate. For instance: “Did you know Claire Underwood was just sworn in?” Not a hard question! This comes up again when he meets with the Congressional Black Caucus and just walks into 8,392 traps because it’s clear he didn’t really give any thought to what he should say in the room and he let his wounded pride distract him from the big picture.
In the Situation Room, we are again confronted with an annoying violation of protocol with no explanation. Why is Frank allowed to be in there? Claire got sworn in! He is no longer the president. In the Underwood White House, every day is Take Your Dangerously Ambitious Spouse to Work Day. (We see Claire hesitate before ultimately signing off on Frank’s security clearance, but that’s later, after this Situation Room scene takes place.) Notice how Frank positions himself in the room: Not only is he literally by Claire’s right hand, but he’s angled his chair in such a way that he’s practically sitting at the head of the table alongside her.
International plotlines can be hit or miss on House of Cards, but fortunately this one brings back the man who is easily the best Underwood foe of all: Russian president Viktor Petrov. He’s sent troops to Antarctica — not that he’ll admit upfront that the troops are Russian — because he wants oil and because he sees, in the tumult of America’s leadership crisis, a window of opportunity. “The Cold War isn’t over, Mrs. Acting President,” Petrov teases his favorite former make-out buddy. (Uh, Petrov: We know.) It all comes together in a delectable fashion when, at the episode’s end, it is revealed that on-the-lam Aidan has been scooped up by the Kremlin. He’s already leaking some no-good, very-bad bits of intel about the Underwood administration — namely, that the convenience store where Claire gave that speech (when somebody chucked paint at her) caught fire because of a gas leak that had absolutely nothing to do with ICO. The best reaction to that leak comes from Doug, who whisper-growls at Seth that it’s not an issue because “everybody trusts the FBI.” TOO SOON.
But first, Frank and Doug are trying to scare all the guys in Congress to keep him in office. This does bring us some fine, classic Frank one-liners — “I’m somewhat delighted you’ve developed a personality at this late stage in your career” — but it does not bring about Frank’s desired result of a certain victory in the House. Frank de-stresses by inviting Eric, née Augustus, back to the White House for some personal training. Ah, the Underwood motto: a chicken in every pot, and a sidepiece in every bed.
Speaking of, it will not shock you to learn that Tom continues to be PEAK TOM. First, he childishly tells Claire — who understands that her victory is far from assured and her husband’s loss would not, in the grand scheme of her life, be a good thing — that she should just, like, live in the moment. He then keeps up his typical deal of stating obvious facts about Claire’s disposition as if they are penetrating insights visible to his eye alone. I’m also just noticing how much product he uses in his hair. Anyway, he must be feeling neglected by Claire or threatened by how little she needs him in the long run, because he crashes a White House tour and screws the tour guide on the Press Room podium. (She is also a pretty brunette. Is there a clause in Robin Wright’s contract that says she’s the only blonde allowed on the show?)
For what it’s worth, Team Conway is also struggling. To paraphrase Michelle Obama, being extremely close to the presidency doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are. Conway, what do you know, is an aggressive prick with no self-control. After the Congressional Black Caucus keeps him waiting over an hour — kind of a juvenile power play, but I still enjoyed it — he practically just recites all the lines from the Things You, a White Man, Definitely Shouldn’t Say to the CBC handbook, from “crack and cocaine” (not that sentencing disparities aren’t an issue, but maybe don’t lead with crime) all the way through “I’m a Republican, I want to help you help yourselves.” Then he lectures everyone in attendance on their complicity in “propping up the status quo.” Do we think Conway has any black friends? I feel like … no. I applaud the congresswoman who arches an eyebrow at him and just goes, “Well, I’ve heard enough.”
On his private plane, Conway is fuming that the CBC meeting was a waste of time — which, maybe it wouldn’t have been if you’d actually prepared for it, but sure — and he handles this disappointing day by being a dick to everyone in sight. He warns Mark that he’s one screw-up away from unemployment, to which Mark coolly replies, “If you ever talk to me like that again, I’ll make sure you never win another election in your life.” Then Conway takes his pouty-face feelings out on the pilots, trying to force them to let him run things in the cockpit for a little because he has “been in situations where I’ve been shot at” and can totally handle this rinky-dinky engine with wings. (Not that he likes to talk about it or anything, omigosh, he would never, he’s so humble, it’s all for the troops and America, the greatest country in the whole wide world.) Guys, even private air travel is a violent horror show. No such thing as friendly skies, even for the one percent.
Claire and Frank propose that the two states with the in-question results — Tennessee and Ohio — hold new elections. (Didn’t I suggest this in one of my last recaps? SMDH.) Claire knows Frank would lose a House vote. Frank spends much of this meeting narrating what everyone else in the room is already expressing through this amazing thing called “acting” that, by virtue of being cast in this show, they are all on hand to do. The talking-right-at-us gimmick is nifty in moderation, but in scenes like this, it’s just so annoying. “That is the look of contemplating loss,” Frank intones, which would have been a helpful assist if this were an old-timey radio play, but what with television being a visual medium and all, it is definitely something we can see for ourselves.
That said, this scene has one perfect moment — and yes, we knew it was coming because of the confusion of the Underwoods’ roles and respective positions of power in this moment — when someone says, “I want to know what the president thinks,” and Claire and Frank start talking at the same time. When this guy clarifies he meant Mr. President, Claire STILL talks because, deep in her bones, she knows she is a queen who married beneath her worth.
Brockhart, a genuine military guy, is so over his Evil Captain America running mate that he doesn’t want to be VP anymore, but Mark is still just obsessed with getting rid of Claire. Conway doesn’t see the problem with keeping her around — “I’ll stack her schedule with state funerals in Southeast Asia” — but Mark won’t stop pushing it. Look, Conway is a jerk, but Mark is also remarkably bad at managing him. Everything Mark says just enrages Conway even more. You’ve been working for this guy for a while, Mark. Shouldn’t you be better at this?
Mark meets with the Underwoods and makes a deal: New elections in two states, but everyone has to run again as tickets. It won’t just be Frank versus Conway with Claire as the winner’s VP. Claire agrees, much to Frank’s horror. Not sure why this upsets him so much, other than the usual reason (masculinity so fragile) and the fact that he doesn’t like gambling ground they’ve already won. Maybe it’s because he knows he needs Claire to win — that he needs her more than she needs him — and resents her for it. Graceless as ever, he lashes out at her for making this decision without consulting him and undermines her authority: “You said it yourself. You’re only acting.” All the wives in this show are worth ten of their respective husbands.
As for the central mystery of our series — will the Underwoods get found out for all their crimes, and if so, who will do the finding? — it’s sloooowly moving forward. Seth is snooping around on Doug’s computer, where he finds the digital paper trail of Doug’s donation to the transplant widow. Meanwhile, Sean follows up on the Lisa lead. This bit of initiative gets him fired, and I have to say I am taken aback by Tom’s flippant attitude about Sean’s investigation. Tom believes that the Underwoods and their henchmen are dangerous people and he knows there’s something real fishy about Zoe’s death. He just assumes Lisa’s information is worthless because “she’s a junky” and everything she says is in Lucas’s manifesto. That he finds it impossible to consider the fact that her story lines up with Lucas’s is a reason to believe her, not the opposite, reveals such shitty instincts. Deep down, Tom clearly knows Sean is onto something, because he eventually sets up shop in the storage unit where Zoe Barnes’s dad stashed everything from her apartment and paws through her papers for clues. He does this in the middle of the night in the pouring rain, like someone in an early Taylor Swift song.
I seriously hope this part of the story picks up in the back half of the season. It’s way more interesting than convoluted electoral politics, and we’ve gotten so much distance from the Underwoods’ early killings that they’re starting to lose their emotional resonance. Remember when Frank killed Pete Russo? That was 47 episodes ago.